When coronavirus made international travel temporarily impossible, Vijay Govindarajan had an idea.
Accustomed to bringing second-year Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business MBA students on annual Global Insight Expeditions (GIX), Govindarajan instead decided to bring the abroad experience to the students using virtual reality technology. He chose to highlight Indian families through his Reverse Innovation class, which focuses on humanizing business.
The goal: to identify health and wellness problems affecting Indian families living below the poverty line, and determine how business can provide solutions. And VR would help make it happen.
“We need to look at people who aren’t consuming products and services and ask what their barriers to consumption are,” Govindarajan tells Poets&Quants. “Then, we need to think about how business can play a role in coming up with innovative solutions. The best and brightest leaders of today are those who are going to build an inclusive, responsible, and compassionate capitalistic society.”
‘WE’VE TAKEN HUMANS OUT OF BUSINESS’
Govindarajan believes that capitalism is leaving too many people behind, and that the majority of businesses want to make money at all costs. But not all profits are equal, he says.
“We’ve taken humans out of business,” he says. “Profits that improve social value are higher forms of profits. Capitalism that works for more people is a better form of capitalism.”
Govindarajan wanted his virtual reality experiment to humanize business; his intention was to help students understand the power of adopting a leadership approach that combines a social heart with a business mind. “Humanizing business means understanding that the 7 billion people on planet Earth have the same needs and wants. Yet some people’s needs and wants are met, while others’ are not.”
For Tuck ‘22 student Sasha Croak, her biggest realization from the course was that business models that incorporated humanity and empathy were the most successful. “To me, humanizing business is just that — weaving in empathy and understanding for all of those around you, from customers to business partners,” she says.
A LEARNING JOURNEY ACROSS TAMIL NADU
Govindarajan proposed the idea for the virtual GIX to Tuck Dean Matthew Slaughter in summer of 2021, framing it as a low-cost opportunity for innovation. Once gaining approval, Govindarajan worked with I-India to produce 34 films — using both VR360 and regular 2D technology — that painted a picture of several Indian families’ lives over six months. The course launched this spring, and it took students on a learning journey across rural and urban Tamil Nadu.
The class began with teaching foundational knowledge in reverse innovation. “Historically, companies innovated in rich countries like the United States and then sold those products in poorer countries like India,” Govindarajan says. “Reverse Innovation is about doing exactly the opposite; it’s about innovating in a poor country like India and then selling those products in a rich country like the U.S.”
Next, students met with an entrepreneur who executed reverse innovation in India. Then, the following sessions included live, synchronous Zoom interviews between classmates and Indian families — in which students prepared by watching VR360 and regular 2D films on their own time. The students then created impact through a team-based Reverse Innovation Action Learning Project, in which they applied their understanding of customer problems to determine a business idea that they pitched to Indian venture capitalists.