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Strategies For Integrating Poverty Into Mainstream Business Classrooms

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Intellectual Contribution by Bruce Paton

Contribution Title

Strategies For Integrating Poverty Into Mainstream Business Classrooms


C.K. Prahalad's Legacy: Business for Poverty Alleviation




More than a decade after C.K. Prahalad's provocative conference presentations and initial working papers on the "fortune at the bottom of the pyramid", the topic of poverty is still far from a mainstream topic in business curricula. This slow progress reflects both ideological barriers as well as pedagogical constraints. While a small handful of business schools has developed impressive programs to engage students in overseas immersive learning in BOP markets, the great majority of U.S. business schools has done relatively little to embed the topic of poverty into their curricula.

A growing number of businesses and business schools is slowly waking up to the reality that most of the products and services discussed in business curricula serve a small portion of humanity. Fewer than 1 billion of the more than 6.5 billion human inhabitants of the planet earn more than $20,000. But the great majority of goods and services are designed and produced mainly for this minority. The great majority of economic growth over the next few decades is expected to occur in emerging and frontier markets. This emerging reality increases the urgency for including topics related to poverty, unmet human needs, and emergence from poverty in conventional business curricula.

One barrier to incorporating poverty into mainstream courses and curricula reflects the huge gap in the minds of many faculty members between the profit maximizing rhetoric of business curricula and the blended value nature of BOP thinking. A second barrier is the relatively small amount of conventional teaching materials and, such as textbooks, teaching modules, and cases. This paper describes several strategies for making BOP thinking accessible for business schools that lack the resources or the mandate to launch major initiatives focused on poverty.

The paper describes several strategies the authors have employed to engage students in undergraduate, graduate, and executive education programs with the problems and opportunities posed by poverty. It focuses on six strategies that have proven effective in the context of several different courses on two campuses over the past seven years. "Voice of the Client" exercises use short narratives from web sites, videos and written narratives to make the experiences of the poor visible and real to students. "Appreciative inquiry cases" challenge students to evaluate the effectiveness of recent or current business efforts to address unmet human needs. "Show and Tell" assignments are structured web search assignments that encourage students to examine the huge range and scope of current efforts to address poverty problems. "Innovation briefing" exercises require students to develop learning exercises to engage their classmates in exploring and responding to specific aspects of poverty. "Design Challenge" exercises harness student's imagination by asking them to design business responses to specific problems. These design challenges make students project themselves into a problem-solving role and develop effective strategies for addressing them. "Service learning" projects provide opportunities for engaging students in poverty-related issues in their own communities.

Using these tools to engage students' imaginations as well as their analytical capabilities offers possibilities for expanding students' concepts of themselves as business people and encouraging them to engage in solving unmet human needs. It also provides a low cost approach to engage the business challenges and opportunities inherent in addressing poverty.

Complete Citation

Paton, B, Harris-Boundy, J and P. Melhus, 2011. Strategies For Integrating Poverty Into Mainstream Business Classrooms. Presented at C.K. Prahalad's Legacy: Business for Poverty Alleviation Conference, San Diego, CA, September 17, 2011.


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