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Elevating Entrepreneurs at the Base of the Pyramid

Business professor conducts research, runs non-profit in India to help entrepreneurs escape poverty

Srinivas Venugopal in India
“A lot of people talk about poverty without even having probably ever met or interacted with anyone who has experienced poverty,” says assistant professor Srinivas Venugopal. His bottom-up approach to research involves immersing himself in communities to better understand the lives of local entrepreneurs. (Photo: Courtesy of Srinivas Venugopal)

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 23. 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.

“Growing up middle class with poverty all around makes you want to understand it,” says Venugopal, who teaches courses on sustainable marketing. “I was fascinated by people who were trying to be productive and make a difference in their own lives. They would say, ‘Yeah, I live in poverty, but I get up at 5 a.m. every morning to sell tea on the street.’ That’s an interesting thing to study — people trying to overcome terrific constraints they face on a day-to-day basis.” 

Living at the Base of the Pyramid

Since arriving at UVM in 2016, Venugopal has published widely on the intertwined nature of consumption and entrepreneurship in subsistence marketplaces. His bottom-up approach to research involves immersing himself in communities to better understand the lives of local entrepreneurs who live at the Base of the Pyramid (BoP), often living on a few dollars a day. It's an approach that was popularized by Stuart Hart, UVM's Steven Grossman Endowed Chair in Sustainable Business. 

“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. "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.

“Srini's not hovering above in a helicopter collecting big data," says 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 with local entrepreneurs. Trying to figure out how to market and sell to the poor is not what we're about."

In a forthcoming journal article, Venugopal underscores the importance of understanding the nuanced lives of 25 women entrepreneurs who face multiple limitations in India’s patriarchal society. One woman, who makes $10 a month running a small bottle pickling business, can’t expand because her husband won’t let her work outside the home. Over time, however, he becomes impressed with her entrepreneurial skills — and the accompanying economic benefits — and agrees to let her sell within the broader community.

“If you view her circumstances with an economic lens and that she only makes $10 a month you would miss all of the micro-level transformations, starting with how she sees herself and the barriers she is breaking,” says Venugopal. “She no longer has to depend on her husband for money and told me that she was proud to be able to buy a chocolate for her son with her own money.”

Changing lives through research  

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.

Venugopal conducts much of his research through his non-profit, which offers classes by a local Ph.D student to girls studying for critical matriculation exams. He’s currently applying for a Catalyst Award grant through the Gund Institute for Environment to purchase 20 GPS systems as part of an experiment to help low-income fishermen struggling to locate fish after a tsunami changed local ecological patterns. The fishermen, who learned where to fish from their fathers, are losing business to wealthier fishermen with larger boats equipped with GPS systems. 

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.

“A lot of people talk about poverty without even having probably ever met or interacted with anyone who has experienced poverty,” he says. “It’s easy to reduce someone among the poor to a number, but you don’t really get to see them as full individuals who lead rich lives and have other facets just like us.”