Four undergraduate students in the Boston College Carroll School of Management participated in a first of its kind cross-school partnership with the School of Social Work, conducting community-based fieldwork and visiting the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IITB) as the culmination of an independent study on social innovation.
The course, Innovations in Global Practice: Solar Entrepreneurship in Rural India, was co-taught by Dean Gautam Yadama and Jere Doyle, executive director of the Edmund H. Shea Jr. Center for Entrepreneurship at the Carroll School. BCSSW’s International Development Project Manager Kelsey Werner led the group visit to India.
“This course offered a unique forum to bring together four really smart students in the pursuit of an entrepreneurial project in a completely new environment, but also, with additional perspective into social and public policy that we don’t often provide in our Carroll School offerings,” says Doyle.
The students—John DiSessa, Danielle Johnson, Lauren Kaufman, and Michael Perry—performed fieldwork at a solar manufacturing plant set up by IITB and operated by Dungarpur Renewable Energy Technologies Pvt. Ltd. (Durga Energy), a company formed by tribal women in rural Rajasthan. The plant makes some of the solar lamps being distributed by IITB to the rural poor across India through an initiative and study in which BCSSW is also playing a key role; it’s the latest project to come out of a partnership between Boston College and IITB, outlined in a memorandum of understanding signed earlier in the academic year. The students’ fieldwork also included visits to remote villages, farms using solar pumps, and solar shops.
Ahead of the fieldwork in India, the students, all members of the graduating class of 2018, spent the fall semester studying business models of solar lamp manufacturing. They brainstormed how the Durga Energy plant could best interact with existing solar retail shops, as well as the possibility of implementing new retail systems. But the ground reality of rural communities and its impact on the business model wasn’t apparent until the students spent time in India.
“We learned quickly in this independent study that there was no right answer that we were expected to work towards,” says Johnson. “And this was so important, because most of what we saw was surprising to us when we landed in India, despite some of the modeling we’d done ahead of time on what we thought were similar projects.”
“These students landed in India with the mindset that they could figure out a problem no matter where they were,” says Doyle. “But in the end, they also took home with them the valuable lesson that business is really all about cultivating human relationships and understanding the people, and the ecosystems, in which they aim to be successful.”
The BC team employed knowledge gained from meetings with local community members and perspectives rooted in social work, and, after reflection and analysis, recommended that the company employ several different revenue streams while tapping into existing solar retail systems, rather than spending resources on locating potential new entrepreneurs. In short, they found that multiple revenue streams were necessary to be able to offer affordable products to the poorest people who need them the most. Their findings were shared in a forum to offer business perspective to the team at IITB and Durga Energy.
“As undergrads, we don’t have a lot of opportunities to explore innovation that applies to the developing world, and … do field work with people affected by an issue, in their daily lives,” says Perry. “The course also, for me, tied together a passion for entrepreneurship with the expertise of people in the School of Social Work and at IITB who actually understood the issues on the ground. It was a great opportunity to learn what it might be like to actually work to tangibly change something.”
The course serves as an exemplar for BCSSW’s commitment to place-based transdisciplinary inquiry, as it engaged the perspectives of the fields of engineering, business, and social work, while seeking to build on the values and points of view of the local community, explains Yadama.
“We asked these students to spend a very short period of time in an incredibly complex place,” he says. “But we provided them with some of the tools to try to begin to understand a problem, in partnership with people from other fields, and through the lens of the people they were working for. Solutions to many of the pressing problems of our day, whether in social work or business or beyond, will require this type of collaborative, open perspective. I’m hopeful these fine students have taken an initial step on their path to effecting positive change, with these realities in mind.”
Watch this video for additional perspective on the course from the students and Kelsey Werner.