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Creative Capitalism for the Developing World

When Shekhar Bhende (India, Mahindra UWC of India) read about a talk given by Bill Gates at the Davos World Economic Forum about creative capitalism, urging business leaders to focus their energies on creating products with a social benefit, “the idea resonated with me,” Shekhar said. “I realized business and philanthropy aren’t really separate.” That rekindled a creative process that had been developing in Shekhar’s mind.

At UWC he had visited Indian villages, where 75 percent of his country still lives, and seen some of their needs. Now an engineering student at Northwestern, he was involved in projects aimed at designing useful new products. He wondered why those efforts couldn’t be aimed at the developing world. “I realized there are huge markets for basic products, especially in India,” he said. “Why not create a platform to fill those kind of needs?”

As a sophomore, Shekhar started an interdisciplinary student organization, Innovation for Emerging Markets, and brought into it 17 fellow students from engineering, political science, journalism, and economics. They began working with nongovernmental organizations, active in the developing world, on product ideas suggested by the NGOs that could be affordable, widely useful, and economically empowering. “Someone once said the market doesn’t reward closing the gap between rich and poor,” reflected Shekhar. “But I began to think, if you have a little creative capitalism, you can.”

His organization has won funding from Northwestern’s Buffett Center for International and Comparative Studies. This year Shekhar was a junior, and IEM focused on a single promising project: designing a cost-efficient, timer-regulated drip-irrigation system that is affordable for India’s millions of small farmers. “The goal,” he said, “is to design a product that’s going to go into the market—that we can pitch to entrepreneurs and investors in the communities themselves.”

“A lot of universities from the top down are trying to create something similar” to IEM, noted the project advisor, Nicole Patel, assistant director of the university’s Center for Global Engagement. “In Shekhar’s case, it’s been from the bottom up, supporting students in this type of experiential learning that’s meant to have a global impact. It’s very exciting.”