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Management

There is a fortune at the BoP:


Why aren’t large corporations
grabbing it?
Ezequiel Reficco, Professor of Strategy, School of Management, University of Los Andes, Colombia
Adriana Rueda, Researcher

Las primeras generaciones de escritos sobre la llamada “base The first generations of writings about the “base of the
de la pirámide” se apoyaron en la premisa de que las grandes pyramid” rested on the premise that big companies are better
empresas están mejor posicionadas para encarar ese mercado, positioned to face this market, to have the financial muscle,
al contar con el músculo financiero, los canales de distribución distribution channels and technological sophistication and ma-
y la sofisticación tecnológica y gerencial para afrontar el desafío nagement to meet the challenge of serving the poor. However,
de servir a los pobres. Sin embargo, algunas experiencias recien- some recent experiences dispute this premise. What barriers
tes ponen en duda esta premisa ¿Qué barreras obstaculizan el hinder the involvement of large corporations with the low-in-
involucramiento de las grandes corporaciones con el segmento come segment?
de bajos ingresos?

Palabras Clave: base de pirámide, modelo de negocios, ge- Keywords: base of the pyramid, business models, manage-
rencia, negocios inclusivos ment, inclusive business

2 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW

Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2185002


Management

I t is no secret that, when it comes to commercial


ventures at the base of the pyramid (BoP), our
greatest hopes and expectations have been placed
combined all the elements of a favorable “perfect
storm.” First, Mexico’s large population, nearing
112 million, features a significant share (44.2%) of
on the potential of multinational corporations to people who live below the poverty line (National
mitigate poverty. In fact, the BoP movement origi- Social Development Policy Evaluation Council,
nated as a call to use “big business to fight poverty” 2008). Such a critical mass of untapped potential
(Lodge, 2002). Early studies on the BoP relied on the demand offers a powerful incentive to engage in
premise that large companies (LCs) are better poi- R&D efforts. Second, Mexico boasts a healthy level
sed to tackle this market, as they have the financial of relative development; a member of the OECD, it
muscle, distribution channels, technological know- features a stable economic and political institutio-
how and managerial sophistication required to face nal framework and a thriving private sector. Its LCs
the challenge of serving the poor. This assumption have endogenous R&D capabilities –a trait that not
remains very much alive, as it continues to guide the many Latin American nations can boast of. It comes
efforts of multilateral agencies, NGOs and develo- as no surprise that several of the most renowned
pment organizations that work on market-oriented BoP initiatives have unfolded in Mexico. This com-
solutions to poverty. Interestingly enough, a num- bination of poverty, volume and business savviness
ber of recent experiences call that assumption into –that may also be found in countries like India or
question. In practice, LCs have been less than fully Brazil- seems to make Mexico a suitable setting to
enthusiastic when given the chance to engage the innovate on projects involving the BoP. Third, this
low-income segment commercially. initiative was supported by a sound ecosystem that
Consider a program called “Developing New included high-credibility organizations, like the
Market Opportunities for the Base of the Pyramid”, Inter American Development Bank (IADB) and
launched in 2006 by the Inter American Develop- Mexico’s WBCSD chapter (CESPEDES), as well as
ment Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund (FO-
MIN) and the Mexican Business Council’s Private
Sector Study Commission for Sustainable Develo-
pment (CESPEDES) to drive Mexico’s LCs to de-
velop inclusive business ventures. CESPEDES is an
organization created by Mexican business leaders
to identify, test and promote sustainable business
models –defined as those that combine economic
growth with social development and environmen-
tal preservation- to the country’s private sector.
This project consisted of three phases: getting
LCs interested in developing innovative business
models that engaged the BoP segment, selecting
and executing the best business ideas, and dissemi-
nating lessons learned to raise awareness and inter-
est among other companies. In a way, the initiative

volume 2 / Number 6 / september - december 2012 3


Electronic copy available at: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2185002
Management

