Can selling change the salesperson’s life?

Iris Steenkamp

Assistant Professor of Marketing

Bocconi University



Rajesh Chandy, London Business School

Gaurav Mehta, Dharma Life

Om Narasimhan, LSE

Dissertation Award Winner


The COVID-19 pandemic has been the most disruptive shock the world has seen in decades.

What has the impact of selling been on resilience in developing economies during these times?

Beyond earning an income, Iris’ research examines how (sales) employment can change the (personal) life of the individual in two ways:

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The challenge

Effects on female empowerment

The global Covid-19 pandemic severely impacted female empowerment in developing countries, one of the most persistent development problems worldwide. Prior research has highlighted that earning income through employment or entrepreneurship alone may not be sufficient to ensure women’s empowerment. Raising the question of whether different aspects of employment, beyond income, can boost gender empowerment. Iris shows that external-facing employment, such as sales, can increase empowerment among women in rural India.


Effects on resilience

There is very little research on the role that business can play in building resilience. By enabling access to a wide set of connections, we show that sales employment holds the power to improve resilience when women in emerging economies face adversity. By studying sales employment, Iris is among the first to examine the impact of employment on building resilience. She focuses on resilience amidst the delta wave in India during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The intervention

Randomised controlled trial

The impact of the pandemic has been felt everywhere, but it is especially devastating in developing economies.

In collaboration with Dharma Life, Iris studied the impact of (sales) employment on resilience and empowerment by setting up a randomised controlled trial with 1,048 women in rural India.


378 women were assigned to the treatment condition of external facing “sales employment”; 377 women in the control employment condition worked as stay-at-home product reviewers (earning equivalent amounts), while 293 women (“pure” control condition) did not receive any intervention or employment in the course of the trial.


The intervention was launched in November 2019.

Read more about the trial

About Dharma Life


“Engaging in sales activities led to significantly higher resilience and increases take-up of governmental resources when facing adversity”

– Iris Steenkamp

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The potential impact

Higher resilience during the pandemic

The results demonstrate the behavioural and psychological impact of sales employment relative to other employment forms.


The study shows that engaging in sales activities led to significantly higher resilience during the pandemic, for three reasons.. First, Iris shows that through enabling opportunities to connect with a wide set of individuals, engagement in sales employment can build resilience.


The second reason for increased resilience was because “saleswomen” were substantially more likely to be aware of sources of relief and more likely have accessed sources of help, including governmental economic and food-relief programs, than those in non-sales employment or control conditions.


Third, saleswomen were more likely to adopt leading roles within their communities and were more optimistic about the future. Last, women belonging to more disadvantaged groups benefit more from sales employment in terms of resilience, compared those in less disadvantaged groups, due the larger degree of change implied by ales activities.

About the author

Iris Steenkamp

Iris is a PhD candidate in Marketing at London Business School. In September 2022, she will join the Marketing Department at Bocconi University as an Assistant Professor. As a quantitatively oriented scholar, Iris conducts field experiments (randomized controlled trials). Her research received the 2020 ISMS Doctoral Dissertation Proposal Award, the Research and Development Management Association PhD Award (2020) and the Wheeler Institute for Business and Development PhD Award (2020).


She holds a BA in Economics and Business from the Erasmus School of Economics, Erasmus University, an MA in Marketing from the Rotterdam School of Management, and an Master of Research in Marketing from London Business School.

Research interests


Her research aims to provide a new perspective on central marketing concepts (e.g., sales activities and consumption) by linking these to key social and economic development outcomes (i.e., gender empowerment, resilience, and self-confidence) using rigorous and causal methods as well as novel and objective outcome measures.

Dissertation Award Winner

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