May 9, 2006

Econ professor, GSB alumnus make Time’s 100 Most Influential

The U of C breeds movers and shakers—at least according to Time Magazine, which named both Steven Levitt, a U of C economics professor and Freakonomics author, and Vikrum Akula, a 2005 alumnus of the Graduate School of Business (GSB) in its list of the 100 most influential people of 2006.

Levitt’s book, Freakonomics, coauthored with journalist Stephen J. Dubner and published in April 2005, holds a top spot on The New York Times Best Seller list. The book explores economics with often disparate comparisons, such as how beauty queens and drug dealers share similar lines of work.

Levitt has received criticisms on his claim that child car seats are often ineffective and on his finding that increased abortions are correlated with a decrease in crime.

But while he calls his place on Time’s list a “wonderful honor,” Levitt said he is baffled by his nomination.

“If I’m one of the 100 most influential people, there is a lot less influencing going on than I would have thought,” Levitt said. “I don’t even have much influence in the Economics Department at the University of Chicago, much less in the world at large.”

GSB alumnus Akula, who founded SKS Microfinance, was selected for the work his company does to aid India’s poor through microfinance loans. Microfinance institutions lend out small amounts of money to people who cannot afford traditional loans. These loans enable poor borrowers to start businesses and eventually generate income.

“Vikram and his team are exceptionally creative and are constantly brainstorming new ideas and executing efficiently on those which hold the most promise,” said Sachita Shenoy, a graduate student at the GSB who is familiar with Akula’s work.

Recently, SKS Microfinance has been involved in education, insurance, and the introduction of “smart cards” to help track loan payments. Additionally, the company has directed most of its resources on loans to women.

“When women generate additional income and keep control over that, that usually leads to at least two massive changes in rural India: first, their own location within a hierarchical social world and patriarchal family changes for the better,” said Prithvi Chandra Shobhi, lecturer in the South Asian Languages and Civilizations department. “Second, they are likely to spend most of this income on basic needs, such as food.”