Does business play a role in addressing poverty and empowering communities?
"Yes," said a diverse panel of University of Virginia faculty members and local business owners who participated in the discussion "Free Enterprise: From Montgomery to Main Street." The event took place at the U.Va. Darden School of Business and was a part of U.Va.'s 2013 Community Martin Luther King Celebration, which continues through 1 March.
"One of the most quoted lines that King has is that there's this check that's been written, and it's come back marked insufficient funds," said Greg Fairchild, E. Thayer Bigelow Associate Professor of Business Administration at Darden, who quoted lines from King's famous I Have a Dream speech. "And that check was the promise of a country where all men were created equal and had access to equal opportunity," he continued.
The panel included Uday Gupta (MBA '04), president and CEO of Global Cell Solutions Inc.; Toan Nguyen (MBA '94), co-founder of C-ville Coffee and the Community Investment Collaborative; and Associate Professor Claudrena Harold, faculty member in the U.Va. Corcoran Department of History. Fairchild, who launched a program to teach entrepreneurship to prison inmates awaiting parole, moderated the discussion.
He asked the participants to recall when they first learned about King, the impact King had on their thinking and how King's relevancy has changed over the years.
A member of Generation X, Harold recalled coming of age during the Malcolm X renaissance of the 90s. When she entered graduate school, Harold became reacquainted with King and his ideals.
"By that time, I was getting more into labor issues and class issues. King's deep concern about the violence of material deprivation really hit me hard," Harold said.
It was then that Harold "fell in love with King" and grew to admire what she called his ideological flexibility, his concern for the poor and his support for the economic systems that would bring poor people the most advantages.
Fairchild also asked the panelists to consider certain groups' lack of capital assets and social or cultural capital, which are often needed to successfully launch and operate businesses.
"Asset poverty is the condition in which you do not have three months of savings or assets that could continue to support you in your current lifestyle. Thirty to 40 percent of the population could not survive on the ending of their income and three months of savings," said Fairchild, pointing out that those numbers rise to 50 and 60 percent for those in the African-American and Latino communities.
Nguyen, whose micro-lending organization helps budding entrepreneurs, sees these barriers firsthand.
"The main reason I spearhead micro-lending is equity," said Nguyen. "In Charlottesville, if you don't have a college degree, you're not going to move up. You're going to be stuck. So how do you get out of that ceiling? You start your own business. Unfortunately, if you don't have a house or asset to collateralize, you're not going to get a loan," he continued.
When it comes to social and cultural capital, Nguyen and Harold also discussed the need for access to strong networks of powerful people.
Gupta, a former student of Fairchild's who operates several companies, including one he founded in Danville, Virginia, discussed the duty he feels as a business owner to lift all of those in the communities in which he conducts business.
"I got this grant to revitalize Danville. They had the Dan River plant that laid off 10,000 people, some other big companies left. A lot of farmers lost their land," he said. "There are these groups and they are struggling, and there's a responsibility for me to bring everyone up, not just myself. Danville opened my eyes to being more a part of that community."
More than 40 years after his death, it is clear that King's concern for economic equality lives on through conversations and actions.
Earlier this year, a special First Coffee was held at Darden to commemorate King. Dean Bob Bruner made remarks and King's I Have a Dream speech was shown in PepsiCo Forum. The Darden community was also invited to share its thoughts on business' role in helping the economically disadvantaged by writing on free speech boards located outside of PepsiCo. In addition, a brown bag lunch was held and a small group used King's "Poor People's Campaign" as a springboard to discuss how businesses and business education can play roles in lifting the disadvantaged in meaningful ways.
These activities were planned and hosted by the Darden Office of Diversity and Inclusion, the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics and the MLK Planning Committee. Videos of recent presentations are featured on U.Va.'s YouTube MLK playlist.
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About the Darden School of Business
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About the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics
An international leader in the field of business ethics, the Darden Research Center of Excellence, the Olsson Center for Applied Ethics serves as a critical resource for executives, scholars, students and Darden alumni who are faced with the challenges of integrating ethical thinking into business decision-making.
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