Blair Miller

Remembering CK Prahalad – A Student’s Reflection

Editor’s note: Late last week, the community was shocked to learn that CK Prahalad, one of the original “bottom of the pyramid” strategists, had passed away at age 68. In the coming days, we will dedicate space on this site to special posts remembering Professor Prahalad and his contributions to our sector. The first post, by Acumen Fund’s Blair Miller – a former student of Prahalad’s – appears below. (RK)

The world has experienced a great loss this weekend. Coimbatore Krishnarao (CK) Prahalad, strategy guru, University of Michigan Professor, and mentor to me and many others, passed away last Friday evening.

There are few people who have created a global movement that has changed the way millions of people see the world – and CK Prahalad is one of them. I first heard about CK through his book, “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid”. The idealist in me was moved by his words of dignity and a new approach to poverty alleviation and the pragmatist in me was driven by his talk of business models and market opportunity. I immediately left my job, was accepted to the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business, and moved to Ann Arbor to learn from this remarkable man. I am merely one of thousands, perhaps millions, who were inspired by Professor Prahalad’s message.

While CK was one of the world’s most respected strategy gurus (ranked #1 in the top 50 global business thinkers) it was clear that his life’s mission was to change the way the world thought about poverty. He believed in the dignity that came with giving the poor a voice and a choice in the decisions they made about their lives. And most importantly he believed in humility and deep listening. He once told me that, “when you do your work, go with real humility Blair, for the poor know more about life than you could possibly imagine.”

What makes CK so amazing is that he was not walking the halls of the United Nations or the State Department to address poverty; he was waking up Fortune 500 companies to his vision of social change. He was attempting to convert the seemingly unconvertible, and he was creating an entirely new paradigm in his wake.

CK created a language (Bottom of the Pyramid, for example) that allowed the business community to talk about social change and simultaneously allowed the social sector to talk about capitalism as a tool to fight injustice. This contribution alone demonstrates his sheer brilliance in the face of one of the greatest cultural and ideological divisions of our time.

CK’s work was always grounded in his deep commitment to education. Despite his fame and prestige he always continued to teach and to listen. I will never forget my first day in his class, when he had assigned 100 business school students, with hundreds more waitlisted, to read philosophy. The typical MBA’s were waiting for him to deliver his lecture supplying them with their first framework for innovation and instead he asked us to reexamine our lives and the society in which we lived. Let’s just say that was not the typical assignment for business school, but CK was not a typical man. He once said to me, “I don’t like to think inside the box, I like to create my own box.” And he did just that.

Our final exam for the class was to write a two page essay on where we saw ourselves in five years. My vision was to be at Acumen Fund, and that vision has become a reality. It is amazing what happens when someone like him asks you about your dreams and then gives you the confidence and support to realize them. CK Prahalad was not just a guru or an icon he was a teacher and a mentor.

Last year I asked CK to speak at the Acumen Fund Fellows Graduation. During his presentation he told us, “If there was one thing I could wish for it would be to be young again.” While CK could not have his wish, his voice, vision, and passion now live in those hundred of companies, thousands of social sector organizations, and millions of people around the world who are young enough at heart to hope, to create their own box, and to see the world through a different lens. These people no longer see the developing world filled with poverty and corruption but instead see these markets filled with opportunity and hope.

CK, we will carry on your legacy and as you told us we will “work to see the world not for what it is, but what it can be”. Thank you, Professor Prahalad; you will be missed.