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God and Mammon are not generally seen in each other’s company, let alone in a business school classroom. But as more MBA students become interested in the potential for the private sector to foster growth in some of the poorest parts of the world, one student-led initiative has led to a most unusual alliance – a partnership between Vanderbilt University’s business school students and its divinity students.

The unorthodox partnership – the Project Pyramid Global Poverty Alleviation programme – was launched last year at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management. The programme takes as its inspiration the work of Muhammad Yunus, the microfinance pioneer and a Vanderbilt graduate, and aims to give students the tools with which to create business plans that can help reduce poverty in the developing world.

The idea behind Project Pyramid was to give students the tools and knowledge with which to apply business solutions to poverty alleviation.

“Historically business has seen poverty-alleviation as charity,” says Rehan Choudhry, a second-year Owen student. “Our goal was to change that view – to show that for-profit business can do good in the world.”

Last year, Mr Choudhry and Bobby Deneen, another MBA student, approached Bart Victor, professor of moral leadership at Owen, with the idea for the programme. “I said if we could get 10 students, that would be fine,” says Prof Victor, who is now faculty adviser on Project Pyramid. “We ended up in the first meeting in August with 70 students in the room; no one had any idea that there would be that many students interested.”

Prejudices

The interest by students such as Vanderbilt’s in finding business solutions to poverty mirrors what is going on outside campus walls. For a start, the awarding of last year’s Nobel Peace Prize to Dr Yunus, founder of Grameen Bank, has raised awareness of the role of microfinance.

Meanwhile, the work of academics CK Prahalad and Stuart Hart on “bottom of the pyramid” strategies is encouraging business leaders to think differently about their operations in developing countries. Companies such as Unilever, Ericsson, TetraPak, Shell and SC Johnson have been devising commercial strategies to foster growth in some of the world’s poorest markets.

A report published in March revealed that those markets constitute a collective purchasing power of a $5,000bn market. The study – produced by the International Finance Corporation, the private-sector arm of the World Bank Group, and the World Resources Institute – argues that new business models can improve life for the 4bn people who live in relative poverty and for whom goods and services are often more expensive, lower in quality and hard to access.

Vanderbilt’s divinity students and Owen’s MBA students would agree. Yet in reaching such a conclusion, they first had to overcome a set of prejudices about each other’s ideas on the best way to tackle global poverty.

“The divinity school is traditionally very much a social justice school with links to the civil-rights movement in the south,” says Prof Victor. “And social justice and divinity in general have usually been very different from business, with a lot of suspicion that somehow we are just greedy money-grubbers.”

However, this soon changed. While in the first sessions the students were cautious about expressing their opinions, Erin Hoffman, a first-year Owen student who is taking the course, says that, “by the third class, we had thrown all that behind us and were willing to say whatever we wanted, disagree in class and get some heated discussion going”.

In the process, the divinity students reassessed the view that charity and aid could solve all the world’s problems, while the MBA students questioned whether business alone was a solution.

“As business students, we also see that there’s a place for the aid,” says Mr Hoffman. “You can’t have people stepping up as entrepreneurs if they’re not healthy and have no food or shelter. So there’s a case for both.”

It was just these kinds of discussions that have made the course a dynamic one. “The divinity school was perfect fit because it wasn’t a fit,” says Mr Choudhry.

“The divinity students have a drastically different view of the world from business students so when business school students were taking a course on poverty-alleviation, they weren’t seeing it just from the business school point of view. The religion students gave them a radically new way to see the world. It was an experiment by every definition of the word.”

A course-related trip in March by divinity and MBA students to Hyderabad proved something of a first, too. When it comes to India, most business schools tend to send their students to see the signs of the country’s explosive economic growth in large cities and on corporate campuses.

However, while the students visited Hyderabad’s Indian School of Business and a Microsoft campus, they also spent time in villages outside the city where SKS, a microfinance organisation, was working. “To read about poverty is one thing, but to go out and understand that there are people trying to help is another,” says Mr Choudhry. “So it gave everyone a new way of thinking.”

Collaboration

The course is a for-credit programme, giving any Vanderbilt master’s degree candidate the chance to receive a Certificate in Global Poverty Alleviation Studies by completing courses from the various participating schools.

It is structured into three areas of focus. The first is educational: in the form of classes, lectures and study groups, such as the Hyderabad visit giving students real-life exposure to microfinance and issues of poverty.

The second aim is to foster collaboration and interdisciplinary thought. Here, the course is going beyond its original aims, since other schools at Vanderbilt – including the medical school, the law school and the engineering school – are now devising similar programmes.

Finally, the course encourages students to come up with workable business plans to foster growth and reduce poverty. A case-study competition will highlight these plans. Two Vanderbilt undergraduate students, Wilson Keenan and Henry Manice, have already started a company called Enjuba, which uses a website to give artisans in Uganda access to potential buyers round the world.

Project Pyramid will help students like these tap into a network of corporate leaders associated with the business school, as well as assisting them in securing funding. “The idea is that we would be able to offer loans through the university,” says Mr Choudhry.

“So one plan is to create a social venture capital fund, and we’re looking externally for large-scale investors who don’t want to give for charity but want to give for a sustainable venture associated with a school that is targeting poverty-alleviation.”

However, it is the educational side of the programme that is the most important, according to Mr Choudhry. “Our focus is adding value to the students’ experience while teaching them these tools,” he says. “We didn’t want to have courses for the sake of having courses – we wanted the students to have an added skill set.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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