About 20 years ago, I watched a documentary about what—to me—was a new approach to economic development—micro-finance. At the time, micro-finance was just beginning to receive international attention as a way to address abject poverty in the developing world. And while I found the specifics of this approach to poverty alleviation interesting, what really struck me was the possibility of using principles from market-based capitalism to try to address the issue of poverty.
For many decades, well meaning efforts from the West had tried to use a mixture of philanthropy and foreign aid to address poverty. I’m sure some of this work did some good—but it clearly had not addressed the problem of poverty in any fundamental way. Despite gifts of food, children were still starving. Despite grants to governments, infra-structure was still inadequate. And despite billions of dollars spent, impoverished countries were still not part of the global economy.
But micro-finance was different. Here, profit-seeking financial businesses could provide access to capital to people who had never had such access—capital they could use to improve their lives. Now, over time, we have come to learn that micro-finance has some important limitations, that while it might be part of the solution to the problem of poverty, it is rarely the whole solution. But the essential idea behind micro-finance—that profit seeking businesses operating in markets might help address the problem of poverty in developing economies—continued to intrigue me.
Well—I was a business school professor back then. I still am. So, I decided to do what business school professors do—I developed a class on the relationship between business and poverty. However, in addition to lectures and readings, I wanted this class to give students the opportunity to get “hands on” with poverty, to do something practical to help. So, I raised some money and used those funds to pay the expenses of my class to travel, with me, to a developing country, where we would try to help businesses improve their performance.
We started in Bolivia—but 14,000 feet on the Alto Plano was too hard on the professors. We then went to Cusco in Peru, and most recently have begun working in Ghana in Africa. And we have discovered some things along the way.
First, while building schools, digging wells, and erecting new greenhouses could be helpful, we discovered that such projects were not our distinctive competence. I remember going to a Bolivian village to help them finish a well—it needed a cinder block lining installed so that the well could be used. When we arrived, I saw the hole in the ground and a large pile of cinder blocks. But I didn’t see a back hoe we could use to move the cinder blocks around—each of which weighed over 100 pounds. Instead, there were three poles and a rope. And then I watched three diminutive Bolivian men move those cinder blocks around, put them into the well, and align them perfectly—with three poles and a rope. These men knew more about digging wells then I would ever know.
Instead, we discovered that our competence was helping operating businesses improve their performance. Our goal became to help address the problem of poverty by helping small and entrepreneurial businesses become more profitable, and thus become a source of jobs and wealth for their employees. In our experience, the best solution to poverty was a good paying and steady job. And we could help create these jobs by helping companies be more successful.
So, over the years, we have helped quinoa farmers negotiate better prices for their crop, helped a leather-goods company improve its marketing and distribution, helped a village market its “stay in a Peruvian village” tourist experience, helped a guinea pig cooperative in Peru reduce the cost and increase the quality of its guinea pig food, helped establish processing standards for a Peruvian coffee cooperative, helped a micro-finance company in Ghana alter its due diligence process to increase its profitability, and on and on. We have probably had more than 50 clients over the years—and in most cases, we have been able to help these organizations improve their operations and performance. And to keep their employees working. And to bring more economic stability to the lives of these people. In so doing, we have—in our own small way—helped address problems of poverty.
Second, over these years we discovered that economic stability had a powerful effect on the people we served. They were happier. They were healthier. They had stronger families. None of the people with whom we worked lacked ambition or drive. None of them were lazy or unwilling to work. All they lacked was some specific business knowledge—about accounting, finance, marketing, operations—that we could provide and help them apply. And that often changed their lives.
I will never forget working with the women’s guinea pig cooperative in Peru. The students had just finished presenting their analysis which showed that the cooperative’s profits could be increased dramatically if they made their own guinea pig food. As the women realized this potential, they began to weep. There were maybe 50 women in the room, and they all began to weep—because this was not just about guinea pigs, or profit, or food manufacturing, this was about how their lives would be changed. And, not surprisingly, our students also began to weep—as they realized the differences between a homework assignment and doing something that changed lives. And, even the professors in the room were moved to tears.
And this was the last thing that we have discovered over the years. You cannot serve others without changing yourself. You cannot spend hundreds of hours doing an analysis of a business problem whose solution will help people in poverty, without profoundly changing who you are and what you believe. I have had students delay careers in investment banking to spend a year with an NGO in a developing economy. Others have changed careers altogether—moving from financial services in the US to non-profit consulting firms that specialize in developing economies. And even those who have not changed careers, have nevertheless been changed.
And so it was, on my way home from my first trip to Ghana, that an idea came to me, an idea to scale what had been my little class into a center that would provide these kinds of transformative experiences to hundreds more businesses and thousands more students. A center for teaching and research, where the best scholars and practitioners in this space could gather and learn from each other. A center that would link business, and health, and prosperity.
I wrote up a two-page summary of this idea and sent it to our dean, Taylor Randall. His response—“Let’s do this.” And here we are today, celebrating the opening of this new center—a Center for Business, Health, and Prosperity. To me, this has been nothing short of miraculous.
Of course, now the real work begins. But the opportunities are there, just waiting for us. Opportunities to help businesses in developing economies succeed, to link business and health in these settings, opportunities to share what we have learned with others, opportunities for our students and ourselves to be transformed by this experience. I am excited to invite you to join in this bold new endeavor.