Bridging the Inclusive Business Talent Gap
How entrepreneurs, funders, educators and academics are investing in developing IB talent

Enterprises need tools and frameworks to support talent development in base of the pyramid markets

Enterprises need tools and frameworks to support talent development in base of the pyramid markets
Interview with Ted London (Ross School of Business, University of Michigan) by Carolina Zishiri

Ted London is a faculty member at the Ross School of Business, and a Senior Research Fellow at the William Davidson Institute, where his recent work is centred on scaling impact. Over the past decade there has been increasing interest in building enterprises that serve low-income (BoP) markets. The current challenge is that too much of these efforts remained as pilots, with very few enterprises achieving scale in a sustainable and significant way. Ted, a recipient of the 2016 Aspen Institute‘s Faculty Pioneer Award, focuses his work developing actionable strategies, tools, and frameworks that can facilitate an enterprise journey to scale in BoP markets. His most recent book is The Base of the Pyramid Promise: Building Businesses with Impact and Scale.

Ted, thank you for participating in this interview. So many pilots fail without achieving scale. Do you see that there is a certain skill set missing that leads to a number of failing enterprises?

There is a skill set, but also a mindset. Too many pilots are designed in a way that requires significant and intensive investments in specific strategies, such as behaviour change, building distribution networks, and working closely with local producers. While this may allow the pilot itself to work, that level of intensity is not scalable in an economically feasible way. So, I often ask entrepreneurs that are piloting, when you're done with your pilot, what do you hope to have learned? And that's the big question. I hope they can answer with something along the lines of what we are focused on is understanding how to build a business model that can go to scale.  

Talk to me about what is needed to scale impact.

Scaling impact requires, among other things, building the right team. And that has been a challenge for many enterprises, in that they don't always think about the team they need to scale with—and the subset of skills they need. For example, I think it is important that there is someone who has a title, either full or part-time, that is something like a Chief Ecosystem Director. This person deeply understands the development community, the non-profit community, potential funders and partners on the ground, and can speak the language of development and connect it to the language of business.

It is a difficult and time-consuming process to build those relationships, but they are critical if you want to go to scale.

Considering the special nature of the BoP markets, is there a blend of skills that is needed to succeed? And if so, what does this blend look like?

Most enterprise leaders talk about, but often perhaps don't execute as well as they might aspire to, this notion of co-creating with the BoP. Many enterprises don’t necessarily have either the talent or the skill sets to do that well. This isn't something that would come naturally to entrepreneurs who have been trained and have worked primarily in higher-income markets.

Who from the BoP is on the leadership team, either formally as an employee, or informally as a respected advisor? Who is helping to guide that co-creation process in a meaningful way?

And sometimes the missing piece is the mindset of the enterprise itself. Does the leadership team have enough humility to ask the right questions and recognise how much they don’t know? Without that mindset, together with the right kind of talent, co-creation becomes words, but not effective, actionable efforts.

During your career, has there been a change or a general trend evolving in the types of talent initiatives that exist?

As I look back, things have changed dramatically. Thirty years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malawi, advising a small business development programme in the major commercial centre of Blantyre. Our focus was on providing training and advice for local Malawian entrepreneurs as they built their micro, small, and even medium-scale businesses. The entrepreneurs understood the context, and most of our focus was on more technical skills, such as marketing or cash flows or operations, which could be very impactful in growing a more sustainable enterprise in these communities.

That had been the focus of market-based development for many years: working with local entrepreneurs. The enterprises, however, generally remained quite small.  A big change that came with the advent of “base of the pyramid” and “value chain” and other initiatives is an interest in also supporting entrepreneurs and companies that did not originate from the BoP. That has led to a lot of interest from, if you will, non-locals in serving these local markets. What hasn't happened concurrently, is a robust training programme. Or a robust methodology for those entrepreneurs to think about how to execute effectively in what is an unfamiliar market context for them.

What are the best practices you would advise companies to consider when it comes to talent development at the BoP?

At a company level, I think the first best practice is humility and a recognition that you know a lot of things, as an entrepreneur or a company leader, but there are also some important gaps in your knowledge. Understanding those gaps and the biases you may bring to the enterprise and the market are critical. How do I learn about best practices? How do I learn about the types of talent I need moving forward? I shouldn't just be assuming that nothing has been learned about BoP and inclusive business. It really starts with humility.

What are the specific challenges and opportunities when it comes to recruiting and developing talent at the BoP?

I think business schools at universities are an under-tapped resource. A growing number are offering classes or developing programmes that share some of the latest thinking about developing these kinds of enterprises. More outreach to these business schools would allow the enterprise to identify some of the younger generation that has initial skills, enthusiasm, and interest in this space. I think that not recruiting from universities where people are beginning to get a skill set that's useful and valuable in that context is often a miss opportunity for BoP and inclusive businesses.

What are your experiences with these BoP and inclusive enterprises and ventures in terms of talent recruitment and development?

