Vanderbilt Business, Economics, Divinity and Education Students Combine Forces to Find Ways to Alleviate Global Poverty

Source: Owen Graduate School of Management Newsroom
Author: Amy Wolf
Original Publish Date: February 20, 2008

NASHVILLE, Tenn.—Vanderbilt graduate students from four disciplines – business, divinity, economics, and education—have set an ambitious goal for their spring break trip to Bangladesh: Find ways to alleviate poverty in the poorest parts of the world.

“We don’t want this to be a poverty tour,” said Ryan Igleheart, a first-year student at Vanderbilt’s Owen Graduate School of Management and an organizer of the Project Pyramid trip. “The students want the opportunity not only to engage people there on issues of alleviating poverty but to make this a real learning experience where we have a chance to make an impact.”

One of the highlights of the February 27 through March 9 trip is a meeting with Muhammad Yunus, who earned a Ph.D. in economics at Vanderbilt University and won the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for his work to combat poverty by giving small loans to poor people.

The second highlight is a trip to Jamalpur, a small village in Bangladesh where Owen student Asif Shah Mohammed still has relatives. Shah Mohammed’s father makes annual trips back to his ancestral village where he receives dozens of requests for money.

This year, the Project Pyramid students look forward to making on-site recommendations that could help turn the resulting investments into real agents of change in that village. The students are excited about the prospect of devising a community project for the village.

“It’s an interesting line that we as privileged Western students walk going in there not necessarily implementing for the sake of implementing,” Igleheart said. “It’s important to learn and absorb the culture before you try to prescribe anything.”

The trip, which has received financial support from Nashville philanthropist and businessman Cal Turner, includes students from the Owen School, the Vanderbilt Divinity School as well as graduate students in the department of economics, part of the College of Arts and Science, and Peabody College for Education and Human Development.

The 25 students traveling to Bangladesh will have a full and varied itinerary including meetings with people in healthcare, various industries and productions such as textiles and crafts, the energy sector, as well as livestock and farming, Igleheart said.

“We want to learn what’s critical to starting poverty alleviation organizations and businesses, what challenges the start-ups will face, what the key ingredients are that are necessary for success,” Igleheart said. “We are not just focused on Bangladesh. We want to know what it takes to make a successful model and take it elsewhere.”

Project Pyramid is a student-founded group that brings together students from all of the graduate programs at Vanderbilt and seeks to develop financially sustainable ways to alleviate poverty. Project Pyramid is based on three pillars – education, action and collaboration – and has a national and local focus as well as an international one.

The students also are involved in providing pro bono consulting services for a charter school in Nashville as well as studying the phenomenal recovery of the economy in what was once one of the poorest areas of the country – Tupelo, Miss.

The students also participate in a class at Owen called Project Pyramid: Business Applications and Innovations for Alleviating Poverty. In the class, the students put together business plans to target those at the bottom of the pyramid, as described in The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid by C.K. Prahalad.

Bart Victor, the Cal Turner Professor of Moral Leadership at Owen, challenged students in the class to create plans that would do well financially and to actively use Yunus’ philosophy.
Yunus’ concept of microcredit – small loans to poor villagers in Bangladesh to help them buy livestock or fund an enterprise, has grown from $27 he loaned out of his own pocket into the more than $5.7 billion his Grameen Bank has loaned 6.61 million borrowers.

Despite lack of collateral or signed loan documents, 99 percent of the loans have been paid back. The Grameen Bank provides services in more than 71,000 villages in Bangladesh.
More than 4 billion people in the world are considered to fall into the bottom of the economic pyramid, based on a commonly used measure of poverty – those earning less than $2 a day.

One of the reasons Bangladesh was chosen for this year’s trip was that the country has become “a hotbed of ideas for issues dealing with poverty,” Igleheart said. For the inaugural Project Pyramid trip last year, the group went to India.

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