an advisory board bursting with business experien- gradually (see Figure 1 below) until the program
ce, policy-making influence capability, and intellec- came to an end with no approved projects at all.
tual sophistication (see Table 1 below). Faced with this disappointing reality, program
organizers adjusted their offering to target SMEs
Advisory Council’s and NGOs in addition to LCs. Originally viewed
Table 1 Institutional Participants
as the program’s starring actors, LCs failed to en-
Social Development Secretariat (SEDESOL) gage in the program as expected. Even after the
Department of Economics (SE) initiative was revised, only about a third of all pro-
posals came from LCs, and only half of them were
Business Coordinating Council
actually executed.
Industry Chambers Confederation
In short, despite a “perfect storm” of favorable
Mexico’s Employer Confederation (COPARMEX) factors, even in the readjusted version of the pro-
National Chamber of Transformation Industry (CANACINTRA) gram LC engagement remained extremely low
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México (ITAM) (12.5% of all projects). Organizers found it odd that
Mexican LCs, usually keen to respond to the altruis-
Universidad Panamericana (UP)
tic call of social responsibility, had not been lured by
Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de Monterrey (ITAM)
an invitation to seize a great market opportunity.
Ashoka Important as it is, this paradox has received surpri-
World Business Council of Sustainable Development (WBCSD) singly little attention. This study draws from one of
World Research Institute (WRI) those rare research efforts (Olsen & Boxenbaum,

Number of companies
Figure 1 participating in workshops
Finally, participating companies were also lu-
red by the incentive of rather substantial finan-
cial support to accomplish program goals: US$
200,000 (non-repayable). After six months (No-
vember 2006 – April 2007) of intensive promotio- Awareness
nal work in Mexico’s largest cities (Federal Dis- General sessions:
trict, Monterrey and Guadalajara), with awareness workshops: 186
65
sessions and training workshops (both general
and focused), not a single project was launched.
Focused
As each phase unfolded, LCs engagement waned workshops:
13

Number of projects approved: 0

4 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW Figure 2 Barriers to implementation of BoP ventures a


Management

2009), adding new empirical evidence. Figure 2 be- within and across organizations) and top-down
low summarizes the nature of the barriers found. (linking organizational leadership with middle ma-
nagement).
Internal Barriers Disconnect with middle management. Coor-
BoP-oriented initiatives often share a characte- dination among company levels only becomes
ristic: due to their profound business implications, viable when the new initiative fits in with the
they generally cannot be executed by just a group organization’s values, processes and routines. The
of “committed” individuals –they usually require a experiences surveyed often revealed a disconnect
substantial Number of companies between upper organizational levels, pushing the
Figuremobilization,
1 in the
participatingform of coalitions
in workshops
for change, which largely exceeds the demands of initiative, and middle management, expected to
your average social responsibility or environmental execute it. Promotora Ambiental S.A.B. (PASA) was
sustainability projects (Olsen & Boxenbaum, 2009). one of the few LCs in the sample that managed to
This is a clearly a tall order for any organization, see their BoP initiative through. On account of its
Awareness characteristics, PASA’s initiative blended in natu-
but is particularly challengingsessions:
for large organiza-
General
tions withworkshops: 186
substantial sunk costs embedded in their rally with the company’s routines, processes and
65 organizational culture. As PASA’s Operations Ma-
status quo, which generates a built-in aversion to
change. Next, organizations’ internal barriers to nager put it, the initiative “fitted in naturally with
Focused
BOP venture implementation are discussed, sepa-
workshops: what I did. The project hinged on picking up contai-
13
rating them into those associated with processes, ners, and that’s what I do at my job. I have to drive
structures and incentives, and those of a cognitive through that area with my truck. One more con-
nature. tainer made no difference at all. So, I started going
there. Now, it’s become part of my route.”
a) Process-related barriers On the contrary, let us take a look at what hap-
To be effective, coalitions for change must un- pened when another participating multinational
Number of projects approved: 0
fold both horizontally (linking functional areas decided to reach out to the BoP segment, following

Figure 2 Barriers to implementation of BoP ventures at LCs

Process-related barriers
Internal barriers
Structure and incentives

Cognitive barriers
Barriers to implementation of BoP
ventures at large corporations

