Most wouldn’t combine the teachings of Martin Luther King Jr. with corporate strategy.
Business School Prof. C. K. Prahalad used the opening speech of the 19th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Symposium to do exactly that.
His research in marketing to low-income consumers in developing countries is intended to give the poor a voice in the elitist business world.
“We have to go from looking at the poor as a problem to looking at them as opportunity,” Prahalad said.
Prahalad illustrated the benefits of such thinking by showing videos of his work in India, where businesses have begun to create products marketed to the poor. Prahalad said Jaipur Foot, an Indian company that is the world’s largest prosthetic provider, tailors its products to the poor.
The average prosthetic leg costs $8,000 in the United States; in India, the Jaipur Foot costs $20.
“How can the poor spend money?” Prahalad said. “We must create the capacity to consume. Thus, make easy payments, ( have) access to credit, create … services so consumers can pay per use and directly distribute.”
This unique way of viewing the poor as consumers provided business school senior Sunita Mohanty a new way to study corporate strategy.
“The speech impacted my whole outlook on the teachings of Dr. King to use our imaginations to help the masses,” she said.
During his last years, King tried to help the lower class by fighting through politics. Prahalad said the 20th century society had a focus on political freedom, but the 21st century society will focus on economic freedom.
“Dr. King died for the impoverished because he used to preach to the working class,” Anderson said. “He tried to fight for them as well as racial issues.”
Prahalad said in order to use King’s strategies to change the world, people need to study not only the ways companies like Jaipur Foot use innovative technology, but also how they employ creativity.
“The transformation requires not intellect, not money, but imagination,” he said. “Dr. King imagined a better world. We need to re-imagine his dream.”
Prahalad’s book “The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid” has helped him illustrate his dream to the public by tackling the international problem of poverty and suggesting how this issue may be eradicated through the opening of markets geared toward the poor.
But while Prahalad’s theory of tackling poverty via consumerism has begun a movement in the business world to recognize poverty, he said the movement still has further to go and that a campus is an idea place for it to gain momentum.
“If the University of Michigan is going to be a global institute, do we have an obligation to deal with these problems as part of our work and not a sideshow?” he said. “Otherwise, calling ourselves a global university is not done truthfully.”
Every year, the MLK Symposium committee and the Office of Academic Multicultural Initiatives sponsors about 100 programs designed to allow the University to unite and reflect on King’s legacy. This year, Prahalad was granted the honor of opening the week of events.
“We not only wanted someone well-known but also someone to talk about international poverty, so we chose Prahalad,” said John Matlock, associate vice provost and OAMI director.
Prahalad admitted he was surprised that he was invited to speak at the symposium, but said his work is a reflection of King’s teachings.
“MLK Day is an American holiday, but the teachings of Dr. King address global issues,” which happen to be the same issues Prahalad addresses, said Gena Flynn, MLK Symposium planning committee coordinator.
Riana Anderson, president of the University chapter of the NAACP, said discussing poverty was an innovative way to begin the symposium.
“We look at racial issues on this campus but we don’t look hardly enough at class issues,” she said.