Introducing the Creating Emerging Markets Sustainability Series

Cover image features Prof. Geoffrey Jones (left) and Prof. Tarun Khanna (right).

The Business and Environment Initiative is excited to bring our readers the sustainability sub-series of the Creating Emerging Markets Project (CEM), developed by HBS Professors Geoffrey Jones and Tarun Khanna. To date, the CEM project has conducted deep and impactful interviews with business leaders in 30 countries across emerging markets on topics including innovation, leadership, family business, business and education, and business-government relations. BEI is partnering with the CEM team to highlight videos with significant climate change and sustainability content. Over the course of the next several months, we will be releasing selected videos on this blog to amplify the CEM project’s documentation of the incredible and wide-ranging work of sustainability entrepreneurs across the globe.

First, we wanted to bring you some background on CEM through this interview with Professor Geoffrey Jones:

Professor Jones, you have been working on this series since 2007. What was the original scope, intent, and audience of the Creating Emerging Markets project?

As the largest online database of academic interviews with renowned and longstanding business leaders from emerging markets in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East, the Creating Emerging Markets project represents a unique digital resource for research and teaching. Prof. Tarun Khanna and I coordinate the project, and we are approaching 170 interviews conducted by Harvard faculty. The collection fills a major gap in knowledge regarding businesses operating and thriving in many countries that do not necessarily have the institutional security and income levels which characterize business in developed market economies. CEM has reached a worldwide audience consisting both of practitioners and consultants, as well as university professors and students who have incorporated the materials into their coursework and applied the data to scholarly research on emerging markets. It is also currently the third most visited projects and initiatives website at Harvard Business School.

How have you determined the people and topics you’ve covered so far?

In order to qualify for the project, business leaders must have had at least three decades of exceptionally impactful leadership experience in their respective industries. Most are founders or the current leaders of family businesses, and their enterprises, whether for-profit or non-profit, are pre-eminent companies in their country, region and in some cases globally. The project includes highly diversified business groups, firms active in a wide range of industries, and internationally acclaimed NGOs. As the interviews track the careers of these leaders, it provides a unique source of information and views about business and climate change, social sustainability, in addition to many other topics ranging from managing family businesses to business-government relations.

What are some key highlights or learnings about sustainability that you have gained over the course of this project – trends and inspirational insights?

The interviews have uncovered deep engagement by many business leaders with today’s inter-related and pressing challenges of climate change, income/educational inequality, and poor health systems. While building highly successful businesses, they have not been satisfied with Milton Friedman’s dogma stating that the sole purpose of business is to maximize profits for shareholders. Instead, interviewees have shaken the traditional foundation for measuring success, emphasizing action as opposed to words and proactively embedding sustainability into their business models through ways that put their peers in the developed West to shame. The approaches and focus of CEM interviewees range widely and can be categorized into some overarching themes.

Examples include crisis awareness and management, with the provision of shelter and medical attention for hundreds of river communities displaced by increased floods in Bangladesh. Another theme relates to new technologies developed to drastically reduce our carbon footprint, represented by advances in renewable energy such as with increased investment in geothermal power in Indonesia, or the construction of a pioneering energy-efficient headquarters in Chile that has served as a template for further green building in the country. Still other interviewees have shown effective collaboration with governments to remove toxic materials from the environment, demonstrated by one Egyptian company’s contribution to the reduction of the country’s hazardous pesticide use by over 90% during the early 1990’s. More radically, some interviewees have dedicated themselves to incorporating all of the above from individual businesses in order to create an altogether new, regenerative economic system with sustainability at its core – a vision made reality by the Sistema B movement spanning Latin America.

    We look forward to sharing more about all that CEM has to offer in regards to sustainability and to showing the leading stance that emerging markets have taken on this pivotal issue. We invite you continue to follow our collaboration with the Business & Environment Initiative and connect with CEM on LinkedIn or via email at Look out for our first clips on November 7th!