Misalignment with core


competencies
External barriers
Attractiveness of BoP
market segment

volume 2 / Number 6 / september - december 2012 5


Management

a mandate given by its controlling shareholder. why I have to give a discount to this individual,
The company’s country manager sponsored the who’s using up business resources.’The legal coun-
development of a new line of business, with an sel head told me, ‘this contract is flawed.’ And so it
ad-hoc distribution model that largely relied on a went on and on…”
cross-sector partnership with a grassroots leader. A Discontinued learning cycle. The business con-
year and a half into the project, the organization’s cept and market intelligence supporting a BoP ven-
middle management started to voice some discon- ture are often developed by ad-hoc teams, which
tent when the BoP venture failed to produce results develop empathy for their target audiences. But
that justified the resources invested in it. As viewed when that data flows to the rest of the organization,
by these managers, the company provided all kinds or there is a change in leadership, the project comes
of benefits and grants to the social leader, with no to be assessed differently. The path from research
accountability for results. Managers’ objections to pilot, and from pilot to full execution may run
were brushed aside with the explanation that these into these “discontinuity spots” several times –and
deviations were understandable on account of the it only takes one of them to kill even the most bri-
“social work” being done. lliant idea.
The fact that the company’s “social project” had At sample companies, leadership changes (and
different values and norms than other company the agenda shifts associated with those changes)
projects began to undermine middle management’s proved crucial for the fate of some initiatives. Of
support, building a gap between top management’s course, no organization is immune to the passage
perceptions and those of the people in charge of of time. Yet, LCs’ professional development scheme,
executing the initiative. As a mid-level manager where managers climb a ladder and rotate approxi-
noted, “These attitudes made middle management mately every two years, places these companies
uneasy… However, the message was loud and in a category of their own (Olsen & Boxenbaum,
clear: the project had been instituted at the top 2009). As a rule of thumb, it may be safe to say that
and would continue… There was a disconnection, medium-sized and small enterprises’ management
as the president called for support, but, inside the tends to be more stable, as managers are not sub-
company, people said, ‘no, this won’t work.’” ject to ongoing rotation. This simple fact singlehan-
As a result of this gap, the clash between BoP dedly explained the end of two initiatives. At one of
project values and routines and those of the rest of the companies, the Marketing Development Chief
the company grew stronger. Another interviewee Officer and BoP project head was promoted to ge-
elaborated, “In this situation, whenever I talked neral manager of another company in the group.
about the project, all the areas complained. The This change proved fatal for the initiative: “It be-
finance department head said, ‘I don’t understand came harder to secure internal buy-in, when the
project’s champion was no longer around,” senten-
ced an interviewee.

b) Structure and Incentives


High opportunity cost of capital. Opportuni-
ties are not assessed in a void, as they always come

6 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW


Management

about in a given context. The notion of“opportunity dollars is just the fee charged by your lawyer for
cost”points to that setting –it makes sense to choo- reviewing the agreement.”As the saying goes,“time
se the project that creates more benefits than the is money” for LCs, as every hour their executives
best foregone alternative. Clearly, not all organiza- spend on a low-margin or uncertain project is not
tions are presented with the same “opportunity set” invested in developed markets they are very fami-
(OS). The OS shapes every organization’s analysis, liar with, and know how to profitably service.
valuation and decision making frameworks. A per- This organizational context creates strong pres-
fectly profitable business proposal is not likely to sures to speed things up, and get tangible results
make any sense for a company, if it has access to quickly. At another multinational company, the Sa-
even better choices. les and Strategic Planning Department coordinator
At first glance, it may seem reasonable to expect reported that“the BoP project was submitted to the
LCs to have a broader OS than other organizatio- Sales Director, who immediately rejected it on ac-
nal formats. That will hinder the feasibility of low- count of its low replicability and time frame… The
margin or high-risk initiatives –at least, these ini- group needed tangible results in the short run.”
tiatives will find it harder to hold LC management’s
attention for long, as there will be many other c) Cognitive barriers
“distractions” at hand. This LC trait seems to have Olsen and Boxenbaum found that the outlook
significantly influenced the initiatives studied. LC of key actors within the organization may prove re-
executives are pressured to identify lines of busi- levant for BoP initiative execution. Next, some of
ness with relevant bottom-line impact; their career these cognitive variables are discussed in greater
development and financial rewards depend on ma- detail.
king the numbers. An interviewee stated that “the Paternalism. Traditionally, the poor in Latin
sales manager hated the project and kept telling America have been largely viewed as people nee-
me, ‘What do I care about the base of the pyramid? ding assistance and support from the government,
... I don’t care what the CEO says; this project is public enterprises, civil society organizations, and
in the red, and my bottom line is taking a massive corporate foundations in order to survive. In short,
hit.’” In contrast, the Operations Manager at PASA, they tended to be seen as passive objects of charity,
the company cited earlier that successfully execu- rather than active economic subjects. Such percep-
ted its BoP project, said,“It was easy to see that this tion turns out to be dysfunctional for the construc-
initiative would benefit our business. It had a direct tion of business models intended to serve them as
impact on the metrics used to assess my perfor- customers or to rely on them as producers. Inclusi-
mance at the end of the year.” ve business development requires “a changed view
High opportunity cost of management time. of poverty in Latin America, where an assistance-
Opportunity costs are not restricted to financial re-
sources; managers’ time is also subject to them. As
a sample multinational’s Marketing Development
Head noted, “time is the most costly resource in
this corporation, where you put in long hours, your
reputation is at stake, and two hundred thousand

