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Reuben Abraham was never really meant to be a business school professor. The maverick academic, whose lofty intellectual nature is grounded by a hands-on business approach, could have easily become India’s first Richard Branson. Instead he opted for a different route, one that has given him the chance to shape the country’s future in a more radical and entrenched manner.
Born in the communist-ruled Kerala, Abraham’s love for business is borne out of a deep scepticism of the socialist roots of independent India. He often fantasises about how India could have developed earlier if its independence leaders had been trained in more pro-market American universities rather than the socialist-friendly institutions in Britain. “We would be miles ahead now. Honestly,” he says.
After he completed his undergraduate course in Mumbai, he went to study at Columbia University, New York. However, during his time at Columbia, his research on the impact of free telecommunications services on economic development in emerging economies took him back home to Kerala. After having studied how mobile phones helped a fishing community in south India to boost its economic wellbeing, he realised the subcontinent was the place where he wanted to stay.
Enriched by his working experiences at the World Bank, as a consultant, and at Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Interactive Design Lab, he joined Cornell University’s Center for Sustainable Global Enterprise and moved back to India as a visiting professor at the Indian School of Business.
He set up India’s first Base of the Pyramid Learning Lab at the ISB’s state-of-the-art campus in Hyderabad. He then quit Cornell and joined the ISB full time to start a centre focused on solving the problems that made it difficult to raise capital for small and medium-sized enterprises.
“Business schools are constantly talking about building business models, but they rarely implement any,” says Abraham. “At the ISB I was given the opportunity to do precisely that.”
Abraham then applied his entrepreneurial spirit to turn the learning lab into the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions. He used his extensive list of contacts to get George Soros, the US billionaire investor; Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay; Google’s philanthropic arm; and a number of Indian private investors to support him. “I wanted to create an in-house fund that would provide early stage investment of between $500,000 and $2m to a variety of businesses that could have a positive social impact on society”, he says. “We wanted to prove that it was worth investing in urban waste disposal companies and in vocational training for emerging industries such as retail, hospitality and healthcare.”
Being a free-market advocate, he believes the private sector is better positioned to bridge gaps that have surfaced during India’s decade of economic growth. But he sees the emerging markets centre as the catalyst to raise capital for smaller enterprises that struggle to attract investors. At the centre he has combined his passions: entrepreneurship, development studies and the art of teaching liberal values. “It is thanks to India’s entrepreneurial skills that we’ll create growth,” he says. “Growth will lead to urbanisation and greater development.”
He did not set up the centre to create the biggest housing company; he just wants to seed projects and move on to the next venture. “My goal is to prove that my projects are scalable and will produce high returns together with high social impact.”
His end goal is to change the attitudes of his students. He wants to convince them that the bottom of the pyramid is the biggest asset for the future of India and other emerging economies.
Once he has achieved that, Abraham, who is a lover of fine wine and the South African coast, might just retire to a comfortable spot near Cape Town. He might even open a profitable lower-pyramid vineyard in this African emerging market.