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Wavelength100: The Power of the Poor and the Purpose of Profit

By Polly LaBarre “Empowerment” has long been the buzzword in both management and development circles. All too often it refers to what the powerful have to give to the powerless. But at its core, the practice is about recognizing, respecting, and …

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By Polly LaBarre

“Empowerment” has long been the buzzword in both management and development circles. All too often it refers to what the powerful have to give to the powerless. But at its core, the practice is about recognizing, respecting, and inviting to the table the power that resides in every person, however poor, abject, or status-deprived. The latter point of view informs the work of three Wavelength leaders from dramatically different worlds. Together they revise conventional notions of where power resides, who has something to offer, and what true success looks like.

“Dropouts, Copouts, and Washouts”

Since 1972, Bunker Roy has been practicing an approach to empowerment based on the idea that the power to change the lot of the rural poor resides in poor people themselves. “My real education started when I started living with the poor,” says Bunker. “I found they have so much to contribute. They have so many skills, so much knowledge and wisdom. It’s just not recognized or identified as such.” He founded Barefoot College to capitalize on those innate human resources and to tackle the problems that the world’s best minds, development experts, and billions in aid dollars have yet to solve.

Why barefoot? “Because millions of people live and work barefoot,” says Roy. “It’s a symbol of respect and a recognition of the collective knowledge and skills the poor have. Barefoot College is one of the few places in India where Mahatma Gandhi is still alive. We sit on the floor, eat on the floor, work on the floor. Everyone is equal.”

That seemingly modest approach has delivered results that are nothing short of remarkable. The main campus of BC in Tilonia, India was built entirely by “barefoot architects” (without traditional training or degrees). The 80,000 square-foot complex is completely wired, runs on solar power and rainwater harvested on site. The facilities include meeting halls, library, residences, a hospital, laboratories, Internet café, puppet workshop, and a printing press.

More impressive than the physical campus are the people that populate it. BC’s programs include initiatives around solar power, rainwater harvesting, health and sanitation, education, and empowering girls and women. BC has produced some 150 night schools in rural villages around India with 450 barefoot teachers who have brought education to some 8,000 children. Barefoot water engineers have built more than 1000 rainwater harvesting structures (based on traditional skills and technology that is 100s of years old) across India with a combined capacity of 50 million liters. They’ve provided gainful employment to more than 20,000 villagers and safe drinking water to some 220,000 children. Over the last twenty year, BC has promoted the use of solar energy across India. Legions of barefoot solar engineers have installed solar systems at the household and village level, powering up hundreds of villages and tens of thousands of households across India, Africa, and South America. Most remarkable, a broad majority of those solar engineers are illiterate grandmothers, people nobody would have tapped as expert technologists before Bunker Roy came along.

Barefoot College has fundamentally reimagined what it means to educate and to “develop” people. Its basic principles hold powerful lessons for even the well-shod and the well-off. First, respect the innate gifts and traditional knowledge of every person. Barefoot College is owned and managed by the poor people who teach each other and learn by doing. Homegrown ideas and solutions are respected above outside expertise. Decentralization and collective decision-making are the main organizational principles (every activity is overseen by a village-level committee and even the schools have “children’s parliaments). Second, success has little to do with degrees, titles, or even wealth. Roy subscribes to Mark Twain’s adage, “Never let school interfere with your education.” Barefoot College offers no certificates or degrees. Barefoot engineers learn highly technical, sophisticated skills and trades, but they may never learn to read or write. The emphasis is on practicality, equality (no one can earn more than $150 a month), self-reliance, and quality of life.

“Enriching lives”

A world away in Northern England, Mark Adelstone is similarly dedicated to unleashing “extraordinary performance from ordinary people.” The managing director of Beaverbrooks, a 90-year-old family-run jewelry business, Adelstone has built a remarkable service culture that has earned the company top spots on the “best places to work” rankings and a deep connection with its customers.

Beaverbrooks sells jewelry, but its stated purpose is “enriching lives.” As Adelstone puts it “we care about our people and our people care about others.” Beautifully put. But what separates Beaverbrooks from other companies with soaring mission statements is its dedication to living its values day in and day out.

