Ted London

The Future of the BoP Domain: Where is our missing community?

The BoP domain is at a crossroads.

We have seen that successful enterprise development can play an important role in alleviating poverty. These are clearly exciting times for the BoP domain. But we also lack sufficient humility. Indeed, we still have a long way to go, and few are openly discussing the lessons learned and the challenges ahead.

To be honest, I am getting tired of listening to entrepreneurs, company leaders, non-profit managers and development community professionals talking about how well their BoP initiatives are doing. To hear them, every endeavor is doing great. Just a little more money perhaps, and they will have cracked the nut to financial sustainability and scalability as well as generating substantial positive poverty alleviation outcomes. Really? No other problems or issues worthy of discussion?

I have been involved in the BoP domain pretty much since its beginning when I arrived at the University of North Carolina in 1999 and met up with Stu Hart, who became my advisor, colleague, and co-author. Prior to that, I had worked in Africa, Asia, and the U.S. for more than a decade at the intersection of business and development. With this 20 plus years of experience in the domain, I am fairly confident that I can say we have learned a lot about building successful BoP enterprises. I am also fairly confident in saying that we still have much more to learn.

I believe that it is time to start talking more about how we, as a sector, can collectively share – and debate – the lessons learned so far in order to better create the future path ahead of us. But in order to do that, we need to be more of a community.

Individually, we have gained much experience, including struggling through many challenges. A colleague, who is a very experienced and successful entrepreneur, was visiting my office earlier this week. He had become engaged in BoP enterprise development in India several years ago and I haven’t heard from him in a while. The first thing I noticed was he has become much more humble. As he said, “we thought we knew what we were doing, but we have made all the mistakes in the book.” He believed that his years as a successful top-of-the-pyramid entrepreneur would translate smoothly into the BoP domain. Why did he go out on his own, without actively drawing on the experiences of others? Why did he have to repeat the pain that many others have already suffered?

He might not have had to if we were more of a community. We need to share our lessons, and spend more time thinking about how we can co-create an even better future for the BoP domain. As a community, we need to:

  • Summarize what we know thus far

  • Identify what works and what gaps must be filled

  • Co-create an action agenda for coming years that builds upon and amplifies existing successes, and identifies and tackles current limitations

This means having a longer-term vision not only for specific enterprises, but also for the domain as a whole. This means proactively answering the question: how do we, as a community, best move forward? This means making commitments in both leadership and resources to building the domain.

At WDI at the University of Michigan, we believe in action based on rigorous analysis and deep listening. We strive to be at the forefront of the evolution of the BoP domain. We see the missing community and the lack of a roadmap for the domain’s development as key gaps to be addressed.

As a result, we decided to organize and host the BoP Summit 2013:Creating an Action Agenda for the Next Decade on October 21-23, 2013 at Ross Business School at the University of Michigan. As many of you know, this is our fourth major conference. At these convenings, we have always tried to target key issues that we think are most relevant for those operating in the field. So at the BoP Summit, you won’t be hearing lots of “rah-rah” stories about how great this or that enterprise is. Instead, we have gathered a pretty amazing group of colleagues to do the following:

  • Take stock of the current BoP domain

  • Recognize and amplify critical success factors

  • Identify on-going challenges and explore how they can be overcome

Please join us if you want to participate in a dialogue about both building better BoP enterprises of today, and co-creating a more robust BoP community for tomorrow. If you do come, you can expect to:

  • Participate in rich and robust conversations about the successes, challenges, and lessons learned over the past decade

  • Engage in jointly creating a roadmap for the future development of the BoP domain, which encourages leadership, collaboration and innovation

  • Develop new and strong relationships with a group of colleagues committed to building a BoP domain that maximizes venture success today and over the long term

If you can’t attend, stay tuned. We will be sharing the outcomes from this Summit as we move from planning to implementation of a roadmap. Indeed, the Summit doesn’t end after the last session on Wednesday. That is just the beginning of the journey. We are looking to build a community willing to dedicate leadership and resources not only to support their own initiatives, but also to share in the larger journey of co-creating a domain.

We, at WDI, are very excited about this event. Come join us to be a part of this new and vibrant community, and help shape an action agenda for the development of the BoP domain of the coming decade.

Ted London is a senior research Fellow at the William Davidson Institute (WDI) and on the faculty at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. At WDI, he directs the Base of the Pyramid Initiative, a program that champions innovative ways of thinking about more inclusive forms of capitalism.

Editor’s note: WDI is the managing partner of the NextBillion Network.

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