HBS Alums Say They Worry About Poverty, Then Create Apps for the Rich

From the minds of Harvard Business School graduates comes Alfred Club, an app that lets you assign cheap personal assistants to your household chores. The startup, which won TechCrunch Disrupt’s “Battlefield champion” prize last Wednesday, has been mocked by critics who wonder how it would affect so-called Alfreds, the nameless laborers who would collect your groceries and dry cleaning for $99 a month.

“At that price, they’re sure to disrupt the antiquated business models of conventional, non-’shared-economy’ servants, whose bloated cost structures include such extravagances as job security, a stable income, shelter, and sometimes even basic health care,” wrote Will Oremus at Slate.

The app, started by recent HBS graduates Marcela Sapone and Jess Beck, is one of several recent HBS innovations that serves the rich. Shoptiques, an app created by 2011 graduate Olga Vidisheva, connects frequent travelers to boutique fashion shops. Booya Fitness, founded by 2014 HBS alum Prita Kumar, charges people with a “busy lifestyle” for “boutique workouts” delivered online. Katherine Kwei, a company founded by two 2007 HBS alums, designs luxury handbags for “the wardrobe of the well-heeled woman,” according to Harvard’s website.

Harvard alumni, however, claim to think about more than just resolving the pet peeves of the wealthy. A Harvard Business Review report released this month (pdf), which included a survey of nearly 2,000 HBS alumni, cited growing concerns about the instability arising from “unsustainable” economic inequality.

The alumni saw a dysfunctional education system and tax code as drivers of a “divergence of outcomes, with firms (especially larger firms) thriving and workers struggling,” the report said.

Some suggest the source of that divergence may be closer to home. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, former Labor Secretary Robert Reich urged HBS to consider that it might be part of the problem.

“The [report's] authors neglected to include a discussion about how Harvard Business School should change what it teaches future CEOs,” said Reich.

Reich said that the shift among executives toward focusing on profit rather than on the public interest is to blame for wage inequity. He did not get specific about how business schools should fight that trend, other than saying that HBS has “not gone far enough with courses that critically examine the goals of the modern corporation and the role that top executives play in achieving them.”

But unless HBS can train its students to care about problems that afflict people outside their peer group, Reich submits we’re wasting our country’s top talent on a degree that has little value to the public.

HBS also has plenty of innovations that help the public good. Students and graduates are supporting small tomato farmers in Nigeria and using silk to improve the shipment of vaccines to the developing world. But if the curriculum at HBS emphasizes the needs of the many over the few, the message doesn’t seem to be reaching all its students.

“It must be asked,” Reich wrote, “whether these graduates are making the most of their capacities in terms of their potential for improving human well-being.”

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