In Search of the Holy Grail of Entrepreneurship with Tarun Khanna
Professor Tarun Khanna reflects on how vital entrepreneurship can be for emerging economies, and how being introduced to the language of economics gave him a whole new way of thinking about the world.
26 Jan 2017  
Tarun Khanna is the Jorge Paulo Lemann Professor at Harvard Business School, where he studies entrepreneurship in emerging markets. He has taught courses on strategy, corporate governance, and international business at HBS and serves as the first director of Harvard’s university-wide South Asia Institute. In 2015, he was named by the Government of India to chair a national commission to help shape the fabric of India’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. He is also a co-founder of several entrepreneurial ventures in the developing world, serves as a trustee of Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and lives in Newton, Mass., with his wife, daughter, and son. Below, he discusses the importance of creativity and innovation in fueling economic and social development.

What is your area of academic interest and what brought you to it?

TARUN KHANNA: I’m interested in self-actualization and how individuals can reach their full potential, particularly those in developing countries where formal systems are less developed. These are often places where there isn’t much education that steers young people toward creative outcomes, relatively few financial institutions to support them, and no safety net, certainly nothing like social security. There’s an endless list of things that aren’t there, and so these are places where both the opportunity and the necessity for innovation are high.

When you were young, what did you want to be when you grew up? What would you be doing if you weren’t a professor?

TK: I grew up in Delhi, India and had fairly typical little boy aspirations—to be an athlete, be a pilot or astronaut, that kind of thing. But I have always been interested in exploring and meeting new people, so I probably would have found a job that allowed me to travel to cool places that are off the beaten path. Maybe I’d have worked for National Geographic. In my mind, the best education is landing in a place and walking the streets.

I also love to read. I read a lot of fiction when I was younger, and lately I’ve started reading much more historical fiction and nonfiction, which it turns out is often a lot crazier than straight fiction is. In both, you end up getting transported to a different place, a chance to be in somebody else’s shoes, and I think that process makes you see things you thought you knew in a different way. That’s ultimately what entrepreneurship is all about, too, and that’s probably why I like it.

Can you describe any formative moments in your career? Any salient pieces of wisdom or especially good mentors along the way?

TK: So many people have been so helpful over the years that it’s staggering. But a few stick out to me. First, when I was an undergrad at Princeton, I met Hugo Sonnenschein, who later became the president of the University of Chicago. At that point I was solely devoted to math and engineering. Hugo adopted me intellectually and instilled in me the idea that mathematics had broader relevance than I had imagined. He introduced me to economics, and that was quite accidental and pivotal. It gave me a language system to begin to think analytically about societal issues.

The others were Kim Clark, who was my advisor and later became the ninth Dean of HBS, and Eric Maskin, who eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize in microeconomics for laying the foundations of what’s called the theory of mechanism design. The thing that I remember about both of them was that they were both unfailingly generous and put my own interests way ahead of anything related to them. To some extent all faculty do that, and I like to think I do that. But these three guys were above and beyond the already very high calls of duty for professors at such institutions.

But then, as time has passed, I find so many impressive people all around me. At Harvard, it’s a privilege to currently teach executives my age at HBS, bright-eyed undergraduates at the College, and PhD students from all over the university. What a treat! And it’s inspirational to continue my peripatetic existence around parts of developing countries, to see selfless people building things against odds that are pretty daunting.


Do you have a favorite book, piece of art, or song that really resonates with you?

TK: Many! I like and collect miniature historical paintings, from India or the Middle East mostly. These are extremely detailed paintings done on small pieces of paper in the 18th and 19th century that bring you back to a historical era, just like historical fiction. Each painting tells you a story, and I like being transported in that way.

There’s a lovely book by Alain Peyrefitte, The Immobile Empire, that I enjoyed reading and re-reading. It talks about the British embassy of Sir George Macartney to the Qianlong Emperor of China in the late 1700s. I read some of it in French, and then I read the translation in English. It allows you to see a situation from various points of view—the English emissary’s, the Chinese emperor’s, and even a teenage boy’s, who is the only one who speaks both Chinese and English and thus the only one who can interpret for both. The work is very much about diverse perspectives, which is what entrepreneurship is: You turn your head and see things a different way.

I enjoy biographies, particularly of those people whose lives trace out dramatic social change. Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom for example is one such impactful book.

What have you not done yet, personally or professionally, that you’d really like to do in the future?

TK: Aspirationally, I enjoy building companies, non-profits, organizations from scratch. I find it intensely creative, very difficult, and very rewarding when it works, and I imagine I’ll always be pushing in that direction.

More broadly, I’m deeply interested in building systems in poor countries that allow—in the jargon— “individual agency.” Individuals should be able to express themselves creatively, both in ways we typically associate with being creative and in areas that maybe we don’t consider as much—being smart about public policy, building nonprofits that do great work, that kind of thing. I like to think about how countries can build those systems to multiply that creative and generative process and empower their citizens. That’s the real holy grail of entrepreneurship.


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