April 24, 2017Brown University

What Business Gets from the Humanities: Real World Business Impact, an Interview with Professor Gayle Allard

What happens when you meld humanities with traditional business management curriculum? According to Professor Gayle Allard, real world impact. Recently we sat down with Professor Allard to discuss the value of applying critical thought to business. She shared how she sees the program expanding the worldview of professional students and empowering them to stay ahead in a fast-paced global digital world. She also explained how IE Brown led to the launch of the Wuha Sira Initiative which she founded with five IE Brown alumni to support the education of young women in Ethiopia.

How do you see IE Brown converging humanities and business?

As an economist, I sit at this inflection point. Economics goes deeper than just supply and demand. Born out of moral philosophy, economics draws on history, psychology and other disciplines to answer questions like, how do you control negative behaviors? Or, how do you build a system of incentives for sustainable production? Normally you have to narrow economics in traditional MBA course. Here I don’t have to.

What’s an example of these bigger questions and how does it cultivate a business leadership mindset?

Based on my comparative research on welfare state incentives, we examine the growing popularity of universal basic income - the idea that the state provides a basic income to compensate for the growing loss of jobs - or what some people are calling deindustrialization - due to automation. We look at, on the one hand, the economic costs of unemployment, and on the other, the psychological impact of a passive income. Based on my vast MBA teaching experience, I don’t think a normal class would have gotten to the depth we do on this subject.

These conversations are critical for business leadership because you have to understand the larger political and policy-driven context in which business operates. IE Brown gives you the space to think about what’s going on around you and how you can weather or even drive economic trends.

What about the South Africa experiential session. How does that build business leadership?

South Africa gives professional students the tools to exercise their mind and test their business skill set in a different context. We’re living in a commercial world that extends way beyond white middle class Canada, United States or Europe. Business leaders have to be prepared to deal with different cultures; to look at the world beyond their narrow subjective perspective. That’s what we get from the study of humanities and what we seek to cultivate in South Africa - the ability to transcend your own mindset and feel what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes.

How did IE Brown lead to your partnering with five IE Brown Alumni to create the Wuhasira foundation?

Because of IE Brown’s more intimate size and cultivation of diverse perspectives, as professors, we dig into subjects more deeply and it has a profound effect. You get to know people better and you get inspired to create change.

It was this spirit that resulted in the creation of Wuha Sira in Ethiopia, one of the poorest countries in the world, with a growing population that struggles with lack of access to clean water and education. This disproportionately affects women and girls. Wuha Sira – which means Water and Work in Amharic, the dominant language of Ethiopia – is working to help combat these issues.

I had told some IE Brown students about work I was doing with a Catholic convent in Ethiopia that offered vocational training in basic computer and secretarial skills to young women. The nuns’ success was phenomenal. They wanted to extend the opportunity to poor women in the surrounding rural areas but the students’ parents objected because there wasn’t a place for the young women to stay. We created this foundation to to raise $200,000 to build a dorm for these students.

Working with these IE Brown alumni, nuns and Ethiopian students is emblematic of the meaning that IE Brown gives us all.

To learn more about Wuha Sira, go here.

To learn more about Professor Gayle Allard, go
here.

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