volume 2 / Number 6 / september - december 2012 7


Management

view, spotting a zero-sum relation between both. In


this light, imbuing a social dimension on compa-
nies’ strategy proves artificial and forced –the right
means to handle social concerns revolves around
philanthropy. As an interviewee put it,“our founda-
tion is already supporting these communities. Why
based approach has typically prevailed, viewing the should we engage in that? There must be another
poor as charity cases and recipients of the genero- way to transfer knowledge.”
sity of others” (Márquez, Reficco, & Berger, 2009, This dissociated approach to social and econo-
p. 29). mic value may lead to a false choice between one
This view has not been lacking in the experien- path or the other. An interviewee argued, “The
ces analyzed here. Pondering his company’s attitu- worst that can happen is for the BoP notion to be
de, an interviewee mused,“in their desire to do so- associated with philanthropy and social responsi-
cial work, companies nearly give out alms to indivi- bility. It should be a much more detached concept.
duals involved.”This problem does not only besiege Ideally, companies should view it shamelessly as an
the private sector; it resonates in communities as opportunity to make money with the poor.”
well, symbiotically feeding each other. According Risk aversion. Earlier research on disruptive
to Carlos Ludlow, USEM’s Corporate Social Res- innovation has established that organizations ha-
ponsibility Vice President, the population targe- ving significant investments embedded in their
ted by inclusive business ventures “is very used to status quo tend to be somewhat resistant to chan-
grant- and gift-based philanthropy. Engaging these ge and risk taking. The analysis of the data gathe-
groups in a company’s value chain calls for a pre- red through these interviews points in that direc-
paration process that may prove highly complex.” tion. For instance, according to a multinational
Fundar, an NGO that participated in this pro- corporation’s Marketing Development Head, “this
gram, reports being hurdled by an ecosystem built company has no appetite for risk. If the president
on “assistentialism” in their inclusive businesses: “a has to choose between earning an additional 10%
substantial number of outside (public and private) or doubling our business with a 50% failure risk,
agents whose intervention offerings are intended he will consistently lean towards the first choice.
to reproduce clientelistic relations, fostering the Companies like this one fear change and disrup-
charity culture.”The same issue has been found in tive innovation.” The Sales and Strategic Planning
inclusive business ventures in other Latin Ameri- Department’s project leader reported that her com-
can countries (Reficco & Márquez, forthcoming). pany retraced its steps on its BoP project because
Zero-sum relation between the social and the the segment was riddled with uncertainty –“they
economic dimensions of value. The concept of in- couldn’t risk venturing into an area with no infor-
clusive business assumes that some market-based mation available.”
initiatives can yield synergies and complementari-
ties between the financial value created for com- External Barriers
panies and the social value built for communities. In addition to internal execution barriers stem-
Some interviews revealed signs of the opposing ming from LCs’ specific nature, our sample revealed

