Why Dow believes in learning by doing

A member of Dow’s Leadership in Action team looks over the city of Accra, Ghana where 36 employees applied their expertise and passion to address some  of the world’s most pressing challenges. Photo by: Dow Chemical Company

It would be easy for a company like Dow Chemical, with operations in 36 countries, to think we know how to successfully launch a robust business just about any place in the world. However, our recent engagements with social enterprises in emerging economies — especially in East and West Africa — have taught us just how much we still need to learn. And for us, the best way is to “learn by doing.”

While this is something we knew somewhat instinctively, it became crystal clear more recently as we implemented two programs that paired corporate citizenship intent with business interests.

In 2013, we partnered with Acumen on an initiative in East and West Africa for global corporations and social entrepreneurs to collaborate to address the challenges of scaling businesses in energy, food, agriculture and water to serve the needs of the poor, by merging societal need with the risk-taking of social entrepreneurism and the resources of multinational corporations. The effort brings together our collective best to create an environment where solutions can be scaled for long-term, sustainable growth.

Also that year, we engaged 36 Dow employees in a leadership development program in Ghana together with PYXERA Global with the goal to address challenges related to agriculture, housing, education, access to clean water and more. Working with local NGOs, academia and government, the group’s efforts culminated in September when employees traveled to Ghana to put their solutions into action.

We are now in our second year actively engaged in both of these initiatives. Thousands of employee engagement hours later, we have a much clearer lens through which to view the intricacies of doing business in emerging economies. Aside from concluding that a certain amount of expertise must come from being in-country — learning by doing — we gained other valuable insights, as well.

The first may seem obvious but it is worth stating: you must create a captivating vision and a spirit of entrepreneurism. Every great effort begins with a dream for success — the mental picture that inspires and motivates. Add the risk-taking and initiative that comes with entrepreneurial spirit and things begin to happen.

Next, surround yourself with people who know more than you do. Learn from their successes and accept that there will be a lot you don’t know. We know we do not have all the answers but there are people who can teach us, so we walk humbly into new territory.

Understand that it is difficult to solve problems and develop solutions for an emerging economy from a conference room in the U.S. Midwest. The worst thing any of us can do is assume that what works in a developed economy will work in an emerging geography. It is critical to be present in every way — physically, mentally, and emotionally. It demonstrates commitment. It shows respect and understanding, and it facilitates ease of doing business. Most of all it provides insights and a perspective that the best technology, email and teleconferencing could never provide.

Build a broad resource base that includes government, social agencies, and nonprofit and non-government organizations. As we know, the levels of complexity in emerging geographies are many, and any effort worth pursuing will require perspectives and assistance that are only possible from a team with deep insights.

Last, learn to practice patience. It takes time for market development of any merit — time to plant, time to germinate, time to grow. This is especially true because of the relationships we nurture along the way. Our American approach is to shake hands and get down to business. Our counterparts around the world wisely share a cup of tea first. In emerging geographies, this is often where revolutionary change begins and is the stable foundation of measured, intelligent growth.

Our efforts come full circle, then, when we commit to learning by doing. Aristotle is quoted as saying: “For the things we have to learn before we can do them, we learn by doing them.”

This is fitting advice to a multinational science and technology company from one of the founding fathers of science, and words to live by as we seek to fuel new business in emerging markets and help solve the significant challenges of society the world over.

Bo Miller, global director for corporate citizenship at Dow Chemical, will speak about powering business in new markets at Catalyzing Growth in Emerging Markets, a two-day virtual & live event. Hear him speak on April 7 at pyxeraglobal.org or join the conversation in Washington, D.C. For more info, go to PYXERA Global and tweet using #Catalyze14.

Read more:

How can a global bank create sustainable shared value in emerging markets?
Building a skills-based volunteering strategy that works

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About the author

  • Bo miller devex

    Bo Miller

    Bo Miller is the global director for corporate citizenship for The Dow Chemical Company. He is responsible for identifying corporate citizenship issues and trends important to the company, and in turn, developing and implementing the company’s global corporate citizenship strategy. Miller also serves as the president and executive director of The Dow Chemical Company Foundation and director of Corporate/Community Affairs for Great Lakes Bay Region (GLBR), Michigan.