Civil Society

MBA’s, the faith factor and emerging markets

Brian J. Grim
President, Religious Freedom & Business Foundation
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“They’re young. They’re hip. They wear the hijab. And multinationals like Unilever, Procter & Gamble and L’Oréal have taken note,” reports the Financial Times in a recent headline article. As the growing population in the Muslim world is translating into a growing consumer base, new groups of consumers barely on the radar are coming to the fore.

The FT observes that the purchasing power of fashion-conscious Muslim women ‒ known as hijabsters or hijabers because of their colorful headscarves ‒ has become a cultural phenomenon in South-East Asia. These women are well-educated and driving demand for new products, services and innovations.

And businesses tuned into this “faith factor” are benefiting, according to the FT. Sharia banks such as Indonesia’s Bank BRI Syariah ‒ which is owned by Bank Rakyat Indonesia, the country’s second-largest lender ‒ are courting these religious consumers. Procter & Gamble has developed a line of products dedicated to hijab-wearing women, and Unilever Indonesia has sponsored a contest for Islamic fashion designers and models.

According to demographic reports from the World Religion Database and the Pew Research Center, the global number of Muslims has grown from 0.6 billion in 1970 to 1.6 billion in 2010, and is projected to number 2.8 billion in 2050, creating a whole new set of market opportunities today and for the foreseeable future.

But it’s not just Muslim markets that are expanding. Between 1970 and 2050, the global Hindu population is expected to triple from 0.5 billion to 1.5 billion, and the global Christian population is expected to more than double during the same time period, from 1.2 billion in 1970 to 2.9 billion in 2050.

Translation: the purchasing power of growing faith communities will play a significant role in most markets, whether one understands them or not. Meanwhile, it is also true that these faith communities generally stand as a moral bulwark against the world’s greatest threat to return on investment (ROI): corruption.

In other words, as with most things in our globalized world, an old-new blend is emerging, establishing new market patterns. On the one hand, organized religion is not new. Believers have always been consumers of some kind, camouflaged beneath the various attempts at “segmented marketing” (although business might not have been aware of them).

On the other hand, though, faith ‒ a moral belief in something higher, perhaps affiliated with religious institutions, and perhaps an essential and prioritizing part of one’s identity and consumer choices ‒ is an emerging factor that cannot help but shape emerging markets (as we have previously written about regarding South-East Asia and the economy in general).

Put simply, those able to respect and speak to the faith factor will be better positioned to have influence and impact, and generate greater margins.

As a result, it would seem natural for business schools to equip their graduates to be aware of, if not engage, the faith factor. This conclusion, however, does not seem to be the case. In a cursory review of the top 25 business schools worldwide, we were able to find just one related course ‒ Faith, Religion, and Responsible Management Behavior ‒ at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. Among prominent Christian schools it is not much better. Notre Dame, for example, has a Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business and a course on “Spirituality of Work”, but it seems geared towards individual reflection.

In a nutshell, business schools are not offering courses that equip their graduates to engage and capitalize on the role that the faith factor is playing and will play in emerging markets. We therefore offer five principles for shaping an elective course, if not a concentration, that business school deans and professors might consider as they prepare entrepreneurs for doing business in a world where the influence of the faith factor will only grow. Such a course would:

  • Recognize faith as analytic factor in risk management and opportunity analysis. As we have found in the security sector, it is a natural reaction that professionals do not want to talk about the faith factor for two reasons, reasoning: we have been taught not to talk about religion and politics in polite company, and we believe we have already accounted for religion in some other category (e.g. culture). Just including the faith factor in risk management would be a huge step. Understanding that faith communities can also be described as trust and distribution networks in a world where people trust their faith leaders more than their politicians can open up new visions of the possible.
  • Discern positive and negative trends in local religious demographics. As discussed in the previous blog regarding South-East Asia, most companies are dissatisfied with their emerging market strategy, recognizing the need for greater local knowledge. Such knowledge, in the world’s most religiously diverse region, has to account for the faith factor. Understanding the impact of the faith factor on local corruption and radicalization trends is also imperative.
  • Understand and support faith communities as imperative to fighting corruption and extremism. Investing in faith communities is a long-term investment in ROI: the more transparent and moral a society, the more likely that contracts will be honoured. Deepening and expanding this moral bulwark of a society also deters/denies religious extremism, creating more stability and thus more opportunity for foreign direct investment. It should come as no surprise that the UN Global Compact’s Business for Peace Platform calls for businesses to be a powerful force supporting interfaith understanding and peace.
  • Become sufficiently literate to assess, analyse and address the faith factor in local communications/negotiations (in part through case studies and role playing). In our experiences worldwide, we have found that government and business leaders generally don’t know how to engage faith communities. Nothing in their professional background and formal training has prepared them. (While those leaders who do engage successfully tend to rely on their personal understanding of and instinct for the faith factor.) It is also true that faith leaders are likewise not very good at engaging government and business leaders. A course that brings in local government and faith leaders would do much to build trust and mutual understanding.
  • Employ the faith factor in building better management at the local level. Where the faith factor is accounted for within the business ‒ i.e. people of different faiths (and none) feel respected by their peers and their employer ‒ there is deeper trust. Deeper trust means less corruption internally, while creating local advocates of both the brand and product, externally, building loyalty.

Our bottom line: everyone wins if business schools account for the faith factor in at least one elective course. So why not try it out, business schools? Create one course, and track the usual indicators, e.g. course registration, inquiries of cross-registration (counting the course towards a different discipline) and/or the recruitment of students to the school.

If we are right, your own revenue stream will increase, while building your brand for innovation and relevance. Meanwhile, we will be improving the state of the world if there are more businessmen and businesswomen capable of understanding and engaging the faith factor at the local level as corruption and extremism diminish, while respect and revenue increase.

Authors: Brian J. Grim is the President of the Religious Freedom & Business Foundation. Chris Seiple is President of the Institute for Global Engagement. Both are members of the Global Agenda Council on the Role of Faith.

Image: Psychology students study outside the Competence and Trauma Centre for Journalists inside a university’s psychology department in Peshawar November 24, 2014. REUTERS/Zohra Bensemra

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