Given the enormous reach and impact of global corporations, it is quite clear that corporate leaders have a big role to play in shaping the world of tomorrow. If we are to solve the problems of ecological destruction, staggering inequality and chronic poverty, business leaders must become messiahs of change, championing and directing their companies’ journey to create an equitable and sustainable world.
As educators, we need to ask ourselves what role business schools should play in this journey towards corporate sustainability. What type of business school curriculum can help produce future corporate leaders, who have the courage and the empathy to make a difference in the world?
If we introspect a little, we can see that business schools today have become simply an extension of corporate hiring departments. Rather than being centers of thought leadership, which encourage managers to think, to question business models, and to derive meaningful paths for themselves, business school curriculum seems to simply reflect corporate hiring priorities. Clearly, there is an urgent need to completely rethink business education, particularly in a world where poverty and inequality persists.
At S.P. Jain Institute of Management and Research (SPJIMR), where I teach, we believe that creating compassionate managers for the world of tomorrow requires deep mind-set change, which cannot be learnt in the classroom. Instead, we use experiential learning as a key element of MBA pedagogy.
There are multiple experiential learning courses at SPJIMR, forming a significant component of learning in the first year of the standard 2-year MBA course. The experiential learning courses complement each other, to address different aspects of student learning. They help students at SPJIMR explore their own beliefs and examine their relationship to the society they live in. In this article, I will talk about Abhyudaya, one of the experiential learning initiatives.
Abhyudaya is a Sanskrit word that means “welfare and development of all.” It is a year-long mandatory course in which first-year MBA students visit schoolchildren in slums and mentor them. Each MBA student is assigned as a mentor to one schoolchild from slums near our campus. The mentees are high-potential schoolchildren, selected from 70 participating schools. We call the children “Sitara”, which means star. The MBA students visit the Sitaras at their homes, 12 times in the year, for 2-hour mentoring sessions. The visits help students to connect directly with the Sitara families, and experience the harsh and uncompromising environment in which the Sitaras live.
Apart from the mentoring, the MBA students also use ethnographic techniques to observe the slum environment. For instance, they record the structure of a typical slum home, health and hygiene of the neighborhood, retail landscape, financial profile of the slum, etc. After every visit, the MBA students submit reflection diaries.
The MBA students are divided into Cohorts, each with its own faculty facilitator. These cohorts meet six times a year to discuss their experiences. By sharing information with each other, the students form a richer picture of what life is like in an urban slum. Finally, they also work on creating business ideas for the Base of the Pyramid, and present these ideas to a panel of our alumni.
Through multiple visits and interactions, the MBA students transition from “outsiders to insiders”, with first-hand insights into urban poverty. The presence of the Sitara – a schoolchild – provides emotional anchoring, and starts the mentor on their journey of empathy. The question “Why are people poor?” has no simple answers; and only first-hand experience can help dispel simplistic notions that the poor are poor simply because they are lazy, or dishonest, or because they are somehow fundamentally different from the rich.
The Abhyudaya program has been running for 10 years now. The impact of the program is positive, not just on the MBA students, but also on the Sitaras who are being mentored. Impact is measured annually through 3 surveys:
- Third party survey of the Sitaras (children of Grade 10)
- Third party survey of Sitara parents (parents of Grade 10 Sitaras)
- Anonymous survey of the MBA batch (students self-report on the impact of the program)
Survey results are strongly positive. Sitaras say that their Academics, English language skills and General Knowledge have increased due to the program. They also say that they are sharing what they learn (with neighbors / siblings / school friends). Sitara parents feel that Abhyudaya had positive impact on the children, leading to more self-confidence, awareness of the world, and better inter-personal behavior. The visits by the mentor are considered the most valuable input, followed by academic support and support for development of extra-curricular skills/capabilities. MBA participants in mentoring report that their empathy levels have increased, and that their understanding of urban poverty/base of pyramid has improved.
Three-fourths of our Sitaras have scored 75% and above in Grade 10 exams in 2016-17, and all of our Grade 10 Sitaras have chosen to pursue higher education. Typically, around 45% of our Sitaras pursue degrees in Science and Engineering, and another 45% study Commerce. The rest usually study a variety of other courses including arts, home science and vocational courses.
The Abhyudaya initiative also works with the parents of the Sitaras via group meetings and educational sessions, to discuss and share information on key issues such as gender, domestic violence, sexual abuse etc. Through this process, we wish to raise community awareness and build responsible citizenry. The Abhyudaya Community Initiative is a Crafts Livelihood program for the mothers of our Sitaras. We work with 15 women, to develop not only their craft skills; but also their managerial and administrative abilities. The goal is to coach them initially and build capacity so that they can run the initiative by themselves. We collaborate with 70 schools in the neighboring areas, and conduct awareness and upskilling sessions for teachers and principals.
The innovativeness of Abhyudaya lies in its ability to beautifully blend the business aspects, the personal aspects, and the community development aspects. It is a rare win-win combination implemented by a business school, that benefits MBA students as well as multiple community stakeholders. MBA students learn about the base of the pyramid, and also evolve into empathetic leaders, who truly understand what the real India is, and how to make a difference to the world. The Sitaras are able to fulfill their potential through a holistic education that addresses all aspects of their personality. The Sitara parents, particularly the mothers who are part of the Abhyudaya Community Initiative, are able to upskill themselves as well as become financially independent. The larger community of school teachers and principals have opportunities to learn educational techniques and listen to inspiring speakers.
Last year, SPJIMR won the 2018 Innovative Practices Award from the United Nations Global Compact Network India for furthering the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). We were delighted this year to be able to co-host the 2019 GBSN Learning by Doing Summit, and to share our experiences and learnings with the participants. We look forward to deepening the relationship with GBSN and its members.
If you would like more information, you can watch this video, or write to me with specific questions.
Prof. Deepa Krishnan heads Abhyudaya at SPJIMR. She is also the head of Abhyudaya Community Initiative (ACI), a self-help group which produces textile crafts. ACI currently has 15 Sitara parents as members. Prof. Krishnan is the founder of Magic Tours of India, a guided tours company which does heritage walks, food trails, and textile tours for overseas visitors to India. Her tourism company serves as an upskilling and employment program for college students from low income neighborhoods. She is a member of the National Taskforce for Handlooms, working to revive traditional textiles. She has a deep interest in rural self-sufficiency and has been working in 4 tribal villages near Mumbai, primarily in checkdams and rainwater harvesting structures.
Prior to these ventures, she worked for 18 years in the corporate sector, mainly on web-based platforms in the financial services industry. She has handled projects across the globe for Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Barclays Bank. She has a degree in Commerce from Mumbai University and a business degree from the Indian Institute of Management, Calcutta.