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Society & Organizations Institute

Inclusive Economists Hammer Out Proposals with Practitioners

“How experimental research could help real world organizations address concrete social challenges”. This was the ambitious objective set by HEC’s first-ever Inclusive Economy (IE) Day, attended by academics from the world over. The April 13 event explored the challenges for researchers and practitioners alike and proposed possible solutions in brainstorming sessions attended by partners like the Red Cross, Schneider Electric, Archipel & Co., Action Tank, Crédit Coopératif and HEC Stand Up.


“The growth of the past decades has not been inclusive.” With these words, HEC Dean Eloïc Peyrache opened the daylong conference on inclusive economy at a time where non-inclusive growth has led to the rise in global extreme poverty, unsustainable development and the appearance of mass movements of protest. “At HEC Paris, we believe that the business world has a critical role to play in building a more equitable society,” Peyrache continued, insisting that HEC is working hard to instill in its students a sense of responsibility: “We must operate quickly for a just transition. Our raison d’être is: ‘We impact business and society through research, education and action, to contribute to a more inclusive, prosperous and sustainable world.”

Organized by HEC’s Society & Organizations Institute (S&O), the IE conference tackled a diversity of societal issues in the morning before breaking out into small groups to brainstorm on “action-research” and practical solutions for societal challenges. Over a hundred students, academics and HEC staff members attended the event which included four research sessions and two action-research discussions. “This was a brilliant space to talk about my research,” said S.M. Musa, PhD candidate in the Department of Strategic Management and Entrepreneurship at Rotterdam School of Management. He was one of 22 speakers hailing from both the academic and professional worlds. “People here are very receptive to the kind of work I do on Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” Musa continued. “Usually, business schools and conferences are not interested in this field, it doesn’t bring any profit to organizations, but this event is a platform where participants are talking about inclusion. And, today, I felt the participants were very good listeners.” 

For the postdoctoral research scholar from Columbia Business School, Sandra Portocarrero, it has been a long personal road, from undocumented Peruvian in the US to the guest speaker at HEC: “This faculty is fantastic, I love that so many people care. During this conference, I had a lot of practitioners reach out to me after my talk to share what they do. People who have been in the industry for decades caring about these types of social issues, social impact. Then there are the academics that are doing their little bit to help bring about a better society and a more inclusive economy.” For years, Portocarrero has been exploring the experiences of some of the 830,000 undocumented entrepreneurs in the United States. “As a qualitative researcher, we implement experimentalist field approaches. It’s important to study the migrants’ activity and how this entrepreneurial engagement navigates the obstacles society puts in front of them. There’s so much we can learn from these entrepreneurs but, because of the political rhetoric around undocumented people, this is a neglected field. So I’m really grateful that HEC Paris organized this.”

Psychological Boosts in Teams

In a very different field, Professor of Economics at INSEAD Maria Guadalupe shared her years of research into psychological safety in companies. Her work with 1,000 teams in the Novartis multinational pharmaceutical company (a total of 7,000 people) has revealed that interpersonal relationships increased psychological safety by 4%. “Psychological safety is really about employee inclusivity and taking personal risks,” Guadelupe explained during a short conference break. “It’s not only good for the wellbeing of team members, it also allows people to express their ideas, to contradict each other without fear. As a result, more innovation and performance can come out of it.”

Such research dovetails elegantly with the one conducted by another conference speaker, Rem Koning. He’s Assistant Professor in the Harvard Business School’s Strategy Unit. His talk, intriguingly entitled “When Do Ideas Attract Talent?”, explored American startups and the notion that ideas which target African Americans, women and elderly workers may struggle to attract the talent needed for venture success. “If you look at our startup workforce it’s basically 80% male in the United States,” explains the young academic who specializes on how to broaden the benefits of startup growth and innovation. “And those men might not want to work on ideas targeting women maybe because they’re biased and discriminatory, or they just feel uncomfortable with these difficult conversations. So, in not thinking that those ideas are worth working on, we don’t get any kind of Uber for women’s health, for example.” In his hands-on attempt to influence change, Koning has been working on building a hiring platform “that lets us understand what it is about an idea that attracts different sorts of talent and therefore understand if certain ideas are having an easier time attracting talent, or there’s a need to scale.” 

Koning acknowledged that the conference had brought him some “amazing feedback”: “One participant told me our work completely resonates with her experience here in France where these challenges are equally, if not stronger, than the US. So, I don’t think our conclusions on the 40,000 American startups and US jobseekers we studied differ much from the rest of the world. I’m also taking home delighted with the parallels I found in the research presented here by Nathan Wilmers (of MIT Sloan, ed.). His paper on declining inequality as a consequence of work reorganization, in the context of resurgent worker power, gave us fascinating data. We see slow but steady progress in the representation of women in the workforce. So, I don’t want the negative to outweigh the positive in this debate.”

Rem Koning

The Potential of Undocumented Entrepreneurs

The conference exchanges also inspired new reflections on practical implications for Sandra Portocarrero. Her talk on undocumented entrepreneurs was preceded by a moving animated film “How Will You Use Your Voice”, which draws on her own experiences when arriving as a migrant from Peru. On top of her work for Columbia Business School, Portocarrero’s voice is now being used as a Public Policy Research Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government: “After conversations with practitioners here, I’m thinking about the implications for my research on government and policy , something I hadn’t explore much before. I’d like to see what my research can do to inform policy, to make the humanitarian case for undocumented entrepreneurs. But also the business case because, from any angle, it makes sense to legalize or give these immigrants a different status.”