8 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW


Management

other hurdles derived from large companies’ fit with


the BoP market. Like any other strategic decision,
developing a BoP business venture belongs in the
realm of choice –ultimately, the essence of strate-
gy lies in choosing what to do and what to give up
(Porter, 1996). The decision to commercially serve
tion”for products and processes in order to succeed
the BoP may be better understood as positioning
in this segment (Prahalad & Hart, 2002). However,
choice rather than a moral imperative. As suggested
the cases studied for this report indicate that the
by the provocative title of a recent article -“Is the
greater the leap from the established main line of
BOP Really for You?”(Karamchandani, Kubzansky,
business to the BoP initiative, the higher the risks.
& Lalwani, 2011), the BoP market is not for ever-
Indeed, stronger successes seem to have hinged on
yone. This choice will only make sense when the
incremental innovation, supported by existing mo-
market proves attractive enough and the company’s
dels and assets.
organizational core competences are aligned with
Let us consider the case of a sample multina-
setting opportunities.
tional. Its BoP project took the company beyond its
expertise and away from its business focus as large-
a) Misalignment of opportunities and core
volume commodity trader, which uses its market
competences
leverage to capture economies of scale and to se-
The first lesson to be drawn from the experien-
cure favorable exchange terms with suppliers and
ces analyzed underscores how important it is for
buyers. The success of this BoP initiative hinged on
the value chain of the organization’s main line of
the business success of multiple micro-entrepre-
business to be aligned with the one that is meant to
neurs –a very complex feat, as every development
create value for the BoP. This sample suggests that,
organizations knows only too well. Nothing in this
ceteris paribus, the greater the alignment, the hig-
multinational’s business model prepared it to tra-
her the chances for success.
in micro-entrepreneurs better than anyone else –
As these large companies are very successful in
in other words, the company had no competitive
their core businesses, you could take for granted
advantage whatsoever in this new line of business.
their inner (resource alignment) and outer (market
The attributes that had made it successful in its core
alignment) consistency as they choose to venture
business (cost control, market leverage) could not
into the BoP. It would be a mistake. Oddly enough,
be transferred to its BoP venture to ensure its suc-
many of these programs seem to have been driven
cess. It should come as no surprise that the initiati-
more by good intensions than from business-savvy
ve failed to take off.
opportunity exploration. For example, a multinatio-
nal decided at the last minute to drop out of the
b) Intrinsic BoP market appeal
program when its headquarters came to see that
The second component in the relationship bet-
“the idea [proposed by their Mexican business unit]
ween an organization and a market is the latter’s
did not fit in with the company’s business strategy
intrinsic attractiveness –that is, how strong the
and would not support it” –as an interviewee put it.
pull of the “carrot” is to push the changes and in-
The BoP literature prescribes “radical innova-

volume 2 / Number 6 / september - december 2012 9


Management

dows’ rather than striving to develop and grow them


into a larger scale” (Brunicelli, González, & Gómez
Samper, 2009, p. 52). In other words, as long as LCs
are mostly attracted to the BoP to enhance their re-
putation or boost their public relations, they will be
more inclined to ‘show’ that they care about it than to
vestments needed inside the organization. The in- actually take some risks. Inclusive business ventures
formation gathered in this research indicates that, may end up being perceived as a defensive tool, a
rhetoric aside, this segment’s appeal is less than means to safeguard a vulnerable reputational spot,
irresistible for most LCs, undermining their enthu- rather than a true opportunity to seize.
siasm to invest in the BoP. Let us take a look at Reluctance to pledge resources to develop
what these findings reveal. BoP projects. In an interview, a multinational
Remissness in performance and financial re- company characterized the “lack of resources for
sult measurements. The program’s intermediate this kind of projects” as a hurdle to move forward
progress report highlights that, “While some claim in project execution, as the company did not have
to have developed performance metrics for their “BoP-specialized personnel.” Based on this alleged
projects, none of these indicators seem to have limitation, the company reported that it expec-
been designed as monitoring mechanisms with ted the IADB’s FOMIN to cover the cost of hiring
structured methodologies that would help detect a professional with BoP acumen. It may be fair to
failures and best practices to replicate, or anticipate ask whether this lack of resources also hinders this
problems to make timely corrections.” company’s ability to pursue its business strategies
Earlier publications on inclusive business ven- in the more affluent, top-of-the-pyramid markets.
tures in Latin America had warned about this ten- It seems rather unlikely that a multinational cor-
dency. When asked specifically about the returns poration, with multimillion revenues at both global
on investment of an inclusive business, the re- level and in Mexico, would face such a limitation.
presentative of a top Latin American organization Thus, it can be presumed that, had it really viewed
replied, “some figures are best left unknown.” A the BoP as an actual opportunity, it would have
recent research study describes a similar scenario: been willing to invest some venture capital in R&D
“We find that most companies do not have a sys- to tap into that market.
tematic accounting system in place for investments An interview conducted at another LC that
associated with low-income sectors” (Bruni Celli & dropped out of the program unearthed a claim that,
González, 2010, p. 231). as a result of restrictions imposed by the funder,
Why does this happen? No one likes to lose “many project execution-related costs could not be
money –much less multinational corporations. A covered with the resources provided.” Without dis-
possible explanation is that “we find (…) that these regarding multilateral agencies’ often rigid proces-
pilot projects often bring companies sizable intan- ses, these statements suggest that her company’s
gible benefits by way of reputation, legitimacy, or continued participation in the program hinged
social license, and, as a result, these companies tend more on the push-side of the grant, rather than on
to resign themselves to keeping them as ‘store win- the pull off a substantial market opportunity.

