Starting at the Bottom
Students Build ‘Pyramid’ Initiatives at Owen to End Global Poverty through Global Business
Senior Public Affairs Officer
(615) 322-NEWS | firstname.lastname@example.org
Sep 28, 2007
For Nat Robinson (MBA ’07), it all came together when he met a woman in a village near Hyderabad, India, who had received a small loan as part of growing microfinance movement in the Third World. “With the loan she bought a cow,” recalls Robinson, who serves as president of Owen’s Global Business Club. “She sold milk from the cow and bought a cement mixer. With the cement mixer she opened a brick-making business. Now she employs 10 people and manufactures bricks for two villages, and her son is going to school. All because of the money for the cow. Seeing that put Project Pyramid in stone for us.”
The trip to India — Robinson organized the visit over Spring Break by Owen and Vanderbilt Divinity School students — was the latest outgrowth of Project Pyramid, a student-led initiative at Owen to use business development, including microfinance, to end global poverty.
PHOTO: Chris Baxley (MBA '07) and the Project Pyramid team giving a loan to a local businesswoman in Hyderabad. For more pictures from the trip, click here.
The effort began last April when Bobby Dineen (MBA ’06), noticed a small ad in the Owen Daily News. The ad concerned the “Bottom of the Pyramid” concept — the idea, based on the book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C. K. Prahlad, that business can operate profitably in impoverished areas of the world while contributing to the development and well-being of those who live there.
Small, low-interest loans to individuals designed to empower entrepreneurship (and championed by Vanderbilt alum Muhammad Yunus, who received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work) are perhaps the best known examples of “Bottom of the Pyramid” initiatives. But they also encompass a wide range of efforts, including “fair trade” businesses to recalibration of conventional business practices, such as the packaging of soap in smaller, more affordable quantities.
Dineen was so taken with the concept that he was moved to act. He invited fellow Owen students and faculty to attend a meeting and begin the process of “doing something to encourage and educate students about Bottom of the Pyramid” initiatives.
“There was no real plan at the beginning,” remembers Chris Baxley (MBA ’07). “The group was highly informal. But the members all shared a view that working in the developing world was part of what corporate social responsibility means.”
“Ten of us locked ourselves in a room and brainstormed about what Project Pyramid would look like and what it would do,” remembers Rehan Choudhry (MBA ’07), who serves as co-president of the group. The students took their ideas to Professor Bart Victor, who agreed to serve as faculty advisor. Then they approached Cal Turner Jr., who turned the lower tiers of the pyramid in America into prime customers for Dollar General Stores. Turner embraced the idea and provided $250,000 in seed money.
As envisioned by the students, three pillars would support Project Pyramid:
- Education — equipping graduate, professional and undergraduate students with the tools to recognize, understand and alleviate poverty.
- Interdisciplinary Collaboration — sharing ideas and effort with various schools in the Vanderbilt community.
- Sustained Action — involving everything from consulting with existing businesses to developing new ones to creating a microfinance fund. This third pillar, student leaders say, represents the future of the project, with education and collaboration providing the support.
“Nobody to our knowledge is doing all three of these components,” says Sharran Srivatsaa (MBA ’08), the other co-president of Project Pyramid. “We believe that the collaboration piece makes it unique. We know that solutions won’t come from Owen alone.”
From the initial seed that Dineen planted among a few of his colleagues, Project Pyramid has grown to involve students, faculty and staff from Owen as well as Vanderbilt’s divinity, law and medical schools, Peabody College and the undergraduate student body.
Approximately 50 MBA and divinity students joined an initial class on the subject, envisioned as part of integrated coursework on poverty alleviation. A lecture series has brought speakers, including Turner, to Owen.
But sustained action, says Choudhry, is the pillar that represents the real future for the project. For example, Owen students are lending consulting expertise to local businesses and other organizations. Among them is a Nashville charter school that is committed to working with the bottom percentiles of the community’s students and getting them into college. “The founder is a Vanderbilt graduate," Choudhry says. “He can’t afford to hire the talent he needs in the general market. So why not partner with Project Pyramid?”
“When you think poverty,” says Srivatsaa, “you think international. But ending domestic poverty is just as important. Starting here helps the sustainability of our work because resources are here and we want to make an impact in our local communities.”
Ironically, the group discovered its first international client almost by accident, right under its nose: two Vanderbilt sophomores who, inspired by a video on the plight of impoverished children in Uganda, decided to start their own fair trade business with craft artisans in that country. Their business, Enjuba (which means “rising sun”) imports handmade clothing and other goods from Uganda and returns all profits back into the initiative. Those dollars, combined with funds raised through a separate nonprofit, will benefit both the artisans and the Ugandan community of Namuwongo.
For their part, the Owen students in the Pyramid project have helped Enjuba’s founders make contacts, develop partnerships and manage their operation effectively. “Seeing what these guys were doing was both inspiring and lit a fire under us,” says Choudhry.
Today, at least, it may seem unusual to think of capitalism and idealism in the same breath, but that combination is the animating force behind Project Pyramid. It was in abundance at a March presentation at Owen’s Averbuch Auditorium, which was filled beyond capacity, with students standing in the back and sitting on the floor. Among them were students from several professional schools as well as at least one freshman undergraduate who expressed an interest in designing his own major course of study around poverty alleviation.
“There are four billion people living on less than $2 per day,” said Choudhry, setting the tone for the evening. “Our generation can be the last to know global poverty. It is not good enough to say that the task is too big. The solution to global poverty is in this room.”
Along with new commitments, Project Pyramid has also inspired ongoing involvement by its founders. Dineen, who remained in Nashville after graduation and still attends meetings of the group, started a company that enables immigrants from Central and South America to remit money to their families back home.
Baxley has accepted an offer to work in investment banking in New York City. But he says he expects to find a way to leverage that experience into the kind of work that attracts so much of his interest now. “Once it’s planted in your mind,” he says, “you’ll come back at some point to a Bottom of the Pyramid type of venture.”By making an emotional connection that people keep and pass on to others, says Srivatsaa, the project is sowing seeds that will grow among today’s students and tomorrow’s business leaders, regardless of where they work. “Hopefully, people are recognizing that you can do phenomenally well in business by taking care of people. We want future leaders to have the tools to do well by doing good. This is not just a project. It is a movement.
Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management is ranked as a top institution by BusinessWeek, the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News & World Report, Financial Times and Forbes. For more information about Owen, visit www.owen.vanderbilt.edu.