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This business and management course takes an inter-disciplinary approach to understanding and solving complex social problems. You will learn about prior attempts to address these problems, identify points of opportunity for smart entrepreneurial efforts, and propose and develop your own creative solutions. The focus of this course is on individual agency—what can you do to address a defined problem? You will learn an awareness of the opportunities for entrepreneurship in fast-growing, emerging markets, an understanding of a conceptual framework for evaluating such opportunities, and an appreciation of the types problems that lend themselves to entrepreneurial solutions. 

  • Chaipoint
    Another one that gives me a window into consumer behavior is Chaipoint, India’s largest organized tea retailer (chai), serving several hundred thousand cups of hot tea daily, through a network of stores, delivery-mechanisms, and through what I prefer to call chai robots installed in office complexes across India. There is a lot of algorithmic thinking that lurks behind the scenes of the quotidian task of serving a cup of tea to millions, reliably and consistently. In fact, I’d say it’s the technology and the ethos that has allowed Chaipoint to have amazing brand recognition for a relatively small though fast-growing company.
  • Aspiring Minds
    Aspiring Minds was one of my first ventures, a firm that developed state of the art machine learning algorithms to help assess a range of capabilities (from general analytic and logical skills to competence in a range of specialized domains, blue- and white-collar) easily, cheaply, and accurately (often using mobile phones, tablets, in secure testing setups). I’m proud that the company tested millions of youth and helped ‘make the market’ for many who lacked degrees from fancy institutions but could analytically demonstrate their skills. At the time of our selling the company to a UK based assessment company, Aspiring Minds had offices in New Delhi, Beijing and San Francisco.
  • Axilor
    As I’ve often said in my writings, there is unlimited ferment in Bangalore, and it’s a magnet for talent, but the system still hasn’t matured to the point where it can invest in really risky technology development, nor can it price intangible assets very well. So, as in most developing countries, the ventures tend to be either copycats of things seen elsewhere, or those that have more tried-and-true templates (read software writ large). A lot of areas are relatively (or entirely!) neglected – medtech, agtech, cleantech, edtech, and so on – because the experience base doesn’t yet exist, and the ‘soft infrastructure’ needed to nurture and value such assets hasn’t matured yet. Axilor’s self-assigned mandate is to crack this chicken and egg problem.
  • PRS Legislative Research
    We hope to foster better connectivity between India’s government (initially the Parliament, now including several of the state governments) and her citizens. I’ve been a founding board member and I couldn’t be more proud of the work we do, cited and used by elected representatives of all political persuasions and ideologies.
  • Aspire Institute
    The other is Aspire Institute an organization I co-founded and launched as a 501c3 non-profit enterprise, with my Harvard colleague, Karim Lakhani. It grew out of a prior effort, Crossroads Emerging Leaders Project when it had more of a Dubai center under Harvard alum Goulam Amarsy. Aspire Institute is active in over 100 countries now and has become a plug-and-play technology-enabled platform that allows faculty from numerous leading Universities around the world, professional leaders, and scores of non profits, corporations, foundations and even some governments, to collectively work to usher marginalized talent into the mainstreams of their societies.
  • Partition Project
    And then there’s a multi-faculty project, underway at the Mittal Institute for over five years, on the 1947 Partition of British India, an unusual project to engage a technically minded social scientist in a business school! For me though, in addition to having a personal connection since both the maternal and paternal sides of my family were affected by the Partition, such a schism offers an opportunity to examine the ‘reset’ of the context within which economic activity ensues. This video that gives an overview of the research being done under the Partition project: The project was led by Dr Jennifer Leaning, physician and human rights advocate. This soundclip features a conversation I had with two other faculty – Karim Lakhani who is a digital machine learning expert, and Rahul Mehrotra who is an architect and urban planner about the project’s future: Partition Project: What Next? Ultimately I’m interested in strengthening the foundations upon which creative individuals can spur economic and social development in emerging markets worldwide.
  • China-India Comparative Research
    To understand these issues, I’ve often resorted to comparative work. I find the foil of comparing China and India very useful, for example, something I began to explore almost two decades ago, an effort that first came to fruition with the publication of Billions of Entrepreneurs, probably the book I most enjoyed writing. Recently, I was asked to write the opening chapter of the Routledge Handbook of China-India relations, where I reflected on how this comparative work had unfolded.
  • Creating Emerging Markets Project
    Another ongoing window into understanding the foundations of emerging markets is through studying the personal histories of their storied entrepreneurs, the trail of successes and failures that they’ve blazed in propelling their societies forward. The historian Geoffrey Jones and I have led a team of Harvard faculty in interviewing ~150 such stalwarts (think ‘Rockefellers’ of their respective countries) over several years in the Creating Emerging Markets project. In effect, these first person, roughly hour-long video interviews, many by individuals who normally eschew public displays, are a treasure trove for research and teaching that HBS makes freely available to all.
  • “Making Meritocracy” Project
    In this vein, a project that is nearing completion is the “Making Meritocracy” project, co-directed with my colleague, the historian of China, Michael Szonyi. Systems of merit in China and India have a long history, and understanding how these systems impact contemporary society is a crucial question. Dozens of scholars have come together, over the past five or more years, in China, India and the US, to study the relationship between the idea of merit — its conceptualization, measurement, and implementation — and the organization of talent in China and India, as well as how power and influence are allocated in these two countries. A scholarly volume, “Making Meritocracy: Lessons from China and India, from antiquity to the present,” edited by Michael Szonyi and by me, will be published by Oxford University Press worldwide late in calendar 2021.
  • Aspire Institute
    Here’s how Aspire works. Talented youth lack the networks and capital (monetary and social) to access mainstream economic and career opportunities in all walks of life in society. Thousands of applicants take a battery of increasingly difficult tests – quantitative, qualitative, face-to-face interviews – and get access to curated materials to slake their intellectual thirst depending on how far they get in the process. They also get access to live, curated webinars with the world’s leading faculty experts from numerous leading universities around the world- something entirely inaccessible to them otherwise. Lastly, a small fraction are eligible to compete for ongoing mentorship and small and more generous grants to further their careers in their own countries.
  • Reimagining India’s Health System: Lancet Citizens’ Commission
    Fast forward to today, and I’m privileged now to co-chair The Lancet Citizens’ Commission to Re-Imagine India’s healthcare. This is a two year project, under the auspices of the world’s leading global health journal. It is an attempt to harness the experiences of the ultimate patients – most of whom are marginalized and vulnerable in a poor country – and the ultimate caregivers – many of whom are outside the mainstream medical profession, in devising the future of healthcare for, one hopes, the developing world.
  • Cardiac Care Facility in Bangalore
    One of my first forays into health in the emerging markets was through the efforts of the pediatric cardiac surgeon, entrepreneur and philanthropist Devi Shetty and his Narayana Health organization. The initial cardiac care facility in Bangalore achieved costs of coronary artery bypass graft surgery of ~$1800 (and lower in some instances) compared to ~$60K to $100K in the US (almost two orders of magnitude lower), with no diminution in quality whatsoever. Behind this achievement was a complex mesh of innovations – some radical, others incremental – and a learning organization with lessons far beyond immediate context. Narayana has become a perennial site of much of my own research and that of my students from 2005 to 2020, through a series of academic papers and case studies, as it innovates, morphs and expands across India and globally.
  • AfricaLive!
    This is a novel experiment that I co-taught in early 2021. The audience was 700 entrepreneurs from across the African continent, taught simultaneously on Zoom, during the COVID pandemic, when we were all forced to experiment. The idea was to mix-and-match asynchronous learning, by having students view material each week from the pre-recorded EEE course, with weekend live, synchronous teaching customized to their interests related to the realities of the African continent. The result were electric in their effectiveness and suggest a way of scalable learning.

