Building Histories of Emerging Economies One Interview at a Time

Much of modern business history has been written on experiences in the United States, Europe, and Japan. Now, the unheard stories of emerging markets in Africa, Asia, and Latin America are being told on a new website by the Business History Initiative.
by Julia Hanna

The corporate histories of Apple, Coca-Cola, and Honda are well-documented stories that offer a window into the nuances of business in a particular place, at a particular time. As such, they're invaluable resources for research that influences future generations of leaders.

Until recently, however, that body of knowledge was derived primarily from companies in the United States, Europe, and Japan. But as emerging markets in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America continue to grow, so does an interest in how they came to be and what can be learned from the experiences of business leaders who managed to navigate their organizations through unpredictable social, political, and regulatory environments.

To help fill this gap, Harvard Business School's Creating Emerging Markets project is building a rich library of video and text interviews with seasoned leaders who have pretty much seen it all including Banco Nacional de Mexico's Agustín Legorreta (his bank was nationalized twice); Turkey's Güler Sabanci, the first woman in her family to run its $14 billion conglomerate and one of the globe's top business leaders; and Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, the Bangladeshi founder of the world's largest non-governmental organization.

An extensively updated website highlighting dozens of interviews and associated research has just been made public.

The project—which includes links to supporting information about the leaders and their organizations—grew out of an encounter between HBS Professor Geoffrey Jones, faculty chair of the Business History Initiative, and Chilean shipping entrepreneur Sven von Appen (HBS AMP 76).

"I was talking to Sven about the role of history at HBS," Jones says, adding that von Appen lamented the lack of a documented Chilean business history and, as a consequence, the likelihood of seeing the same mistakes repeated in the future. He also expressed an interest in doing something about it. "We came up with the idea that we could capture at least the past 30 or 40 years through the eyes of top business leaders."

Focus On Emerging Economies

In developed countries, Jones notes, company information is more widely available than is typical in emerging economies, where organizations tend to be more guarded. "Firms are often closely held by families and not open to outside researchers. They don't reveal information or publish extensive annual reports. Government archives are often poorly organized or inaccessible. There's really no way to know the history."

An initial pilot effort grew out of interviews in 2008 with von Appen and nine other Chilean executives, as well as eleven from Argentina. A few years later, Jones and other HBS faculty interested in building the bank of interviews were given the green light to expand the project, which now includes conversations with business leaders from Bangladesh, Brazil, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Turkey, and Uganda. HBS faculty members, including Tarun Khanna, Henry McGee, Aldo Musacchio, Felix Oberholzer-Gee, and Dante Roscini, conducted the in-depth interviews, often focusing on key moments of transition and decision-making.

The just launched website offers access to video clips, and, in some cases, full transcripts of the interviews. (Other transcripts can be requested through HBS's Baker Library.) With 54 interviews banked, and more to come, Jones hopes the site will become a global resource to deepen understanding of today's emerging markets.

"Many of these emerging economies that were once dismissed—such as Brazil—are now serious economic competitors with the United States," Jones says, adding that many of the economies went through transition periods that involved a high degree of state intervention and hyperinflation. Then, by one means or another, the businesses in those economies came out of that period with strengths that enabled them to take off when circumstances improved.

While Jones emphasizes the diversity of the subjects' experiences and insights, he recognizes the common threads that tie them together. In addition to all being seasoned professionals with the perspective of three or four decades, all demonstrate large reservoirs of resilience.

"Every capitalist economy has its ups, downs, and shocks," says Jones. "But there's a due process and greater predictability to business in the United States and Europe, which these people haven't experienced in the 30 or 40 years of history that we're capturing. For many, their businesses were launched during a period of heavy state intervention and protection; then the barriers came down. What do you do then?"

“We came up with the idea that we could capture at least the past 30 or 40 years through the eyes of top business leaders”

The second thread, according to Jones: a number of those interviewed have a broad view of their societal and ethical responsibilities. "It's not something that we went fishing for, but it came through very clearly that many of these people, some of whom came from great poverty, are aware of the economic disparity in their countries and have a conviction that business has a role to play in addressing it."

For example, in one video clip, Yusuf Hamied, chairman of Mumbai-based pharmaceutical company Cipla, comments, "I'm a firm believer that if you're in the health care business like Cipla is, it is not [only] a business, per se. It is a business, plus you are saving lives. So it has to have a humanitarian angle to it." (Cipla manufactures generic versions of a number of commonly prescribed medicines and is the world's largest manufacturer of the antiretroviral drugs that fight HIV and AIDS.)

In an interview that documents the challenges of being a female entrepreneur in the turbulent economy of Kenya, Eva Muraya observes, "It's really up to the leadership of the business to define the moral code."

Insights, Struggles, And Achievements

These insights aside, Jones is interested in the project's transformational potential through research and teaching in business schools and elsewhere. The hundreds of pages of transcripts provide a unique resource for scholars working on monographs, journal articles, and cases focused on the insights, struggles, and achievements of top business leaders in emerging markets. Video clips of interviews are already being used in HBS Executive Education classrooms, with more to be made available this fall.

As the world's developing economies continue to shift and grow, the Creating Emerging Markets project documents those changes and offer touchstones for learning through business leaders' insights on entrepreneurship, innovation, leadership, and environmental and social responsibility. Practitioners will find compelling insights also.

"Aspiring entrepreneurs and established business leaders," Jones says, "will see for the first time how some of the most successful firms in their countries created and captured value often in the face of political and economic adversity."

About the Author

Julia Hanna is Associate Editor of the HBS Alumni Bulletin.

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    • Nitesh Sewpersad
    • Head: Legal & Compliance, CNBC Africa
    I think the work being done for this project is momentous. It will serve to encapsulate a wealth of resource that has previously never existed. Whilst I gather that this initiative may pose challenging and rather tedious at times, it will serve as a compilation of work that will greatly benefit the thought leaders to follow. Being part of an emerging nation (south Africa) in the midst of what may be seen as a significant time in our economic evolution, I do hope that the work and research grows exponentially and much more emphasis is placed upon the African continent. We are a diverse and complex continent with various nuances that cannot be seen wholistically but rather as the some of its parts. Africa is where most of the business world will seek to conquer in the future and I can only hope that we endeavour to follow the growth and developmental story that will be created therein.
    • Kapil Kumar Sopory
    • Company Secretary, SMEC(India) Private Limited
    Recording history of corporates is very exciting though a time consuming tedious execise. However, once accomplished, it is something great to learn how the institution started and proceeded, its progress and achievements over time as also its failings at times.
    Long back when I was working in State Bank of India, we initiated a project for writing its history. A separate department was created with a bunch of staff keen to explore the past and record all that was meaningful The project took many years to complete but, once that happened, we had something very impressive to boast of. One learns so much about matters those engaged now can never imagine. What a treasure of knowledge!
    A few years back, history of SMEC (well-known
    Australian Technical Consultancy) with which I am associated, was brought out. It is yet another brilliant work which takes us back to the past when the company started and the processes leading to its development. People connected with compiling the large book have indeed worked so hard with passion for brilliant result which has been achieved.
    These are just two examples and there in fact are many more. One needs time backed by curiosity to reach such publications. This leads to a special learning experience.
    Brilliant attempt to record the unheard stories of emerging markets. It will definitely be highly inspiring for budding business leaders.