Discovering the Next Grassroots Markets

A woman browses a fruit stand

Mark Esposito, a economics scholar and Harvard Extension instructor, recruited students to investigate ways to identify fast-emerging markets for the World Bank.

When Mark Esposito steps into the classroom, he challenges his students to wrestle with global issues that rest at the intersections of business, government, or society. These crossroads are not without conflict.

“There is creative tension at these intersections,” Esposito says, “‚Äčand my courses challenge students to consider multiple points of view, even in very complex issues. That understanding allows them to embrace higher thinking and introspective, reflective thinking, viewing dilemmas from multiple standpoints.”

The hypothesis is that if we can detect these markets when they occur, we could generate so much—employment opportunities, for example. Coordinating with private and public sector investors could have a huge impact.

An eagle-eyed view

Recently Esposito turned this mulitfaceted lens on fast-expanding, grassroots markets—and how best to tap into them. These markets evolve on their own, flourishing naturally.

“Because they grow so fast, we can’t capture them,” he says. “The hypothesis is that if we can detect these markets when they occur, we could generate so much—employment opportunities, for example. Coordinating with private and public sector investors could have a huge impact.”

As an example, Esposito says, the market for quinoa was once relatively small and certainly not in global demand. But as word of the food’s nutritional value spread, the market for quinoa not only grew by 40 percent, but never leveled off. Similarly, food trucks began as an urban phenomenon but are now found everywhere.

“During a meeting with the World Bank at Harvard Business School, the World Bank representatives said they had no way to map these opportunities,” Esposito says. “So instead of operating out of conventional wisdom, we wanted to find a way to discover these markets as they were emerging.”

To help unearth and map these markets on a global level in real time, Esposito turned to Extension School students for research assistance—a student population he’s enjoyed teaching since 2011. “The diversity of the Extension School is a big value,” he says. “You get to teach to people from all over the world, people who have real work experience, which means you’re talking to people who know what has worked in their field. It’s a very engaged and very engaging community.”

Looking at the granular level

Mariam Sherzad, now an equity research associate at Bloomberg Intelligence who earned a Master of Liberal Arts, Finance, started her work for Esposito by conducting research on fast-expanding markets in Spain.

“I focused on areas without a lot of macro growth but where we could identify growth on the micro level,” she says. One area of research looked at farmer’s markets: how long they had been taking place and whether they were successful. As Sherzad found, growth stood in stark opposition to the country’s gross domestic product (GDP).

“Spain’s GDP hadn’t been growing, and it was experiencing high unemployment at the time,” she says. “Yet, on the micro level, the organic farmer’s markets were growing. You wouldn’t assume that would be the case, but when you looked at it on a small scale these were markets that were flourishing.”

By identifying fast-expanding markets and adapting to the opportunities, she says, Spain and other EU nations could find ways to flourish. They might even establish economically driven ecosystems similar to areas like Silicon Valley.

Stella Tran, a master’s degree candidate studying international relations, also served as a faculty aide for Esposito. Her research focused on the market of American-baked goods in southern Europe.

“We saw American-baked goods as an indicator of growth, so we studied when the first one opened and how many expanded across the country,” she says. “It’s been impressive. They’re growing with regard to both employees and revenue. It’s becoming a more commonplace thing.”

While some might dismiss the success of American-baked goods in Europe as an anomaly, Tran notes that to the trained eye it can be the beginnings of a cultural phenomenon.

“There was a point here in the United States when no one had cell phones, but now we all do,” she says. “In 2000, you couldn’t have predicted that by our GDP. But if companies had examined clues at the microeconomic level at that time, they might have seen a fast-expanding market—if they’d been nimble enough to find it.”

In fact, Esposito and his researchers found that a keen-eyed perspective can reveal the finer details of a country’s economy and surface information you won’t find in a nation’s GDP. Such markets can provide clues to a country’s future, pointing to areas in which it will organically evolve, flourish, and thrive.

Real-world impact

On a personal level, Sherzad and Tran say, conducting minute research from a global perspective was fascinating. In addition to conducting their research, the faculty aides also assisted Esposito with publications that are forthcoming in the Harvard Business Review and the World Economic Forum.

Being involved in things that can have such an impact, on a global level, is phenomenal. ... The experience I’ve had is amazing. You really get a better understanding of what your interests are. And to witness your professor’s work, to see how extensive their work is, that’s just an amazing experience.

“Mark gave me a lot of leverage and let me follow my instincts, to let it develop organically,” Tran says. “I was really happy and excited to be involved. It’s a great opportunity to build upon the skills and knowledge that you gain in the ALM [Master of Liberal Arts] program.”

For Sherzad, the chance to network with representatives from global and educational institutions as part of her research translates to a professional network that will thrive for years to come.

“Being involved in things that can have such an impact, on a global level, is phenomenal,” she says. “The experience I’ve had is amazing. You really get a better understanding of what your interests are. And to witness your professor’s work, to see how extensive their work is, that’s just an amazing experience.”

The research, Esposito says, is already yielding real-world results.

“We’re now doing more research for the World Bank, which will help them to make better decisions,” he says. “Being able to work with talented Extension School students capable of bringing research to the core of the nexus between academia and policy, is what gives relevancy to what we do as researchers. The Faculty Aide Program is a wonderful opportunity for professors and students to engage in what education should aim to do … serve society at its very best.”

— by Jennifer Doody

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