Contemporary Developing Countries: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Problems

What problems do developing countries face, and how can individuals contribute to solutions rather than awaiting the largesse of the state or other actors? Intractable problems – such as lack of access to education and healthcare, forced reliance on contaminated food, deep-seated corruption – are part of the quotidian existence of the vast majority of six of the world’s eight billion people. Developing societies suffer from what we refer to as ‘institutional voids’ that make organized activities of all sorts difficult; think of the mundane but important physical infrastructure that allows us to get to work or school in the developed world, as well as our access to higher-order institutions such as the availability of information at our fingertips or the security of the rule of law.

This course demonstrates that reflecting upon the nature of the developing world’s intractable problems through different lenses helps characterize candidate interventions to address them: the scientist’s hypothesis-driven and iterative experimentation, the artist’s imagined counterfactuals through putting oneself in others’ shoes literally and theatrically, and the planner’s top-down articulation of boundary conditions.


The course is divided into five modules: an introduction that reviews various approaches to development and explores the importance of understanding problem-contexts; three thematic modules, each taught by a leader in their respective fields, which introduce the entrepreneurial lenses of the artist, scientist, and planner; and a concluding module that applies lessons learnt throughout the semester to specific problem contexts. The case study discussions included in these modules will cover challenges and solutions in fields as diverse as health, education, technology, urban planning, and arts and the humanities.


In the course of the semester, all students will divide into teams that will each develop a business plan or grant proposal to tackle a chosen problem in a specific developing country/region.

Grand Challenges for Entrepreneurs

Grand Challenges for Entrepreneurs (GCE) is designed for students who are interested in entrepreneurial approaches to the biggest challenges of our time.  Grand Challenges are near-intractable, global problems that offer the tantalizing prospect that even a partial resolution will dramatically improve some facet of human existence. Success requires individual creativity to break down a problem into constituent manageable parts, coupled with imaginatively catalyzing collective action in society.


The challenges affect the entire world, though inevitably the burden often falls disproportionately on the fast-growing and populous emerging markets.  Invariably, grand challenges require solutions that beggar the imagination, and that require an embrace of science, with all its excitement and uncertainty. To misquote Peter Thiel, “We wanted flying cars, let’s not be satisfied with 140 characters.”


The course is appropriate for would-be entrepreneurs, as well as those interested in the financing and curation of economic activity at the exciting edges of the knowledge frontier.

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