Adelstone told me, “we spend a lot of time working on a greater understanding of why we’re here as an organization.” The key word here is “we.” Ten years ago, Adelstone began the process of engaging the entire organization in articulating the company’s core purpose and fundamental values. That process wasn’t just about producing acompelling document but about connecting those core beliefs to each person’s daily actions and decisions. To that end, Adelstone sees himself as the “moral guardian of the organization”—constantly visiting 700 people across 60-some stores, asking them questions, and listening to them as if they had the answers (and assuming they do—all of Beaverbrooks’ managers and leaders are promoted from within the organization).

As basic as this seems, one of the most powerful conversations a leader can conduct inside his or her organization is around the question “Are we really who we say we are?” It’s one thing to put a carefully-worded mission statement up on the wall, it’s another to have an ongoing, brutally honest conversation with all of your stakeholders about where you are on the journey to achieving that mission. And it’s still another to create the conditions where every person really gets the connection between what they do on the ground every day and that bigger picture. “The Beaverbrooks Way” is a statement of the collective aspirations and agreed-upon behaviors of everyone in the company, written in the signature understated style of the organization and, says Adelstone, “rehashed” every couple of years.

For example, as a “caring” organization, Beaverbrooks encourages its people to give back in a number of ways. Last year, company employees raised nearly £27,000 (which the company matched), and every year the company contributes 20% of post-tax profits to charities around the world. That number used to be 10%, but when Adelstone polled the organization to see how people felt about giving twice that amount (even if it put some pressure on margins and wages), the response was an enthusiastic yes. Last year, Beaverbrooks gave £579,000 away with £250,000 to spare for future projects. It’s a powerful thing when people really believe they are who they say they are.

“Business must be for profit, but profit must be for purpose.”

Tim Vang brings an entrepreneur’s zeal to unleashing yet another source of neglected power: the “missing middle” of small and medium-sized businesses with the potential to rebuild the fabric of society in Africa where billions (even trillions) of development dollars have failed. Vang and his partners launched MYC4.com to solve two urgent problems: the lack of capital for small and medium-sized business in the developing world (a sector passed over by the many vehicles for micro- and macro-finance) and the lack of return for investors in the developed world. The solution: an eBay-like digital platform for matching investors in from around the world with entrepreneurs in Africa and a forum for advice and knowledge that would both activate a new class of “digital angels” and entrepreneurs alike. The ultimate goal: “create sustainable prosperity in Africa via the Internet.”

While it’s hard not to get swept up by Vang’s enthusiasm, MYC4’s 12.9% average rate of return provides its own pop in a market where keeping pace with inflation has become the new investing target. But it’s equally attractive to African entrepreneurs who pay dearly for access to credit. MYC4.com’s auction mechanism means the market sets the interest rate and everybody wins. As Vang puts it, “Either you say I want to make money and make a difference or you say I want to make a difference and make money. That’s for you to decide.”

More than offering an impressive return on capital and powering up a new market, MYC4 also activates important connections. Vang sees it in the storytelling that springs up in the sites forums. He tells the story of an African entrepreneur seeking funds to start a restaurant. A potential investor asks her what she’s going to call it. She doesn’t have an idea so the forum “starts booming with names.” And then, just because he can and it would be “really cool” to have his work represented in Uganda, a student designer starts offering up logos and design advice, gratis. A short time later, Vang’s partner happens to be walking the streets of Kamapla, Uganda and catches the sign on the thriving restaurant: “Lunch on Demand.” But, as Vang says, “it doesn’t stop there.” Inspired by his brief interaction with the Ugandan restaurateur on MYC4.com, the student designer is now spending eight months living, studying, and working in Kampala, Uganda. He might have logged on to make a profit, but happened upon a deeper purpose in the process. As Vang puts it, “Business must be for profit, but profit must be for purpose.”

Read Polly’s other blogs from Wavelength100:

Wavelength100: We Should Be Angry
Wavelength100: Human Organizations for Human Beings
Wavelength100: Higher Aims: From Poverty of Ambition to Audacity of Imagination

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