College of Business: University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Contact Us

Madhu Viswanathan, Director
61 Wohlers Hall
1206 South Sixth Street
Champaign, IL, 61820
(217) 333-4550

College » Subsistence » Corporate Partners

Resources for Businesses

Our educational initiatives use the radically different context of subsistence to challenge conventional thinking and emphasize sustainable business practices.

The Program

The Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative seeks to develop and disseminate actionable knowledge for creating sustainable solutions for subsistence marketplaces. The radically different context of subsistence and the emphasis on sustainable solutions provides a very challenging setting for research, education, and practice in management. Our work is at the intersection of subsistence and sustainability, and the lessons learned are likely to be useful in all contexts to collectively face the challenges that confront humanity.

Unique to our approach is a bottom up orientation that begins with a micro-level analysis of buyers, sellers, and subsistence marketplaces. We adopt a marketplace rather than a market orientation, viewing subsistence contexts as more than markets to sell to, rather as individuals, communities, and marketplaces to learn from. Our focus should be distinguished from macro-level economic approaches, and mid-level business strategy approaches such as base of the pyramid (BOP) research. Our goal is to understand and enable the progress from subsistence marketplaces to sustainable marketplaces, that is, marketplaces characterized by sustainable production and consumption that conserves natural resources and enhances individual and community welfare.

Our initiative is based on over a decade of fieldwork and has created unique synergies between research, teaching, and social initiatives. In all three arenas, our work involves engagement of students, businesses, and social enterprises as well as a diverse set of faculty and campus entities across different disciplines. Core members of our team who provide field support for our initiatives in India grew up in subsistence contexts and have decades of experience working with subsistence consumers and entrepreneurs. We have also created forums to connect a community of researchers and practitioners and enable outlets for publication. For more information, please visit:


Sponsorship Opportunities

Students in the Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces program work for a year to produce a product prototype and a business plan tailored to the needs of a sponsoring company. Business, engineering, and industrial design students collaborate in this carefully guided program to produce insightful and actionable materials based on the latest scholarship and sound business intelligence.

We have worked successfully with small startups as well as large companies, such as Unilever, Motorola, Microsoft, and Kraft. Our passionate students begin the course by experiencing virtual immersion in subsistence contexts through such means as a poverty simulation and analysis of interviews and videos of subsistence individuals. In the next emersion phase, they grapple with principles elicited from a rich set of case studies and guest speakers including social workers, technologists, and entrepreneurs. In parallel, each project begins with extensive idea generation, filtering to a family of ideas that students evaluate on a one-of-a-kind international immersion experience during which they interview subsistence consumers and entrepreneurs and observe urban and rural subsistence contexts.

Once fully prepared, in the spring semester, students apply their business and technical skills to design a product prototype and a related business plan. Projects to date have dealt with information technology, education, energy, food, and health. From a company’s perspective, projects that fit well with this course are those that involve product design. Additionally, our students sign non-disclosure agreements for company-sponsored projects, signing over ownership of intellectual property and agreeing to confidentiality. To support the cost of prototyping costs and a field trip, sponsoring companies typically contribute grants of $10,000 per project.


View PDF brochure.


Affiliated Faculty

Madhu Viswanathan has been on the faculty at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, since 1990. His research programs are in two areas; measurement and research methodology, and literacy, poverty, and subsistence marketplace behaviors. He has authored books in both areas: Measurement Error and Research Design (Sage, 2005), and Enabling Consumer and Entrepreneurial Literacy in Subsistence Marketplaces (Springer, 2008, in alliance with UNESCO). His research program with a methodological orientation on measurement and research design paralleled many years of teaching research at all levels. It culminated in a book directed at the social sciences that provides a most detailed conceptual dissection of measurement error. This work is a striking departure from the existing literature, which emphasizes a statistical orientation without sufficient elucidation of the conceptual meaning of measurement error.
His research on subsistence marketplaces takes a micro-level approach to gain bottom-up understanding of life circumstances and buyer, seller, and marketplace behaviors. This perspective aims to enable subsistence marketplaces to move toward being ecologically, economically, and socially sustainable marketplaces. His research is synergized with innovative teaching and social initiatives. He teaches courses on research methods, on sustainable product and market development for subsistence marketplaces, and on sustainability in general. He is part of the faculty team teaching a unique course on Sustainable Product and Market Development for Subsistence Marketplaces. He cochairs conferences on subsistence marketplaces and is coeditor of a book and a special issue of a journal based on these conferences.

He founded and directs the Marketplace Literacy Project, a non-profit organization that aims to enable consumer and entrepreneurial literacy for low-literate, low-income individuals. Initiatives of this organization include the development of a consumer and entrepreneurial literacy program offered in Tamil Nadu, South India, to low-income. low-literate individuals. Working with the University of Illinois Cooperative Extension, his research and dissemination efforts have also focused on developing user-friendly nutritional education materials for programs for low-income individuals in the US.


John Clarke is the executive director of the Academy for Entrepreneurial Leadership at the University of Illinois.  The academy for entrepreneurial leadership is focused on developing an entrepreneurial culture in the students, faculty, and staff of the University of Illinois.  The academy views entrepreneurship as a process that can lead to creative solutions for social problems or the formation of new and innovative enterprises.  John has been teaching at Illinois since 2004 as a Clinical Professor in Business Administration, his teaching interests include entrepreneurship, product development, consulting, sustainability, and project management.   He has been involved in the Subsistence Marketplaces Initiative since its inception and has co-taught in the program since 2008. 


Dr. Clarke focuses on creating curricular and co-curricular opportunities for students that enable the development of market relevant experiences, attitudes, and leadership skills.  He has led the development of several new courses and programs targeting students from across the campus.  He is the executive director of Illinois Business Consulting, a premier student consulting organization and executive director of The Hoeft Technology & Management Program and joint initiative between the colleges of engineering and business.   He has developed international immersion experiences for undergraduate, graduate, and executive MBA students and led more than 300 students on intensive learning experiences in China, India, and Korea. 


Clarke has over 20 years of executive leadership in both industry and academia. He has significant experience in consulting, professional advising, management, business development, and teaching.  Prior to working at the University of Illinois he worked as a management consultant in Asia, Europe, and North America.


UIUC College of Business