A letter from our Founder

 

Imagination, Innovation, Commitment

“Business leaders work to make the rich richer, but what if they worked to make the poor rich?"

-Sabiha Malik, 2007

I was born in a part of the world that suffers from stark divides. The rich are rich and the poor are poor. I grew up feeling passionately responsible for my fellow human beings.

Imagination and commitment aren’t enough to create more fairness and justice in the world but when we feel strongly enough about something Life creates pathways. Thus, in the mid-1990s whilst in Mumbai - entirely unexpectedly - I was invited to visit Dharavi, a slum in in the centre of the city. Dharavi is home to a remarkable community of over half a million people living in dire circumstances, toiling ceaselessly at their small businesses merely to survive for another day.

To me, Dharavi was an unforgettable window into what was surely happening in poor communities around the world. Creative, talented people working hard at their small businesses were trapped in poverty. It seemed to me that because they lacked high-level management skills the gates of opportunity were barred to them. How could people ever be free if they were denied opportunity? How could this problem of lack of opportunity be solved? Why hadn’t it been solved? Why were economists and political leaders so hesitant? What stood in the way of finding a fresh, untried approach?

For over ten years I studied the writings of Amartya Sen, C. K. Prahalad, and other distinguished economists. I learned a great deal about what was being done to reduce global poverty but I had questions that I needed to find answers to. What more could be done? What solution had not yet occurred to economists? What wasn’t being taught at business schools? What were the gulfs that had not been bridged?

I remained committed to my search. The answer came, many years later when least I expected it. In 2007, I was blessed with a glorious insight: “Business leaders work to make the rich richer, but what if they worked to make the poor rich?"

There it was. I was elated. The insight thrilled me. Then, the sound ‘sanghata’ alighted in my mind, quietly, as a little bird alights. I discovered that ‘sanghata’ is an ancient Sanskrit term that suggests joining different elements to create something that hasn’t existed before. It suggested transformation. I felt inspired, and as soon as I could afford to, in 2009, I founded Sanghata and worked on developing a detailed plan with the help of a consultant.

A pilot could be located anywhere but my thought was to begin in Mumbai, and in partnership with an Indian business school, launch a breakthrough educational program where high level business leaders would teach business executives to treat all differences as springboards to innovation. After the training, the executives would be assigned for some months to provide management skills to small businesses to get them ready for investment, and as an added value provide due diligence to socially minded investors keen to invest in the businesses. I felt inspired by the beauty of this simple approach and knew that to move it forward I had to seek like-minded individuals and institutions to collaborate with.

To begin with, in 2009 I shared my concept with Scott Horton, co-founder of the American University in Central Asia, and a New York attorney who also lectures at Columbia Law School. Scott accepted to join me as co-founder.

Next, to transform my concept into a movement to reduce global poverty I needed to collaborate with a nimble institution ready to host the revolutionary Sanghata business education program where the faculty were to be business leaders, not academics. I agreed that the consultant present my concept and business plan to Yuwei Shi, professor of strategic management and competitive strategy, and dean of the Graduate School of International Policy and Management (GSIPM), at the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS), in Monterey, California.

The consultant met with dean Yuwei Shi in October 2009, and reported that dean Yuwei Shi was not only very interested in my concept and the radical education project I was proposing, but also “Yuwei was making it clear that he was ready to make it a central part of his school’s efforts to revitalize its curriculum.” Yuwei Shi’s enthusiasm for MIIS collaboration with Sanghata’s innovative program was hardly surprising, but it mattered to Scott Horton and I that Yuwei seemed sincerely committed. Reporting on his meeting with Yuwei, the consultant wrote: “Yuwei was ready to bring to bear the outstanding reputation, track record and expertise of the Monterey Institute of International Studies (an affiliate of he prestigious Middlebury College) to not only sponsor this project, but help us steer it in a direction that both maximizes its local impact and creates remarkable traction in academic circles.

To continue the discussion, in 2010 Scott Horton and I met with Yuwei Shi. After a conversation that lasted many hours, Scott and I were impressed with MIIS’ social focus and we agreed that for logistic reasons it would be far simpler to locate Sanghata’s pilot project in California rather than in Dharavi, Mumbai. Instead of calling the project ‘Slum University’ implying that we could learn from innovative people living in slums, we named it the ‘Frontier Market Scouts program’, acknowledging the frontier market hotspots our executives would be scouting for talent in, and nodding across the century to the Frontier Scouts (Pathan tribesmen in the British India Army regiment that once patrolled the mountains of the North-West Frontier Province in India). 

After agreeing the details in discussions with the president of MIIS, Sunder Ramaswamy, Scott and I chose MIIS to become the primary associate for Sanghata’s flagship Frontier Market Scouts (FMS) program. Dean Yuwei Shi wanted to be director of FMS, and as he inspired great trust in us, Scott and I suggested to Sunder that Yuwei be made the director of FMS. To encourage a closer meeting of minds we invited Yuwei to join our Sanghata board as a co-founder and also invited him to be co-founder of Sanghata’s Frontier Market Scouts program at MIIS. Yuwei wanted to design the FMS logo, and we agreed that he should do so.

In December 2010 Scott and I, Sunder Ramaswamy and Yuwei Shi met in New York. Sunder and we signed an agreement whereby my concept formally became the foundation stone of the first business executive training program of its kind in the world, and MIIS became Sanghata’s first joint venture partner. Next, Sanghata invested in the FMS program and it was launched in January 2011. The Sanghata investment fund I had planned for investing in small businesses was put aside because Yuwei Shi advised that instead Sanghata should help fund Ross Baird’s establishment of Village Capital. Consequently, in January 2012 Sanghata became the Global Founding partner of Village Capital and Village Capital began to manage placements of Frontier Market Scouts program participants around the world. Our agreement stated that our program was to be known as the Sanghata-Monterey Frontier Market Scouts program but it quickly became abbreviated to the Frontier Market Scouts or FMS program.

The Monterey Institution of International Studies is now known as the Middlebury Institute of International Studies (MIIS). The FMS program has been housed since 2015 at Middlebury’s Centre for Social Impact Learning (CSIL).

Middlebury’s Centre for Social Impact Learning (CSIL) now proudly announces: “FMS was founded in 2011 as a joint venture between Sanghata and MIIS. It was the first program of its kind in the social impact sector”. It’s worth remembering that Sanghata and MIIS launched Frontier Market Scouts in January 2011 with just 6 participants and it has now grown into an award winning, internationally recognized educational program with over 400 applications from business leaders annually.

True to my concept, active business industry leaders have always conducted the FMS training. So here we are - business leaders who work to make the rich richer are now also working to make the poor rich! It’s the fulfilment of my dream.

In February 2013 Sanghata-Monterey’s Frontier Markets Scouts program won the Ashoka-U Cordes award for Innovation, Impact and Potential for Replicability. In December 2015 it was given the Cordes Hall of Fame award. In 2017 Sanghata is looking forward to managing its FMS program, bringing in new alliances and new collaborations and partnerships.

We believe without tapping into the potential of all we cannot possibly hope to create the stable and responsible societies all our futures depend on. In our increasingly troubled world, whether we like it or not, supporting a culture of shared global prosperity has become both a necessity and a strategic business imperative. This is why Sanghata is looking forward to steering its Frontier Market Scouts program in directions that diversify and expand its impact more effectively than ever before.

- Sabiha Rumani Malik