What We've Learned from 101 Entrepreneurs in Emerging Markets

Harvard Business School’s project exploring the evolution of business leadership in emerging economies has reached an important milestone. Project leaders Geoffrey Jones and Tarun Khanna discuss what's been learned from the Creating Emerging Markets study so far.
by Sean Silverthorne

Harvard Business School’s exploration of the evolution of business leadership in Africa, Asia, and Latin America has reached an important milestone. This month the Creating Emerging Markets project will publish interviews 100 and 101 with emerging market business leaders. They are Mo Ibrahim, founder of Celtel, which when sold had over 24 million mobile phone subscribers across Africa, and Ela Bhatt, Indian activist and founder of the Self-Employed Women's Association of India.

The interviews, many on video, are intended to help researchers, students, and all others interested in better understanding the factors that govern business growth in emerging markets. Leaders interviewed in 20 countries include Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder and chair, of Bangladesh’s BRAC microfinance company; Rosario Bazan, founder and CEO of Peru’s Danper Trujillo; Ratan Tata, chair of Tata Trust; Shabana Azmi, famous actress and political activist; Shinta Kamdani, CEO of Indonesia’s Sintesa Group; and Dr. Manu Chandaria, chair and CEO of the Kenyan-based steel and aluminum group Comcraft.

photo of Pho soup Young Indian woman sorting red chilli peppers, Jodhpur, India. Entrepreneurship in emerging markets is being studied at Harvard Business School. Credit:  Bartosz Hadyniak

For perspectives on what has been learned so far, HBS Working Knowledge conducted an email interview with four of the key drivers of CEM: Project coordinators Geoffrey Jones, Isidor Straus Professor of Business History; and Tarun Khanna, Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor;  Erica Salvaj, Alfred D. Chandler Fellow in Business History; and doctoral student Cheng Gao.

Sean Silverthorne: Now that you’ve reached the 100th interview milestone, reflect a bit on how the project has worked out. Have you achieved your objectives so far?

Tarun Khanna: I was attracted to this effort because I thought I saw two potential sources of long-term value. First, on emerging markets, there’s a lot we don’t know. These videos dramatically supplement the quality of information we have. Second, methodologically, I think all research will move in the direction of not just relying on the printed word—why can we not do research by referring to video, sound, and the like? There is so much mathematics devoted today to extraction of quantitative data from all sorts of data sources that a move in this direction is inevitable. Using information from these video interviews is a tiny step in that direction.

"I think that in addition to the commonalities, the project sheds light on how business cultures differ in Latin America"

Silverthorne: What were some of the major commonalities you discovered about successful entrepreneurship in developing countries?

Khanna: Geoff and I, with Cheng Gao and Tiona Zuzul, wrote a piece on reputation as being central to how these iconic leaders have built country-reshaping enterprises. It’s a fun piece, now published in a leading academic journal. But it’s just a starting point. We wanted the paper to show that mainstream research would accept the data source. I’m sure tons of others will now begin to mine them.

The other striking thing is the importance these iconic entrepreneurs give to a sense of purpose, some sort of higher motivation that they believed they were pursuing. I’d even go so far as to say that many of them saw themselves as playing a significant role in the development of the societies from which they originated. It’s really quite heartening!

Erica Salvaj: I got involved on this project because I was fascinated by the idea of exploring how business leaders in Latin America have progressed along their path to power. Discovering common attributes that made these influential business leaders possible to build successful and sustainable companies in a very adverse and unfriendly context is an extremely necessary exercise. The Latin America business audience needs to reflect on the key dimensions that prepare for power.

As I began researching the interviews in depth, I discovered that all the interviewees shared great ambitions and the desire to have a positive impact on their countries (or sense of purpose, as Tarun puts it) and how focused they were on the long term. Another similarity between all of them was their focus and passion for their careers, devoting in some cases more than four decades to develop the same company in the same industry. This focus allowed these pioneers to develop unique and deep knowledge and experiences and find opportunities where nobody saw them before.

I think that in addition to the commonalities, the project sheds light on how business cultures differ in Latin America. Outsiders perceive the countries of the region as homogeneous, while the truth is very different. Between Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Peru there are significant differences regarding, for example, the business leaders’ capacity to tolerate conflict and their ability to read others and empathize with their point of view. These results challenge some of the assumptions raised by current research and literature on power and influence, which is mostly based on developed markets. Contextual factors, especially major economic and political shocks, might explain these unexpected findings.

Silverthorne: What about practices or approaches that didn’t work out for those entrepreneurs? What were the lessons they learned?

Khanna: The videos are full of accounts of those mistakes—that’s one of the really nice features. Because of the status of these individuals and the high degree of respect they command, I think they’ve treated the videos as an opportunity to reflect honestly and candidly on the long arc of their careers and the emerging markets from which they originate. And any such journey is bound to be full of failed experiments.

Here’s a specific, frequently enunciated challenge we hear of in the interviews: the underestimation of the nature of contextual change and the importance of it. It’s not that our protagonists consistently thought things would go faster or slower; they just often misread the rate of change, and also the manner of change caught them by surprise many a time.

