Rob Katz

Remembering CK Prahalad – Collected Thoughts

It has been a tough week inside the “bottom of the pyramid” universe (small as it may be). Many of us have spent time reflecting on the influence of the late Professor CK Prahalad, who passed away last week.

As an undergraduate summer intern working for Allen Hammond, I was asked to help edit the case studies that appear in the appendices of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid. At the time, I had no idea that CEMEX, ITC e-Choupal, EID Parry, Voxiva and the rest would become part of the BoP canon. Frankly, at the time, there wasn’t a BoP canon to speak of – rather, it was a set of articles, working papers and case studies that have since come together to define a new way of thinking about poverty and profits.

That was my first exposure to CK Prahalad, and I was lucky. Who else gets to spend their summer editing a pre-publication version of what would go on to become a hugely influential book by the world’s soon-to-be-named number one management guru?

I am far from the only one to have been personally influenced by CK’s work. We have heard this week from two of CK’s colleagues and collaborators – Stuart Hart and Allen Hammond – and two of his former students – Blair Miller and Nina Henning. But they are not alone. As a final NextBillion tribute to CK, here is a collection of rememberances from our community.

Blair Miller, Acumen Fund: “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.”

Stuart Hart, Cornell University: “Later, in the late 1980s, when I was struggling to define my professional identity, CK was one of the few faculty colleagues who encouraged me to pursue my personal passion about the connection between business and the environment. In fact, were it not for CK, I never would have made the conscious decision (which I did in 1990) to devote the rest of my professional life to sustainable enterprise. That was the best decision I ever made.”

Nina Henning, Ascension Health: “In 2007, I found myself in CK’s classroom for the first time and quickly came to realize that his agenda for his students was much broader than teaching us about the “bottom of the pyramid.” He was determined to give us enduring lessons about moral leadership, more compelling than anything I’ve ever heard in a business ethics course. He told us that “leadership is about having a point of view about the future, and leadership is about hope.””

Allen Hammond, Ashoka: “To those of us fortunate to know him, CK Prahalad’s death is both unexpected and a huge personal loss. He was so vital, so full of creative energy, that it seems hard to believe he is not still here, brimming with new ideas, backed by a diagram and compelling anecdote.”

Ted London, University of Michigan: “CK was an extraordinary scholar. He helped us think about the poor in completely different ways – took old, intractable problems, and thought about them in a new way. He didn’t have to own the idea; rather, he was willing to put the idea forward and work with others to advance them and move them forward. He was incredibly generous.”

Luiz Ros, Inter-American Development Bank: “I remember well his advice on setting up a start-up operation within a multilateral development bank: “Start small, learn fast and then scale.” It was sound advice and has helped Opportunities for the Majority get off to a strong start.”

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