This doesn't necessarily apply only to low-income markets, but enterprises tend to set aside their failures and only access and share their successes. But the failures, the activities that didn't turn out quite as planned, are filled with knowledge. And for an emerging domain, like inclusive and BoP business, focusing on what has been learned from the activities that are less successful, is an imperative that more enterprises need to adopt.

Is there anything else that you would still like to add?

I remain very optimistic about the impact that BoP and inclusive business can have, in terms of achieving the SDGs and alleviating poverty, while also being profitable and generating the returns that stakeholders desire. Like any other new area, there's going to be some ups and downs and some bumps. But BoP and inclusive business are part of the future of global commerce and our planet. The question is no longer “are we going to build businesses that serve the BoP?” The real question now is “how can build better businesses that serve the BoP?”

Ted London

Ted London is a faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a senior research fellow at the William Davidson Institute. His work focuses on the intersection of business strategy and poverty alleviation. In 2016, he received the Aspen Institute’s Faculty Pioneer Award, which recognized his long-standing contributions to and impact on the development of inclusive business and how it is taught in the classroom. His recent award-winning book, The Base of the Pyramid Promise: Building Businesses with Impact and Scale, translates over 25 years of research and field-based experience into actionable strategies, frameworks, and tools for developing sustainable, scalable enterprises in low-income markets.


A systematic approach is needed to overcome the talent gap

Essilor has been in the vision care industry since the industry’s inception. As the company focuses its attention on inclusive business models to serve the underserved, Hans shares his team’s lessons learned for recruitment and talent development at the…
Inclusive Business Action Network
Inclusive Business Action Network
Table of contents

graphic summary


A visual summary of the key challenges entrepreneurs need to consider when it comes to bridging the talent gap in inclusive business. Learn more about these aspects by reading this fifth edition of the newly developed online magazine on…



Chair of the CLUED-iN Editorial Committee, Caroline Ashley, sets the stage for this issue of the online magazine by offering her perspective on the type of talent that must be developed to grow and scale the inclusive business sector.

Caroline Ashley

featured story

In the wake of system-wide underinvestment in the talent gap, IB funders and practitioners are nonetheless innovating solutions

As Caroline Ashley explains in her Editorial, we do not yet understand the size and scope of the talent gap facing the inclusive business (IB) world. We do know that to stem the tide of global climate change, environmental degradation, and mass inequality, the IB sector needs to both grow and scale. With entrepreneurs and funders citing talent challenges—in terms of recruitment, training, and development—at every level of organizational growth, we ought to be investing in solving this problem.

Dana Gulley

Entrepreneurs and funders must address talent challenges to successfully scale

The CASE at Duke’s Erin Worsham and Mercy Corps Venture’s Amanda West preview talent insights from world’s leading social enterprises ahead of the Scaling Pathways report, which will be released in May 2019.

Talent challenges can inhibit growth, but solutions are possible

Talented managers are critical for small and growing businesses (SGBs), which are key actors in driving inclusive growth. However, finding and developing these managers can be especially difficult in emerging markets. Learn how the Argidius-ANDE Talent Challenge has led to real solutions.

Freely accessible online courses can help changemakers fill their skill gaps

+Acumen is keenly aware of the hard and soft skills that changemakers need to build and scale successful social enterprises. Through online courses focused on human-centred business, systems thinking, and unit economics, for example, thousands of entrepreneurs worldwide are filling their skill gaps.

Entrepreneurship training is broken. Now what?

Classroom-based training has proven limited in its impact on entrepreneurs, leading African Management Initiative to partner with researchers at MIT to develop a practice-based approach that is showing early signs of being effective in helping businesses to not only survive but thrive.

Enterprises need tools and frameworks to support talent development in base of the pyramid markets

Ted London recognises the need to focus on talent development to scale inclusive business models in base of the pyramid (BoP) markets. According to Ted, enterprises should focus on developing talent with humility, the skills needed for co-creation with the BoP and the capacity to productively engage with the development community.

A systematic approach is needed to overcome the talent gap

Essilor has been in the vision care industry since the industry’s inception. As the company focuses its attention on inclusive business models to serve the underserved, Hans shares his team’s lessons learned for recruitment and talent development at the base of the pyramid.

Diverse boardrooms mean diverse executive teams: Matching female talent with boards in Africa to address the gap

Marcia Ashong and her team have set out to overcome the systemic challenge of leadership ladders that look like pyramids for women across Africa—while women are represented well at the bottom, there are too few in leadership positions at the top.

LGT Venture Philanthropy tackled its portfolio’s talent gap with impact fellowhip programme

After identifying that their high-impact portfolio companies were all struggling to find the right talent, LGT Venture Philanthropy developed a fellowship programme to help bridge the gap. Moser suggests that entrepreneurs who are struggling with this same challenge should find investors and partners who can provide support.

Innovating for global responsibility

Sommer and Hart are focussed on transforming management education to develop the next generation of globally responsible leaders—which requires first asking fundamentally different questions and second taking courageous, bold action.

In Your Words

Entrepreneurs working in African countries offer a snapshot into what drives them to use business to solve problems in local communities.