The man who made people see profit in poverty

ck_prahalad.zu.top.jpgBy Jennifer Reingold, senior editor


(Fortune) -- As a management writer for many years, I met more than my share of self-professed "gurus." They spanned the gamut from publicity-seeking quacks to deep-in-the-mud academics to -- occasionally -- truly brilliant and devoted thinkers who used their minds to make business, or the world, better.

Never, however, did I meet anyone who deserved the honorific more than C.K. Prahalad, who died on April 16 at the age of 68.

Prahalad was a distinguished professor of management at the University of Michigan Business School who wrote several seminal books such as "Competing For The Future", co-authored with Gary Hamel, "The Future of Competition" and "The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty through Profits," and who consulted to the likes of Unilever, AT&T (T, Fortune 500) and many other Fortune 500 companies.

He did that by offering what, in my view, was a truly unique combination of a powerful communicator and teacher, a deep, rigorous intellect, and a humble and spiritual man who was deeply committed to not only his own family but also to improving conditions in his home country, India.

In 2001, I had the privilege of getting to know C.K. not just as a source of management concepts, but also as an real-life manager when I wrote a feature for Fast Company about his decision to leave the ivory tower and try actually running a company, a tech outfit called Praja.

Wealthy and plenty famous at the time, Prahalad had no need to put his reputation at risk. But he did -- at the age of 58 -- because, as he told his partner, Ramesh Jain, "neither you nor I need a company to maintain our current lifestyle. But what is the next challenge in life?'

As it turned out, reality was a bit tougher than theory; Prahalad's ideas didn't save Praja from the dot-com implosion. So he went back to teaching and consulting, filled with lessons and more energized than ever about his true passion -- demonstrating that the ultimate business strategy was the business opportunity found amidst the poor -- or, in the term he coined, the "bottom of the pyramid."

By arguing that the poor represented a huge and viable global market, and that innovation was as likely to come from a tent city as from a billion dollar R&D lab in Cincinnati or San Jose, he changed the way we thought. Like so many of his other ideas, this concept has become so mainstream that if you just came on the scene and looked at Unilever's one-use laundry sachets or P&G's commitment to emerging markets, you'd assume that this was simply common sense.

Yet just 10 years ago, it was anything but.

When I spent time with C.K., I always brought a notebook. But after a nice glass of cabernet (he was a true oenophile), I ended up putting down the pen and just listening, trying to get my brain to move fast enough to comprehend what he was saying. For me, it always took a few go-rounds (and okay, maybe another glass) to get it.

But once I did, I realized that he was using his skill at synthesizing huge threads of information into ideas that were so big -- and so important -- as to seem, well, obvious. It was a far cry from most of the academic gobbledygook that so often passes itself off as "business strategy" in this day and age.

As I wrote back in 2001:

One of the few decorations in Prahalad's sparse office is a beautifully illustrated old map -- a gift from friend and collaborator Gary Hamel. "Can you tell me what country that is, Jennifer?" booms Prahalad, always the professor. I'm stumped, as I tend to be continuously with this man. He smiles broadly and turns the map around. Then I see that it is a map of India, tilted at a 90-degree angle. This, I realize, is Prahalad in a nutshell. Turn an idea sideways. It's the theme of his life.

A guru, technically, is a Hindu religious instructor. But it also means, according to dictionary.com, "an intellectual or spiritual guide or leader," "any person who counsels or advisers; mentor," or "a leader in a particular field."

In my personal view and that of many others, C.K. Prahalad fit every one of those definitions. May he be remembered -- and celebrated -- for it. To top of page