October 18, 2022

A Conversation With Madhu Viswanathan

Photo by Jon Rou

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Madhu Viswanathan is professor of marketing in the LMU College of Business Administration and director of the D.K. Kim Foundation Business for Good Program, which recently received a gift of $5 million from the D.K. Kim Foundation. Since 2020, all first-year and transfer students in the business college are required to take courses in Business for Good, in which they devise business plans for start-up companies whose work would provide a social or economic good to the communities in which the business is located. Viswanathan pioneered the area of subsistence marketplaces — studying low-literacy, low-income consumers and entrepreneurs around the world through a unique bottom-up approach. He was interviewed by Editor Joseph Wakelee-Lynch about the Business for Good program and the D.K. Kim Foundation gift.

What drives your interest in advocating entrepreneurialism that directly benefits particular sectors of society?

As a business professor, I felt that I should study how much of humanity living with low income does business and participates in the marketplace. Twenty-five years ago I started looking at low-literacy, low-income consumers. My deeper motivation was to conduct research that ended up benefiting the people that we study. I did not want my work to remain exclusively within academic circles. 

Is the focus only on imagining sustainable businesses in less developed countries?

Our team of instructors asks students to select any country, any context, urban or rural, within a broad topic that is reflected in one or more United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. By doing that, we challenge them to think about needs, products and specific circumstances in low-income settings. You may live in Silicon Beach, but you may not understand people living with low income in Los Angeles, or in Kampala. The students must understand a need, come up with a product and develop a plan for a startup business. 

How does making a business plan in your course differ from making a business plan in real life?

One takeaway for students is understanding the bottom-up approach. That bottom-up approach is one every business needs, irrespective of where they work. The students in our courses are trying to understand, for example, a tribal woman who is cooking in a smoke-filled hut in East Africa. If they understand from the bottom up the need she faces and address that need, then ethics, responsibility and good are all embedded in that process. Our approach emphasizes that good should be at the heart of business, and good is not the characteristic only of charitable organizations. For business, it is not only about doing good and doing well; in a highly interconnected world facing enormous challenges, it is essential to do good in order to do well. 

Are there venture capitalists who have the same motivation as you?

Certainly. In the past 20–30 years, there has been a recognition of global challenges and a push toward social entrepreneurship, a recognition of climate change and disasters coming home to roost. Some venture capitalists have been ahead of the game. Businesses are increasingly addressing environmental sustainability, as well as social sustainability. They have to be thinking environmentally, because they function in the real world; they’re the ones whose supply chain is affected.

What will the gift from the D.K. Kim Foundation allow you to do?

First, it will allow us to expand the Business for Good program to the larger LMU community, such as by way of poverty simulation sessions available to students across the campus and poster sessions in which people can view student projects. Second, we want to teach teachers around the world how to teach Business for Good using the online content from our courses and materials. Third, and this is probably closest to my heart, we hope to create a virtual platform to teach low-income youth locally and globally about marketplace literacy and Business for Good.

To learn more about support for the Business for Good program, contact Roberta Kuhlman, senior director of Development, at Roberta.Kuhlman@lmu.edu.