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Fletcher Dean of Global Business Bhaskar Chakravorti on How to Overcome Adversity as an Entrepreneur

Updated: Jul 21, 2022






GGI Business Review is a new business series, capturing snapshots of the GGI Harvard Case Style Masterclass by CEOs and Industry Leaders.


This particular piece is a snapshot from Bhaskar Chakravorti's GGI Masterclass.


 

Whenever a crisis has plagued Earth, people all around the world have come up with different solutions to tackle the different situations that arose during those times of crisis.

Such times have proven to be a boon for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, as a lot of people throughout the history of this planet have used these difficult times to reflect upon the problems going around in society and come up with solutions that could help uplift humanity from its pains.


This concept is further explained by the Dean of Global Business School at Fletcher School at Tufts University, Mr Bhaskar Chakravorti, who through his years of experience as a professor, economist and consultant describes the ways in which entrepreneurs and innovators can use a crisis to come up with ideas that could bring transformational changes in the landscape of humanity.


THE FIRST STEP


When we talk about starting something as an entrepreneur, then it doesn’t necessarily have to be something big like a mobile app which delivers a service to the people and makes their lives more convenient. We could start just by Solving a Problem. And problem-solving can be done when you are a student or are working in a company or working for the government. There is no defined stage when you can start solving problems. You could be an entrepreneur just by the way you do things differently at home. You can start something new by creating extraordinary value in an extraordinary way.


The true meaning of entrepreneurship or innovation is to find a novel way to solve a problem, and through this, you can unlock the problem. An entrepreneur is someone who constantly keeps looking for ideas.


Now, how is it possible to constantly look for new ideas? We can do it by looking at everything around us through a lens of a certain degree of annoyance because in the world there can be many things which annoy us and make us think about why things are like this. The next step beyond annoyance is to identify why that problem exists, and then note down the reasons why the problem is locked in so that we can try to unlock it.


To unlock a problem, you can come up with an idea which is the beginning of the solution and from that beginning, you could start putting together a team on some kind of product/service.


IDENTIFYING THE BIG PROBLEM


We should constantly look at life through the lens of solving a problem while being annoyed at certain situations in order to identify the opportunities around us. Moreover, if you are looking for a big opportunity then find a big problem.


Here are 5 small ideas about big problems:


1. Innovate so that you are respectful of the problems you solve

• We should not just find a big problem, but we should also solve it in a way that covers the surface area of the problem


2. No one will get excited to fund you to pursue a small problem

• Big problems can come in different forms: flying cars and flying toilets

• We need to decide which kind of big problem we need to go after

Flying Cars refers to problems that lead to high technological solutions. And these types of problems generally attract the most VC Funding, and once initial VC Funding is secured, more VC money follows the chain.

Flying Toilets on the other hand mean problems like lack of sanitation, healthcare or education. We have to work a lot harder to fund flying toilets problems


3. No one is going to fund you to solve a big problem;

• VC Money might be patient money, but its surely not courageous money

• So, VCs would generally require the problem to be broken down into small chunks or milestones, and if we are able to prove that we can achieve these small milestones then we can go back and ask for more funding

• As we go from one milestone to another, our credibility keeps on increasing and the more breadcrumb trail we leave behind, the more resources we would attract from various sources


4. Solving big problems is about assembling a system of many little things

• We need to identify what those little things are and what skills are required to put those small things together.

• We need multiple people in a team with different skillsets because some people are good to identify the big problems; whereas others can skilfully go from one milestone to another.

• Moreover, there are multiple stakeholders involved in this process, and some of them support our ideas whereas others might act as a barrier.

• There can be multiple players already working in the field we are trying to get into and we can make them partners while trying to solve the problem.

• Identifying all these things is a part of getting to the first milestone


5. To think big, think inside the box

• A lot of people say that innovation and creativity mean thinking outside the box, but the best time to be creative is when you’re locked inside the box.

