Vijay Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation lesson at Dartmouth Tuck: “Students were able to empathize with these families and learn how some live in poor conditions on as little as $2 a day.” Rob Strong Photography
When the coronavirus temporarily made international travel impossible, Vijay Govindarajan had an idea.
Used to bring sophomore Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business MBA students to India as part of its Reverse Innovation class’s annual Global Insight Expedition (GIX), Govindarajan decided to bring India to the students using virtual reality instead. -technology.
The aim: to identify health and wellbeing problems of Indian families living below the poverty line and how business can provide solutions. And VR would help make it happen.
“We need to look at people who don’t consume products and services and ask what their barriers to consumption are,” Govindarajan said. 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 today are those who are going to build an inclusive, responsible and compassionate capitalist society.”
‘WE HAVE HAD MAN FROM BUSINESS’
Vijay Govindarajan. Laura Decapua Photography
Govindarajan believes that capitalism abandons too many people and that most companies want to make money at any cost. But not all profits are created equal, he says.
“We’ve taken people out of business,” he says. “Profits that improve social value are higher forms of profit. Capitalism that works for more people is a better form of capitalism.”
Govindarajan wanted his virtual reality experiment to make business more humane; his intention was to help students understand the power of a leadership approach that combines a social heart with a business mind. “Making things more human means understanding that the 7 billion people on Earth have the same needs and wants. Yet the needs and wants of some people are met while others are not.”
For Tuck ’22 college student Sasha Croak, her biggest realization from the course was that business models that incorporated humanity and empathy were the most successful. “For me, humanizing business is just that: weaving empathy and understanding for everyone around you, from customers to business partners,” she says.
A LEARNING JOURNEY ABOUT TAMIL NADU
Sasha Kraak. Laura Decapua Photography
Govindarajan suggested the idea for the virtual GIX to Tuck Dean Matthew Slaughter in the summer of 2021, calling it a cheap opportunity for innovation. After Govindarajan received approval, he teamed up with I-India to produce 34 films – using both VR360 and mainstream 2D technology – that portrayed the lives of various Indian families over six months. Launched this spring, the course took students on a learning journey through rural and urban Tamil Nadu.
The class started by teaching fundamental knowledge about reverse innovation. “Historically, companies in rich countries like the United States innovated and then sold those products in poorer countries like India,” Govindarajan says. “Reverse Innovation is about doing the exact opposite; it’s about innovating in a poor country like India and then selling those products in a rich country like the US.”
Next, students met an entrepreneur who was conducting reverse innovation in India. Then the next sessions included live, synchronous Zoom interviews between classmates and Indian families – in which students prepared by watching VR360 and regular 2D movies in their own time. The students then created impact through a team-based Reverse Innovation Action Learning Project, in which they applied their knowledge of customer issues to determine a business idea that they presented to Indian venture capitalists.
Stop MBA Students With VR. Laura Decapua Photography
‘MANY OF THE STORIES WERE DESIGNED’
The Zoom interviews, Govindarajan says, were the most powerful part of the course and helped students understand the health and wellness issues these families face. The interviews also helped students determine why the needs of these families are not being met, why consumption is not possible for them and what barriers they face. “Some barriers could be awareness, access, or affordability,” explains Govindarajan.
But perhaps the most impressive part of the interviews was the opportunity for Tuck students to learn from the experiences of others—experiences vastly different from their own. “The students were able to empathize with these families and learned how some live in poor conditions on as little as $2 a day,” Govindarajan says. “You can learn from anyone if you are humble and have an open mind. In this course, students learn more about themselves and how to connect with humanity.”
“I was moved by many of the stories we heard and was inspired by the resilience and ingenuity of these families when it came to some of the more serious health and economic challenges they faced,” says Croak.
“The world is getting more complex and problems are getting more and more complicated,” adds Yuta Ohashi, another Tuck ’22 student. “In order to properly identify and tackle such problems, we need to listen to people.”
‘THEY BEGAN TO SEE CAPITALISM IN A NEW LIGHT AND HOW IT CAN BE A FORCE OF GOOD’
Yuta Ohashi. Laura Decapua Photography
According to Govindarajan, the virtual GIX exposed students to consumers they had never encountered before. It also helped students realize how many opportunities they really have to help others. “Students began to see capitalism in a new light, and how it can be a force for good when innovated to work for more people,” he says.
“Before, supporting people or countries in economically difficult situations could be left to governments, public institutions and philanthropists,” Ohashi said. “Today, there are plenty of opportunities for companies to support such people or countries while making a profit.”
‘TECHNOLOGY CAN SUPPLEMENT AND SUPPLEMENT AN MBA PROGRAM’
While Govindarajan believes that virtual reality technology is not intended to replace personal B-school experiences, it can enhance these experiences. “Technology can complement and extend an MBA program,” he explains.
In the spring of 2023, Govindarajan plans to offer the course to first-year MBA students instead of just sophomores to open their eyes to social issues that many people around the world face – earlier. This also allows Tuck students to be inspired to find solutions to these problems throughout the rest of their MBA.
“Without the technology incorporated into the course, it would have been impossible to have such fruitful conversations and reveal such deep insights,” says Croak.
Vijay Govindarajan. Laura Decapua Photography
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