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From Poverty to Profit: Global Initiative Transforms Lives in 35+ Cities

Portrait of Jaguar Heart

Professor of Entrepreneurship and Social Innovation, University of Notre Dame


Key Takeaways


  • It wasn’t the success stories of Uber, TikTok or SpaceX, printed on the glossy sheets of Fortune 500, that caught Morris’ attention, but stories of entrepreneurs who chose to rise from adversity instead. 

  • The biggest challenge for poor people looking to build a business lies in addressing a scarcity mindset.

  • The Urban Poverty and Business Initiative offers a step-by-step approach enabling disadvantaged entrepreneurs to ease into dealing with cash flow, bookkeeping, or building a website.  

  • Poverty is not a characteristic of a person but of their situation. Anybody can be an entrepreneur all they need is a push in the right direction.



As a young economics student, Michael Morris always wondered why entrepreneurship did not receive the academic traction land, labour, and capital, the other three foundational principles of the discipline, garnered. Many decades ago, there was not a single PhD course he could opt for dedicated to entrepreneurship. 


However, a lack of this qualification did not stop Morris from exploring its intricate depths. Eventually, he decided to teach it across universities, hoping to reinvent the domain as a vehicle for escaping poverty. A pioneer in curricular innovation and experiential learning, Professor Morris built three university entrepreneurship programs that bagged the top 10 spots in the US.  


Along the way, Morris was awarded many accolades as testaments to his dedication to the field. He went on to earn global recognition for excellence. He was named one of the top 20 entrepreneurship professors by Fortune Small Business and received the Leavey Award from the Freedoms Foundation for impacting private enterprise education. More recently, he was honoured with a mayoral proclamation on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for his work leading the South Bend Entrepreneurship and Adversity Program



Rising From Adversity


While professing about building successful businesses, it wasn’t the success stories of Uber, TikTok or SpaceX, printed on the glossy sheets of Fortune 500, that caught Morris’ attention, but stories of entrepreneurs who chose to rise from adversity instead. 


This fixation and his thoughts about 'poverty entrepreneurship' led to the birth of the Urban Poverty and Business Initiative in Notre Dame, another pearl in the oyster of his achievements. This initiative helps low-income members of urban communities develop businesses from scratch. It has touched the lives of many entrepreneurs across thirty-five cities in Latin America and Africa. “My work is tied to the belief that entrepreneurship is a form of empowerment. The magic of entrepreneurship is that It is democratic. Anybody can do it,” Morris says. 



Can Entrepreneurship End the Poverty Loop? 


The United States spends a trillion dollars annually to alleviate poverty but has been unsuccessful in wiping it out from the urban landscape. The allocation of this capital, informs Morris, is not for alleviating people out of poverty but for enabling people in poverty to survive. 


“If you look at a lot of that money, it's for food, healthcare, housing and jobs,” Michael Morris explains. Government-offered jobs aid poor people. They don’t necessarily grant upward mobility that can lift them out of poverty. What the government [US] has lagged in is transitioning people out of poverty. Morris says the explosive growth of emerging economies such as India and China is an exception in the developing world witnessing growing paucity.


So, is entrepreneurship the be-all and end-all solution to the problem? Professor Morris says it depends on contextual factors that are open to influence. The Urban Poverty and Business Initiative is that contextual factor that can make a difference, says Michael. 




Eight Years of the Urban Poverty and Business Initiative 


Poverty is not just the lack of income. It is health problems. It is food and housing insecurity. It is social exclusion.  — Michael Morris

The biggest challenge for poor people looking to build a business lies in addressing a scarcity mindset. An economically disadvantaged person is almost always battling trade-offs. Do they pay the rent for the week or foot medical expenses? How do they get through the month if they are running out of funds? For them, every decision is taken in isolation instead of the entrepreneurial mindset involving financial risks. 


The Urban Poverty and Business Initiative aims to address this challenge by breaking down the entrepreneurial journey into as many as eighty steps. “Our whole mantra is progress begets progress. If we help you take the first twenty steps. You’ll take the next twenty on your own,” says Morris. This step-by-step approach enables entrepreneurs to ease into dealing with cash flow,  bookkeeping, or building a website—all herculean tasks which can seem overwhelming for new entrepreneurs. 


Michael says the initiative’s approach contrasts with the hardline venture capital mindset involving intense pitch competitions that tend to weed out the ‘losers’ to pave the way for a few winners. “I don’t care how marginal or weak your business idea might be, we are not here to kill it but to nurture it,” he tells Horizon Search. 



Poverty Not Characteristic of a Person But of their Situation 

 

For the poor to change their situations and create their futures, society must challenge traditional solutions, suggests Morris. “We stereotype poverty and misunderstand entrepreneurship. Anybody can start a business and figure out a way to make money from it,” Professor Morris says. His advice to budding entrepreneurs? Don't be inhibited by hearsay and scary statistics revolving around entrepreneurship. Take the false notion predicting a 98 per cent rate of failure for all newly launched businesses. “There’s no shred of evidence to suggest the truth of this,” says Morris. 


For Morris, Entrepreneurship under adversity has been and always will be a mainstay. “We’ve created programmes focused on women, disabled veterans, on native Americans,” he tells Horizon Search. Michael believes that the future of his programmes lies not in aimless expansion but in providing greater agency and business acumen to local communities.













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