Another thing frequently mentioned was the importance of partnerships, facilitated by reputation and the trust they inspired, but also the difficulty of maintaining these over time, and as circumstances changed.

Salvaj: The mistakes provided opportunities for these pioneers to display their confidence and to project self-assurance. They have been able to withstand shocks and keep investing in times of extremely high inflation, expropriation processes, or financial crisis.

Silverthorne: Who should be reading these interviews? What will they learn?

Khanna: Academics for sure, for their research. Several have started mining the extensive transcripts as data, for example. Educators and teachers, too. We’ve also begun to see the numerous video clips our team has created start to be used in classrooms, at HBS and in a few other institutions.

These clips are really cool. I taught a class on corporate social responsibility in an executive education course simply using four clips, each three- to five-minutes long, and representing different companies and settings, without any reading assigned. Next week, I’m looking forward to teaching a session by assigning an hour-long interview of one of Africa’s iconic entrepreneurs. We’ve held conferences—thus far at HBS, and in Mumbai, India and Santiago, Chile, and forthcoming in Lima, Peru and Kolkata, India—where the interest of researchers, educators, and archivists has been extraordinary. Our presentations in management conferences that are interested in emerging markets have been very well attended.

We’re also starting to see media interest. Short documentaries on individuals or themes are being produced.

Cheng Gao: From a graduate student perspective, the interviews are a terrific way to gain a bottom-up insight on how business is conducted in emerging markets. Challenges one reads about in textbooks become immediately salient through the rich anecdotes and examples portrayed in the interviews, such as bank runs, political coups, and currency crises. Furthermore, the interviews elucidate how strategy formulation and execution unfolds across time, and provides a unique window into the actual cognition of business leaders as they react to challenges. These interviews are invaluable for gaining a deep understanding of different industries and emerging market contexts, and are also a great source of new research ideas.

Silverthorne: Has the project evolved in terms of your goals or methodology?

Geoffrey Jones: Totally. We began with audio interviews only, as the first interviewees in Argentina and Chile were from business cultures which were discrete and did not welcome publicity. Our initial target was to transform research on business in emerging markets by providing a wholly new source of empirical data. As we diversified to other regions, however, we encountered business leaders who were more willing to speak about their strategies on camera. At the same time, we began to understand that video material could be a wonderful means to facilitate the teaching of business in emerging markets in business school classrooms, especially as we moved firmly into the digital age. And so we became ever more ambitious: to transform both the research and the teaching about business and entrepreneurship in emerging markets.

Silverthorne: In terms of public response or feedback from researchers who use these materials, what have you heard?

Jones: The site is generating a great deal of traffic. In November, our latest month, we had 2,000 visitors to the site. Short video clips we have generated for classroom use had 180 downloads. We know they are being used in a diverse set of classrooms, from the University of Los Andes in Bogota, Colombia to the Indian Institute of Management in Pune. In most months, nearly 100 full-length interview manuscripts are downloaded.

Cheng Gao: Many fellow students from across micro and macro topic areas have expressed interest in using the material for a wide range of research topics, such as leadership, entrepreneurship, growth and scaling, nonmarket strategy etc.

Silverthorne: What’s next for the project? Will the interviews continue?

Khanna: Very much. We have a long way to go. And we’re going to start turning to the platform aspects of CEM more explicitly now, that is, enable others to use the content more freely so that they can create their own value-added products and services. We have to do this slowly and deliberately though, since we have to ensure that we stay very true to the purpose of the interviews as articulated to the protagonists--research and teaching.

We’re also in early stages of exploring how to automate access to some of the video interviews. It’s trickier than we thought but we’re making progress. So far, it still seems simpler to manually extract relevant quotes since the software for automating this is too expensive (and still unreliable). The tradeoff might be different as the number of interviews expands further.

"We became ever more ambitious: to transform both the research and the teaching about business and entrepreneurship in emerging markets"

Jones: This past year we extended out interviews to Colombia, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the United Arab Emirates. In the next two months we will interview in Vietnam and Ethiopia. Meanwhile, we are adding interviews in countries where we already have a significant number of interviews, including Argentina, India, Peru, and South Africa. We are extraordinarily wide and ambitious in our reach, and this will provide educators and researchers unique opportunities to develop comparative approaches using a common database.

Gao: There is excitement from students and scholars about using this novel data, particularly since the CEM project features rare access to these emerging market leaders and feature interviews that are conducted in an academically rigorous way (open-ended exploration, deep systematic probing, etc.).

Salvaj: I would like to see more interviews of women business leaders in Latin America. The project has done a good job capturing the importance of women as business leaders in South Asia, but because these women tend to be from a younger generation in Latin America, they have not yet showed up so prominently in the interviews in this region. Additionally, we still lack interviews on countries such as Ecuador or Uruguay, which have fascinating business stories to tell, and about which the English language literature is minimal.

Related Reading:

Thriving in the Turbulence of Emerging Markets
Building Histories of Emerging Economies One Interview at a Time

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