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International Development with an MBA-twist

International development and business have long been considered opposite extremes. Business is often characterized as cold, ruthless, money-mongering enterprises while international development is characterized by soft, touchy-feely efforts. While neither characterization is entirely true, the two are not commonly associated. Nancy Barry is embarking on a novel approach toward international development, or more specifically, poverty alleviation that connects the two without compromising the fundamental identities and purposes of either business or international development. Remember the e-Choupal case?

Formally titled “Enterprise Solutions to Poverty,” the initiative hopes to create a movement that mobilizes the private sector for enterprise solutions to poverty. Three vectors hope to achieve this aim. The first entails working with corporate leaders to build and expand competitive business models that incorporate large numbers of small farmers and enterprises as suppliers and distributors. The second vector is encouraging emerging entrepreneurs to build franchises that engage thousands of microentrepreneurs in profitable business opportunities that tackle social or environmental issues. The third vector involves mobilizing MBA students to do action research on enterprise solutions to poverty and then act on their research. Currently, the initiative is focusing on six countries: Mexico, Kenya, Colombia, India, China, and Brazil.

Nancy Barry, HBS ’75, spent 15 years at the World Bank running industry, trade and finance, and then moved on to become President of Women’s World Banking, the largest network of microfinance institutions in the world, for 16 years. Along the way, she has received such recognitions as HBS’ Alumni Achievement Award, Forbes‘ list of most powerful women, and U.S. News and World Report‘s 20 best leaders in America. This past August, Nancy stepped down from Women’s World Banking to start this new initiative. Barry says, “I feel that everything I have ever done culminates to this new initiative.”

This past winter break, I traveled with Nancy through 6 cities in India as she kicked off this initiative with meetings with many influential corporate executives and government leaders such as Mukesh Ambani of Reliance, Narayana Murthy of Infosys, Rahul Bajaj of Bajaj, Ela Bhatt of SEWA, and about 20 others. It was certainly encouraging to see agreement that the private sector is in an exceptionally powerful position to address poverty. Our meeting with Mukesh Ambani was most telling. Ambani, one of the richest men in the world, controls one of the top three largest companies in India. He is looking to launch a barrage of retail stores throughout rural centers supplying these stores with produce from 1 million local farmers. By offering supplies, technical know-how, and steady purchases, farmers benefit greatly. He, however, is not being charitable. Answerable to his shareholders, he hopes to offer strong returns by cutting out the middleman and offering improved produce at a more affordable price.

As part of this initiative, Nancy is working with HBS in providing winter field studies and internship opportunities. Stay tuned for upcoming information sessions on summer internship opportunities!

February 5, 2007
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