10 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW


Management

Actors’ opinions. Finally, when actors were as- deniable, some signs detected in this research su-
ked about their functional units’ perception on the ggest that this characterization of BoP businesses
attractiveness of BoP markets for their businesses, as “different” may have gone too far. Creating ad-
their average reply was a lukewarm 3.33 –halfway hoc terms, values, processes or routines for these
through from 1 (not attractive at all) to 5 (highly at- ventures may build a gap between the “BoP team”
tractive). Similarly, when questioned about the BoP and the rest of the organization. Separating the
segment’s potential as compared to their core bu- inclusive business from the assets and capabilities
siness potential, interviewees also replied with an that make an organization successful in its core bu-
average 3.33 (with a similar scale going from1 –not siness will turn the inclusive business venture into
attractive- to 5 –extremely attractive). The limited a cost unit used to enhance the organizations’ repu-
size of this survey calls for some caution in result tation but yielding no attractive returns.
interpretation, but it is still a noteworthy fact. Instead, other barriers uncovered stem from
Disruptive, start-up businesses are, by defini- LCs’ very structure and are unlikely to disappear –it
tion, small. As Christensen notes, “opportunities may be best to just acknowledge and adjust to
must be proportional to organization size” (Chris- them. As this type of organizations does not seem
tensen, 1997, p. 139). A US$-50,000 opportunity to accommodate disruptive, unproven models, it
that may be viewed as exciting by the management may prove wiser to bet on incremental changes
team at a mid-sized company or a nonprofit, will supported by existing knowledge and physical as-
hardly spark any interest at a large multinational, sets. Our analysis suggests that LCs will find it
whose values and processes are built for mature, more feasible to incorporate low-income groups in
sizable markets. established markets, where companies can quickly
turn them into suppliers to glean production profits
In closing that bear an impact on relevant metrics. As Chris-
The preceding pages have outlined an in-depth tensen argues, large companies are only motivated
analysis of the barriers that were found to hinder by large projects that are relevant for their existing
BoP project execution at a sample of LCs. Some of customers. It makes more sense to leave the deve-
these barriers were the result of a combination of lopment of new customers in emerging markets,
contingent factors, that is, a random combination of with disruptive technologies, processes and struc-
personalities, time and place. As such, they may not tures, to other organizations that are more flexible
take place ever again. Implementation processes and risk-acceptant.
may change, terminology can be adjusted, and our
outlook can evolve. Thus, the analyzed experience
offers a learning opportunity that could be levera-
ged for future, similar programs.
These lessons revolve around a central finding:
the literature on BoP and inclusive business ventu-
res has repeatedly pointed to BoP’s specificity and
the need to radically adjust processes and products
to cater to this segment. While this specificity is un-

volume 2 / Number 6 / september - december 2012 11


Management

Prahalad, C. K., & Hart, S. (2002). The Fortune at the Bottom of


Ezequiel Reficco the Pyramid. Strategy + Business, 1(26).
Professor of Strategy, School of Management, Uni-
versity of Los Andes, Colombia Reficco, E., & Márquez, P. (forthcoming). Inclusive networks for
e.reficco@uniandes.edu.co building BOP markets. Business & Society.

Adriana Rueda
Researcher
adri.rueda@gmail.com

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12 INCAE BUSINESS REVIEW