Shawn A. Cole

John G. McLean Professor of Business Administration

Shawn Cole is a professor in the Finance Unit at Harvard Business School, where he teaches and conducts research on financial services, social enterprise, and impact investing.

Much of his research examines corporate and household finance in emerging markets, with a focus on insurance, credit, and savings. He has also done extensive work on financial education in the US and emerging markets. His recent research focuses on designing and delivering advice and education over mobile phones, with an emphasis on agricultural and financial management.

He has worked in China, India, Indonesia, South Africa, and Vietnam. He is an affiliate of the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development. He is on the board of the Jameel Poverty Action Lab, as the co-chair for research.

At HBS, he has taught FIN1 and FIN2 in the core curriculum, Business at the Base of the Pyramid, and courses on impact investing, as well various executive education courses. He currently teaches the PhD development sequence in the department of Economics.

Before joining the Harvard Business School, Professor Cole worked at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in the economic research department. He has served on the Boston Federal Reserve's Community Development Research Advisory Council, served as an external advisor to the Gates Foundation, and was the chair of the endowment management committee of the Telluride Association, a non-profit educational organization. He is a cofounder and board chair of a non-profit, Precision Agriculture for Development.

He received a Ph.D. in economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2005, where he was an NSF and Javits Fellow, and an A.B. in Economics and German Literature from Cornell University. His work on insurance earned the 2015 "Shin Research Excellence Award;" in 2015 he was also named given a “Faculty Pioneer Award” from the Aspen Institute.

  1. Business at the Base of the Pyramid (MBA)

    by Shawn A. Cole

    Target Audience

    This is a General Management course aimed at potential managers, entrepreneurs and investment professionals who are interested in addressing the needs of low-income populations, especially in developing countries. The course seeks to provide an understanding of how business approaches can address low income markets that represent the largest components of developing economies, both in numbers of people as well as total income. The course materials explore the commercial viability of such markets, and looks at the impact of such commercial approaches on the social development of the populations involved, as well as the profits of the enterprise.


    In the markets at the top of the socioeconomic pyramid, traditionally served by leading corporations, a global and "flatter" world has relentlessly increased the intensity of competition, and decreased profits. On the other hand, examples of enterprises focusing at the base of the pyramid capable of achieving both scale and commercial rates of return are beginning to be noticed by the business community. Meanwhile, the compatibility of financial viability and positive social change is a question being raised in economic and social development circles that is increasingly part of the political debate in developing nations.

    Business at the Base-of- the-Pyramid (B-BOP) addresses these issues by examining enterprises that focus on serving low-income sectors from various perspectives. Roughly two-thirds of the cases in the course have commercial actors as the main protagonist, and the other third has social entrepreneurs as the key protagonists (including NGOs and government agencies as collaborators). The course is composed of an introduction and four main modules: After the introductory class, the opening module will look at business approaches to providing basic services, such as health, water and education. The next module will cover issues in social finance, including micro-finance. After a brief detour to look at technology, and how it can make a contribution, module 3 will look at the role of multi-nationals and how they approach this market, and finally module 4 will look at local businesses and their contribution. The cases used come from Africa, Asia and Latin America (with one case set in the United States.)

  2. Development Economics (PhD)

    by Shawn A. Cole

    This course, intended for second-year PhD students in economics and related fields, is taught by Michael Kremer, Phillippe Aghion, and Shawn Cole.

    Part I (Kremer) of the course will cover macro-economic topics including aggregate and non-aggregate growth models, models of technology diffusion and choice, and population growth, as well as cultural factors (e.g. reputation, trust, and social norms) affecting economic development.

    Part II (Aghion) will be a selection of topics related to economic growth, among them club convergence, trade, competition, volatility, education, health, and the environment.

    Part III (Cole) of the course is intended to bring students to the forefront of research on finance in emerging markets. Topics will include the relationship between financial development and economic growth, consumer finance; small and medium enterprise finance; debt and equity markets; the role of management and corporate governance; the political economy of finance, and corruption.