University course offers look at marketplace literacy

By Patrick Wade

As a senior in Business, Susan Byrd was reluctant at first to take an intimidating graduate level course that primarily explores poverty in India and products that could be introduced or improved to better the lives of people living there.

Byrd enrolled in the class “Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces” after some encouragement from one of its developers, Professor Madhubalan Viswanathan.

“Everything about the class, and Madhu (Viswanathan) in general, is about helping people, not changing or exploiting them,” Byrd said.

Viswanathan began his research studying U.S. marketplaces. For the past four years, Viswanathan has been doing research in Chennai, India, studying marketplace literacy among low-literate individuals.

“It’s more than just doing research,” Viswanathan said. “You want to try to give back in some way.”

The goal of Viswanathan’s research in India is not only to just extract data from those who he is studying, but also to “teach people how to be better buyers and better entrepreneurs and sellers.”

“The way out in those environments is very often to start a small business,” Viswanathan said.

Part of the program in India includes a day where the administrators set up shops and a marketplace and cheat the low-literate buyers.

The “shopkeepers” identify 20-30 things that the buyers fall for, anywhere from not understanding price to not planning correctly. They then go back and explain to the low-literate individuals how they fell for the traps.

Every time a study like this was done, Viswanathan would go back three to six months later and talk to those who were involved in the program.

“It was like night and day for them,” Viswanathan said, adding that they had gained confidence, become more skilled, and were more aware of their rights.

Viswanathan took his class on a 10-day field trip to India over winter break. Byrd said the trip was an eye-opener for her.

“This trip allowed us to see what we had been reading about,” Byrd said. “The extreme poverty in which these people live really was a call to action.”

Aayush Choudhary, senior in Business, was one of two undergraduates – the other being Byrd – to enroll in the Master’s level course.

“I definitely believe that working with (Viswanathan) during my time here at the University has been among the best experiences,” Choudhary said. “I have definitely realized that this is an area of business – the bottom of the pyramid – that I am extremely passionate about.”

Viswanathan said he became involved in marketplace literacy research because he wanted his life’s work to have meaning and hopes his research works to alleviate conditions of subsistence and extreme poverty.

“I think over time, I have learned so much,” Viswanathan said. “I’ve gotten tremendous intrinsic reward, particularly from the fact that what I do can actually benefit somebody.”