In the course of his four years studying the Rohyinga refugees in Kutupalong, the world’s biggest refugee camp, SM Musa was also caught up with a desire to mix his PhD research with engagement: “I built a very strong relationship with over 10 informants in the 14 months I stayed in the camp,” he said after the conference’s closing session. “Without their help I couldn’t do this research. In terms of psychology, it’s a big challenge and constraint. When I was exposed to the abominable conditions the refugees live in... when you see it, it cannot be unseen, right? Yet, these migrants have created a strong business community that’s weaved itself into their traditional social structure, and juxtaposed it to the so-called elite NGOs working there.” The researcher at Rotterdam School of Management continued: “These tiny entrepreneurial initiatives have had a strong social impact that changes the inclusion-exclusion patterns that existed in the Burma they fled... And staying there made me realize how privileged we are. There are a million people in a super congested camp, where most of the time it’s around 40° Celsius. Coming from The Netherlands I fell ill several times. I was very vulnerable. But they never stop, right? They bounce back in a place they are not allowed to even dream. The connection, the relationship I have with these people, well, I think that was the energy behind me keeping on going. I’m planning to return in a few months.”


Action Tank director Jacques Berger


Changing the Mindsets of Practitioners, Academics and Students

SM Musa’s paper was just one among 11 powerful contributions, many personal, from academics arriving from both sides of the Atlantic. Each session was complemented by a practitioner’s perspective aimed at linking theory and practice. Jacques Berger, Nathalie Riond, Maureen Sigliano and Gilles Vermot Desroches provided their seasoned professional expertise to the debate. The students and professors heard INSEAD Professor Kim Hyunjin’s study on the impact of communicating multiple goals as seen in an energy corporation. HEC Associate Professor Denisa Mindruta shared her work on the entrepreneurial opportunities for the unemployed who became business owners. Her colleague Leandro Nardi described the platform complementors from disadvantaged communities in times of crisis. In the same research session, Sarah Wolfolds of Cornell SC Johnson College of Business examined the low-income designation for credit unions. Whilst the Columbia Business School’s Dan Wang invited the audience to reflect on community connectedness, small business advising and venture growth. 

This first edition of IE Day was co-organized by the Executive Director of the S&O Inclusive Economy Center at HEC, Bénédicte Faivre-Tavignot. She insisted on the connections made throughout the day between invited researchers and practitioners: “As someone who defines herself as a ‘hybrid person’, I’m impressed by the bridges that have been built over the day between these two communities,” she said in her closing remarks. “It’s important for our Center to have impact through our work. We aim to inspire practitioners to bring about systemic changes that reduce inequalities in the world. Our discussions must feed into the capacity of companies to pay bigger societal roles. We will be supporting them through our research networks and through new classes for our students, aimed at changing mindsets as they enter the professional world.”

One such practitioner who has a decade-long history of collaboration with S&O is Gilles Vermot Desroches. The Director of Corporate Citizenship at Schneider Electric, one of the S&O’s sponsors, was there to describe the Impact Company Lab, a global experimentation platform he has helped set up together with HEC Paris to increase the positive societal impacts of companies. “Alongside my colleagues from Orange, BNP Paribas, each One, and so on, we are here to get new ideas to answer the growing societal challenges,” he said. “This is a conversation which is sometimes rich, very often uncomfortable, but absolutely vital. The Impact Company Lab seeks to help companies identify the most promising levers to realize transformative change in terms of capitalism, sustainability and inclusive economy. And we are hoping that more and more companies will join us."

Gilles Vermot Desroches


Making Space for Inclusive Economy in Business Schools

Vermot Desroches’ words echoed those of co-organizer Marieke Huysentruyt, the Academic Director of the Inclusive Economy Center and the Impact Company Lab. Huysentruyt had presented her work on the impact of tragic refugee incidents in Europe on companies’ CSR. She retraced the broad lines of what she called a rich and stimulating day: “Thanks to your research papers and the discussions they provoked, we have gathered a wealth of cutting-edge insights into question of how businesses can help build a more inclusive economy. Thanks to your open mindedness, we have successfully navigated disciplinary and cultural differences. We have covered lots of ground, from questioning the way firms can promote the inclusion of employees – for instance, how they can boost the psychological safety of their employees, how inequalities are affected by the way they craft jobs –, to how firms can make their goods more accessible to disadvantaged groups. So, I leave the Inclusive Economy Day energized and convinced of its importance and potential to inform top public and business policymaking debates and actions.”

Huysentruyt then turned to the future: “We aim to build on this first edition next year. But ultimately, our objective is to make space for such topics in business schools worldwide. Because inclusive economy is a hard sell in our structures. Business schools talk of sustainability, but not enough of inclusion. This is a battleground for us and I’m proud to bring scholars of your caliber to explore together this topic. It’s a good signal for our students, saying that inclusion does have a home here. And together we will continue to reach out to practitioners to make sure our research has impact.”

More immediately, the Belgian researcher is relishing the project she is building up with Schneider Electric: “I am optimistic about the future of the Impact Company Lab and the opportunities it will afford for us to collaborate,” she concluded. This laboratory will explore the transition role companies play. It will also help them to identify opportunities to realize transformative changes with the help, for example, of randomized impact evaluations to answer key questions about sustainability. It hope to have a global reach and impact.