Humanizing Business: How Tuck’s Virtual Reality Experiment Brings Empathy to the MBA Classroom

Vijay Govindarajan’s Reverse Innovation class at Dartmouth Tuck: “Students were able to empathize with these families and learn how some live in squalid conditions on just $2 a day.” Rob Strong Photography

When the coronavirus made international travel temporarily impossible, Vijay Govindarajan had an idea.

Accustomed to taking second-year Dartmouth College Tuck School of Business MBA students to India as part of his Reverse Innovation class’ annual Global Insight Expedition (GIX), Govindarajan instead decided to bring India to the students using virtual reality technology.

The goal: to identify health and wellness issues affecting Indian families living below the poverty line and determine how businesses can offer solutions. And VR will help make that happen.

“We need to look at people who are not consuming products and services and ask what are their barriers to consumption,” says Govindarajan Poets and quants. “Then we need to think about how business can play a role in offering innovative solutions. The best and brightest leaders today are the ones who will build an inclusive, responsible and compassionate capitalist society.

“WE PUT PEOPLE OUT OF BUSINESS”

Vijay Govindarajan. Photography by Laura DeCapois

Govindarajan believes that capitalism leaves too many people behind and that most businesses want to make money at any cost. But not all profits are created equal, he says.

“We put people out of business,” he says. “Profits that enhance social value are higher forms of profit. Capitalism that works for more people is a better form of capitalism.

Govindarajan wanted his virtual reality experiment to humanize business; his intent was to help students understand the power of adopting a leadership approach that combines a social heart with a business mind. “Humanizing business means understanding that 7 billion people on planet Earth have the same needs and desires. Yet some people’s needs and wants are met while others are not.”

For Tuck ’22 student Sasha Crook, her biggest realization from the course was that business models that incorporate humanity and empathy are the most successful. “To me, humanizing business is just that – weaving empathy and understanding into everyone around you, from customers to business partners,” she says.

STUDY TRIP THROUGH TAMIL NADU

Sasha Kroc. Photography by Laura DeCapois

Govindarajan pitched the virtual GIX idea to Tuck Dean Matthew Slaughter in the summer of 2021, framing it as a low-cost innovation opportunity. Once approved, Govindarajan worked with I-India to produce 34 films – using both VR360 and regular 2D technology – that paint a picture of the lives of several Indian families over the course of six months. The course launched this spring and took students on a learning journey across rural and urban Tamil Nadu.

The class began by teaching the basics of reverse innovation. “Historically, companies innovate in rich countries like the United States and then sell those products in poorer countries like India,” says Govindarajan. “Reverse innovation is doing the exact opposite; it’s about innovating in a poor country like India and then selling those products in a rich country like the US.

The students then met with an entrepreneur who implemented a reverse innovation in India. Subsequent sessions then included live synchronous Zoom interviews between classmates and Indian families—in which students prepared by watching VR360 and regular 2D movies in their spare time. Students then created impact through a team-based Reverse Innovation Action Learning Project in which they applied their understanding of customer problems to define a business idea that they pitched to Indian venture capital investors.

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