What the Business School Taught Me and What Business Can Teach Science

Video store in Tanzania

Video store in Tanzania

Recently, I’ve taking a course in the UM Ross School of Business. In general, I’m a guy that likes to escape his comfort zone. I like to talk to people I don’t agree with, and go to places that I’m not expected to go. It keeps things interesting.

The course I took is probably pretty atypical for a business course, though. Ted London, one of my coworkers at the William Davidson Institute, teaches a class entitled “Business Strategies for the Base of the Pyramid.” Basically, it argues that profitable business ventures which target the poorest of the poor are possible and can have positive impacts in terms of poverty alleviation and improvements in public health. He advocates a strategy that partners developed country expertise and capital, with local entrepreneurship and knowledge.

What I’ve learned:

1) Business is about problem solving. I used to think that business was about profit maximization. In essence, though, it is about identifying problems and creating new ways to solve them for mutual benefit. Certainly, part of this includes profit making but often profits mean sustainability. Certainly, if short term gains are your only goal (stock markets, for example), someone will lose. Long term success, however, depends on creating relationships for mutual benefit. Look at the successes of a company like Toyota.

Science, however, is about discovery. We ask questions and seek answers. The limitation here, is that nobody wants to be wrong and thus the identification of problems is of low priority.

2) People in business are easy to talk to. Businesses are primarily about relationships and cooperation. Opportunities are produced by making contacts and listening to what people have to say. People with poor social skills will do badly in business. People like me.

In science, you can have the social skills of a doorknob and it might not make a bit of difference. You can be hardheaded and happily work away in your bubble oblivious to the outside world. This is fine, in an increasingly diversified and interdisciplinary world, a bit of communication and ability to navigate connections between people is becoming ever more important.

Scientists have to learn to talk to people outside science, or we will fail. Not the issue of climate change. The wishy washy (though necessary) language of science doesn’t translate well to policy makers, giving climate deniers plenty of fodder to work with. The world might end, partly because scientists have poor communication skills.

We could learn a lot from business schools. I noted that they write few papers and do multitudes of presentations, which are often graded on form as well as content.

3) Business is not, by definition, evil. Last night, I went to a Holiday Party for the Emerging Markets Club of the Ross School of Business at UM. Half the people there had served in the Peace Corps, hardly what one would expect of MBA students. They are determined to create careers which benefit the world. Certainly, there are evil business people out there, but there are also evil NGOs and evil scientists (known a few). Business is about what you bring to the table and how your goals align with those around you. If you gather conscientious and dedicated folks together, good things can happen. If you can make it profitable, someone will fund you.

In science, we talk about grants in the hundreds of thousands and several millions of dollars. This funds discovery, but does little to benefit impoverished communities directly. In business, they are talking about tens of millions and sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars in capital. Given the right people and the right project, this money can multiply itself and can directly transform the lives of the poorest of the poor in a sustainable fashion. Often, I really wonder what we’re doing. While the information we generate can inform the development of new ways to fight malaria, for example, it often seems like we work in a bubble.

In short, it’s been a great experience. I’m happy to have been able to have the chance to work and learn at the UM B School.

To close, here’s are a couple of videos about Bottom of the Pyramid ventures. The first is about a program that CEMEX, a large Mexican cement manufacturer, has to profitably sell housing to poor communities and the second is a video from the late C.K. Prahalad, a former Professor in the UM B School who pioneered the thinking behind these ventures.

About Pete Larson

Researcher at the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research. Lecturer in the University of Michigan School of Public Health and at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I do epidemiology, public health, GIS, health disparities and environmental justice. I also do music and weird stuff.

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