• Being locked inside the box means finding yourself in an environment where there are a lot of constraints

• Constraints mean that the market has not yet cleared and some resources are under-utilized and there are some unmet demands

• This is the entrepreneur’s opportunity to match unused resources with unmet demands


Unmet needs + Underutilized resources = Opportunity


If we look at our history, then some of the biggest opportunities have come out of a period of crisis. For example, at the start of the 21st century, it was feared that all the computers around the world would shut down due to the Y2K Problem. So, to tackle this many Indian companies started recruiting people extensively to do coding to avoid a global shutdown.


Now, these people were the underutilised resources which were used during the global crisis. Eventually, companies around the world could use these resources for other purposes by providing them with relevant training as there was a need to shift IT work to low-cost locations like India. So, the IT Industry in India got its boom on the back of underutilised resources being matched to unmet needs.


A similar situation occurred during the 2008 financial crisis when there were massive lay-offs around the world and people’s income was affected. So, again there were lots of underutilised resources in terms of human capital, and unmet needs in the sense that consumers don’t have the disposable income to make the deep investments that are needed for fulfilling needs which involve paying a significant amount of cash, for example buying a car or a house.


This led to the development of companies like Uber, Ola, Airbnb, Taskrabbit, etc. These companies focussed on matching underutilised resources like extra cars or houses to those who needed them.


COVID 19 AS A SCIENCE EXPERIMENT


The Covid-19 pandemic turned out to be a scientific experiment of innovating and racing to find a cure and protect people. This phase turned everything into a digital revolution all around the world and showed the cracks and the possibilities in the system.


Another aspect of the science experiment is dealing with the flow of information. Whether we run a country or run a small business, we are required to deal with the flow of information and make decisions based on 3 factors:

1. Epidemiological Side- This factor says that you should keep people in their homes to slow down the spread of a disease and flatten the curve.

2. Economic Side- This factor says if we keep people in their homes, then we are robbing them of their ability to engage in earning a livelihood and participating in the economy

3. Ethical Side- There are a lot of questions on how to strike a balance between the previous two factors. Should we let young people go and work even if they get infected in the hopes of developing herd immunity?

This is an ethical choice that some countries like Sweden had made during the initial phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. Whereas, Sweden’s neighbours like Norway and Denmark chose to go the other way and lock people down to contain the spread of disease.


Times of crisis help us to reflect on what did we learn during that phase and reflect upon the choices we made during this period. Such times are a great way to look for problems and come up with opportunities.

Crises like these over the course of history have played a transformational role in what true idealists and entrepreneurs did when they came out on the other side.


LEARNING FROM THE HISTORY


When the Cholera epidemic ravaged Europe in the 19th century, the authorities in Paris decided to take learnings from this crisis and ensure that another such crisis can be avoided. This is why they decided to rebuild Paris in a way that there are large boulevards throughout the city for the availability of ample amount of sunlight, which was an ultimate disinfectant during those days.

So, what boulevards we build as we move out of the Covid-19 crisis, will define our generation.


Well, boulevards weren’t the only thing built in post-cholera Paris. The authorities also built an underground modern sewage system to improve sanitation throughout the city. So, it is not just the boulevards which are above the surface that act as an inspiration, but it’s also those underground sewers which are equally important and inspiring in keeping the city clean. As an entrepreneur, we need to decide where to draw our inspiration from, whether to draw it from the stuff that glitters, or the stuff that matters.


REFLECTING AND MAKING CONSCIOUS CHOICES


We need to reflect on what we learned during the whole phase of a crisis that we went through and then look at things that annoyed us.


This annoyance would lead us to an idea to solve an existing problem, and then we need to figure out ways to put this solution together piece by piece while taking into consideration the epidemiological, economical, and ethical aspects of the solution.


This is the transformational moment that any entrepreneur or innovator looks out for in their journey of finding that one idea which could change their world as well as the outside world.


 

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the Dean of Global Business at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and founding Executive Director of Fletcher’s Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is the author of The Slow Pace of Fast Change.


 

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