Skip to main content

During our second week of the Duke Engage Ahmedabad Program, our team had the opportunity to hear a talk from professor, entrepreneur and consultant Ram Kumar, PhD. Dr. Ram Kumar is a renown social entrepreneur who has done impactful work in India, especially with marginalized communities. In his presentation, Dr. Ram Kumar touched on a very interesting topic that I have decided to unwrap further: what is the difference between consulting for marginalized entrepreneurs vs. consulting for large corporations?

As an aspiring management consultant who was born in a developing country, I am very passionate about problem-solving and utilizing business strategies for social good. I believe consulting practices can be used as a catalyst to meet some of the world’s greatest social challenges. In preparation for a career in this industry, I have participated in an array of social impact consulting opportunities such as case competitions and studies; however, I never really sat down to digest the implications and delicacy of this type of work. Although my intentions have always been genuine and my ultimate objective is to make a positive impact, there are many aspects of social impact consulting in particular that have remained unobserved by myself, and I believe by most consultants in general.  I would like to dive deeper into two particularly important two questions which I believe make up the framework on how to correctly approach these types of cases: how we must approach social impact consulting and what important characteristics a social impact consultant must possess.

Consultants are hired to solve business problems including, but not limited to, how to increase sales, how to enter a new market, and how to diversify their product mix. It usually all comes down to profitability, because that is what large corporations are focused on– making money. Although consultants normally hold a holistic view on the issue being resolved, their tendency to prioritize money-making can dangerously transfer into social cases. An example Dr. Ram Kumar presented helped paint a clear picture that I believe captures the essence of this problem: Say your client is Walmart Inc. and they are looking to maximize profits in their personal care products branch. Consultants will immediately see this as a cost-revenue problem in which they must isolate the root cause of unprofitability and upon discovering it, create a plan of action to meet the desired objective. In the corporate world, there is no problem with this approach; however, things change when you are dealing with small businesses. Imagine now you have a client who is a marginalized entrepreneur selling personal care products on the streets of India. He sells his products at a price markdown of more than 500% compared to Walmart. Despite his deep discount, he is still not selling enough products to break-even. On the surface, this might seem like another cost-revenue problem, but it is so much more than that. Social impact consultants must strive to understand the deeper needs of their client, which aren’t necessarily profits. Understanding the culture, the community, the environment, and the circumstances will give the consultant a better idea of the type of solution that is required. Who is this entrepreneur and why did he start this particular business? Where does he source the products from? What does his typical customer relationship look like? Getting to know the person’s story and vision can help a consultant obtain a better idea of the case. Furthermore, marginalized entrepreneurs can’t afford thousand-dollar marketing campaigns or expensive time-consuming capital investments. They need feasible, low-cost and sustainable strategies. Therefore, consultants must adopt a new mindset that caters to the needs of the individual and takes all social factors into account. A solution to a social problem involves a lot of intentional research and thought.

Not everyone holds the necessary soft skills to become a good social impact consultant. First of all, according to Mr. Ram Kumar, it takes great courage. You are no longer working with financial statements and business plans, but with real people. A social impact consultant has the ability to change the life of his or her clients. In other words, they will be able to see large and tangible results, whether good or bad. Additionally, a good social impact consultant must be able to think out of the box and let go of prejudices. Just because these businesses look different than what we have been taught does not mean they have less potential or value. Finding meaning and purpose in these new environments takes strong self-awareness and creativity. Finally, Dr. Ram Kumar touched on the emotionality that comes from working on social impact cases. Because of the consultant’s constant interaction with the business and its employees, one can easily become attached to the mission and let emotions take the lead. Social impact consulting therefore can be more emotionally draining than regular corporate consulting, and one must be prepared to take on the emotional toll and responsibility that might arise from strategy failure.

Social impact consulting is an honorable but difficult act. As Dr. Ram Kumar said, we aren’t just changing businesses, we are changing people’s lives. I am looking forward to learning from my Duke Engage experience this summer and applying this new knowledge about social impact consulting to my future endeavors.