University of Vermont

Vermont Quarterly

Elevating Entrepreneurs

Srinivas Venugopal interviewing people on the streets of Chennai India
“Srini’s not hovering above in a helicopter collecting big data. He’s embedded in those contexts on the ground.’’ —Business professor Stuart Hart on colleague Srinivas Venugopal


Elevating Entrepreneurs

BUSINESS | Growing up in southern India, Srinivas Venugopal witnessed people living in extreme poverty on a daily basis. He often marveled at their entrepreneurial abilities to meet basic consumption needs by selling tea or umbrellas or patching punctured bicycle tires on the streets of Chennai. 

Those experiences inspired Venugopal, assistant professor in the Grossman School of Business, to start a technology-based social venture at age twenty-three. His goal: improving education for low-income students in rural India through technology. He currently runs a non-profit that has increased the economic and educational opportunities of young women in the slums of Chennai, which also informs his research on subsistence marketplaces.

“The marketing world has done a fantastic job of meeting needs in affluent contexts, but to me the ultimate marketing challenge is how to meet the basic needs in sectors like education, healthcare, finance, and nutrition in these contexts of poverty," says Venugopal, who joined the UVM faculty in 2016. "The cornerstone of the Grossman School is seeing how businesses can be used as an important force for making the world better, and my own philosophy and research fits squarely within that broader paradigm.” 

Venugopal’s research has taken him and his students to India, Tanzania, Argentina, and a refugee camp in Uganda where they use qualitative research techniques such as interviews, videography, photography, role playing, map drawing, and village walks. “Different contexts have different rhythms and you need to start with an immersive exercise rather than with pre-conceived notions inherited from research done in the context of affluence,” he says.

Once Venugopal understands the local context in which entrepreneurs operate, he theorizes ways to improve their circumstances, often testing it with an experiment. He recently employed an entrepreneurial education program for 750 women in India to see if it improved a set of empowerment indicators. Many of the women have benefitted from the program and are now able to contribute to the family budget, having a voice in household purchases for the first time.

“Srini's not hovering above in a helicopter collecting big data," says faculty colleague Stuart Hart, a world authority on the implications of environment and poverty for business strategy. "He's embedded in those contexts on the ground, which is similar to our approach to business at the Base of the Pyramid. We share a common perspective that to be successful, business has to be
developed from the inside out by co-creating a value proposition business model from within local entrepreneurs. Trying to figure out how to market and sell to the poor is not what we're about."

Many of Venugopal’s experiences are chronicled in a new book he co-wrote titled Voices from the Subsistence Marketplaces. The goal of the book, he says, was to write stories about individuals in their own voices to show readers that they are more than just statistics.

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