Rajshree Agarwal has come a long way, both academically and geographically, from her roots in India. She is an expert on business strategy and entrepreneurship, boasting the titles of Rudolph P. Lamone Chair and Director of the Ed Snider Center for Enterprise and Markets at the University of Maryland, where she is also a professor of entrepreneurship and strategy. Additionally, Agarwal has earned four degrees in Economics and Statistics from both Bombay University and SUNY-Buffalo.
The majority of Rajshree Agarwal’s current research focuses on industry and firm evolution and the subsequent effects on entrepreneurism. Her expertise in global business, entrepreneurism, and research grants was a priceless addition to our Global Perspectives Summit. Agarwal credits her success to a multitude of factors, with resilience and a dedication to “try”—and keep trying—as being the most important.
Theories on emerging economies
When asked about common errors in the way we think about global innovation, Agarwal first explains the two main theories of innovation (the “Trickle Down” and “Trickle Up/Sideways,” models) before introducing Kenyan banking app M-PESA as a phenomenally successful example a hybrid of the two models.
“Most brand-new industries,” she said, “tend to originate from the developed countries then diffuse to the developing countries.” Countries with strong economies because of abundant natural resources or high-quality education naturally innovate more than countries in which the populace is mostly in poverty. Developed countries’ innovations cater to their own needs and “trickle down” to the extent that the same needs are common between the developed and the developing countries.
Trickle-up or sideways
As technology spreads to even the most remote parts of the world, there is an increase in innovations from the developing countries. Occasionally an innovation will “trickle up” from a developing to a developed country. Other times, with an increase in globalization, the innovation starts in a developing country and goes to another developing country—thus the term “sideways.”
Debunking theories on emerging economies
Agarwal cites the Mobile Money Industry in Africa as evidence that the main theories on global innovation are not always correct. M-Pesa, which started in Kenya in 2007 and is the most well-known Mobile Money Firm, gives users access to banking through their cellular providers. Most of these users would never otherwise have the chance to use banking services. Backed by the multinational firm Vodafone, M-Pesa overcame the “double disadvantages” of being a developing country startup: little to no available resources and no established channels to reach into new markets. M-Pesa's success did not trickle down from a developed country and it did not just trickle sideways between developing countries. M-Pesa ignored the false dichotomy of traditional theory and blended the resources of the multinational firm, Vodafone, with the useful technology to solve a problem in the developing world.
Where other startups lack resources and capabilities and have no multinational presence, M-Pesa reached incredible success and has helped fight poverty in other developing nations. What made the difference? According to Agarwal, small, developing country startups with the right mix of resources have a “nimbleness and flexibility,” that is unrivaled in their large, multinational counterparts who are constrained by their size and competitors. M-Pesa started in a developing country, and as a startup did not have to worry about staying ahead of competitors. M-Pesa also leveraged the resources of a multinational firm to reach great success. M-Pesa created its own category. It situated itself somewhere in between existing theories, absorbing the trickled-down resources from the multinational Vodafone but also spreading sideways throughout developing Africa, breaking conventional wisdom of innovations in a global market.
How to get grants
Researching entrepreneurial endeavors requires gathering new data sets—which can be pricey. Throughout her time as a student and professor, Agarwal has received over $5.8M in grants from both public and private entities to fund this research. She credits her success to four things: writing skill, dedication to the research, product validation, and networking. She also suggests that scholars, “look for synergies” between needed research and the opportunities for grant money.
Agarwal started by requesting smaller institutional grants or inter-university research grants before applying for larger grants from the Kauffman Foundation or the National Science Foundation. She systematically developed the grant writing skill, but also a guiding precept for her research: dedication. “I was never going to write a grant for research I wasn’t going to do anyway,” she told the Global Perspective Summit, pointing out that she planned to do the research regardless of the grant’s success. Grants, she emphasized, should facilitate research—not enable it.
Agarwal emphasized that good writing isn’t the only requisite factor of winning grants. In the grant-seeking process, product validation is even more essential than good writing. When applying for a public grant, there is a panel of scholars that applicants must confront. “They want to see signals of whether you can credibly complete the goals of the research you are doing.” Agarwal When applying for grants herself, Agarwal leverages her project’s success from the start of her research (funded by leftover funds from a previous project) to garner the approval of the grant application, which she submits halfway through her current research.
This paradoxical approach of starting projects before securing funding allows the leftover money from one project to fund the start of the next project. If scholars want to follow Agarwal’s delayed cycle of projects and grant funding, they must have the grants built into the schedule “as interim deadlines to stay accountable.”
Agarwal has also frequently received grants because she got to know a particular board and its members came to trust her, proving that networking is just as important as any other piece of the grant-seeking process. In fact, Agarwal’s final piece of advice is to “know the audience.” No one should apply for a grant without knowing the processes of the group which approves grants. Agarwal implores young scholars not to be afraid to call the program director directly for honest feedback. She herself has worked closely with grant givers to adjust her project’s plans and secure needed funding. She highlighted that working with another successful researcher who has momentum from successful projects is another great way to receive grant money.
Theories about global innovation are not always true. Research is not easy. Changing the way we think about international business and business research is essential to thriving in those areas. Whether it is to a group of students hoping to fund their research or a disadvantaged startup from a developing country trying to break into a global market, Agarwal’s experience in receiving grant money and her entrepreneurial research are priceless resources for those blazing their own trails. And to aspiring professionals who feel that perhaps they’ve tried her advice and still failed, Rajshree Agarwal would offer the same ageless advice: “Try, try, try again.”