Janan Talafer at 83 Degrees reports: Tampa Bay area college students learn global social entrepreneurship in Guatemala
MBA students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg went to Guatemala with big ideas and a big vision, ready to share what they were learning about how to achieve corporate success.
But the women weavers in the local artisan cooperatives in San Juan la Laguna, a remote village in Latin America, had a much smaller dream.
They just want to make enough money to feed their families and afford the paper and pencils so their kids could go to school.
To say it was a life-changing experience for the students was an understatement.
“I was thinking way grander,” says Nina Mahmoudi, marketing manager for the City of St. Petersburg. “I thought we’d go there and figure out how to sell their textiles as fair trade products or possibly get them featured in a national fashion magazine.
“What they really needed help with was translating their story into a simple, tabletop display,” says Mahmoudi. “The whole experience was very touching. These women work extremely hard for pennies. It really made me redefine what a work ethic is.”
Mahmoudi is among the USFSP MBA students whose lives have been changed through a unique spring break study abroad trip. Led by Karin Braunsberger, Ph.D., USFSP professor of marketing in the Kate Tiedemann College of Business, the trip is part of a class called “Social Entrepreneurship in Emerging Markets.”
On the shore of Lake Atitlan, in Guatemala, the students spend a week honing their business skills by helping the local women’s weaving cooperatives develop a marketing plan and identify new opportunities to earn more money.
Experiencing cultural challenges
Richard Flamm is a research scientist at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission and a courtesy faculty member at the USFSP College of Business. He’s also Braunsberger’s husband and an adviser for the Guatemalan trips.
“It’s all about helping the co-ops increase sales, but it can be very challenging for the students,” says Flamm. “It’s sometimes hard for them to remember that they’re not in the U.S. any more. The same rules don’t apply and there are also cultural differences.”
Braunsberger points out that not only is San Juan La Laguna a traditional Mayan town where people still practice many of the Mayan traditions, but they speak Tx’utujil, rather than Spanish. The poverty level is high and most of the men are agricultural laborers.
The women grow up learning how to weave, using skills handed down over hundreds of years, says Braunsberger. The money they make by selling their crafts to tourists supplements the family income and helps put food on the table.
Eric Douthirt is interim director of Graduate and Certificate Programs at the USFSP College of Business. Two years ago, when he was still in the MBA program, he traveled to Guatemala with the group.
“I had heard from alumni that had previously gone on the trip that it was a transformative experience,” says Douthirt. “I wanted to do something with the skills I was acquiring in the MBA program that would make a difference for people in need.”
He quickly saw that one of the biggest roadblock the co-ops face is a critical supply-demand problem. Far too many goods were being produced for the amount of tourist traffic in the village.
“Our group decided to focus on helping differentiate the co-op we worked with,” says Douthirt. “We developed ‘template tags’ in both English and Spanish that would tell the story behind each product. That idea was that tourists might feel a greater connection to the product if they knew more about the woman who created it.”
Bringing lessons back home
Chrissy Kramer went to Guatemala in the spring of 2014 when she was enrolled in the USFSP MBA program. Today, she is an administrative services specialist with the Girls Inc. National Resource Center in Indianapolis, where she manages the national scholarship program.
Originally from Indiana, Kramer says she chose to attend USFSP for a few different reasons, including its reputation and the classwork it offered in corporate social responsibility, a major interest of hers.
“The trip to Guatemala was truly the highlight of my two years at the school,” says Kramer. “First-hand immersion in a culture that has no comprehension of luxury or even leisure time, was eye-opening. It was quite humbling that the women at Manos Especiales cooperative couldn’t even afford to buy raw materials to make a new product until they sold something else in the store.”
But on the other hand, says Kramer, she was impressed with the women’s basic business savvy given their lack of formal education. Even more rewarding was the impact the students had on the community.
“The small changes that we were able to implement may seem superficial on the radar of our own lives,” says Kramer, “but the community reaction to our presence and service was very powerful.”
Building Trust is Critical David Allen was older than most of the MBA students in his group, who were their 20s and 30s. A 50s-something father of three, Allen is VP of Allen Industries, which produces commercial signage for companies around the world.
He says one of the reasons he went on the Guatemalan trip was to gain more in-depth understanding of different cultures and the challenges of doing business in emerging markets. One of the biggest cultural differences he noticed was the importance of building relationships before diving right in to conduct business.
“We had build their trust first before we could ask some very delicate questions about their personal finances and their lives, and about business secrets they might not want other co-ops to know,” says Allen.
Just getting to the village, which is in a remote part of the country was an adventure, Allen relates. Then there was the issue with language. The villagers only spoke Mayan.
“Our conversations would be translated into Spanish and then into Mayan,’’ says Allen. “Sometimes it wasn’t translated correctly. We always wanted to make sure we were getting across the right information.”
Among the group’s many recommendations: creating a spreadsheet for better accounting and tracking of inventory, suggestions for how to improve product displays, and ideas for new products, including a pair of hiking pants with handy pockets and belt loops.
The culmination of the trip was a presentation of each groups’ recommendations to the town. “It was very emotional, “ says Allen. “The co-op was in tears during the presentation. They were so happy and appreciative for what we had done.”
Allen enjoyed the experience so much he and his wife and one of their sons made a return trip this past year.
Nonprofit provides scholarships
A senior tax accountant at MetLife in Tampa, Vanessa Ferrer was so moved by her experience on the Guatemalan trip that she decided to launch a nonprofit organization called Para Adelante. Para Adelante raises funds to provide college education scholarships for women in Latin America.
“Vanessa spent a lot of time thinking about how to permanently help the women in San Juan la Laguna,” says Braunsberger. “We did a lot of brainstorming and discussed how education is the key to ending the cycle of poverty.“ To date, Para Adelante has funded two scholarships — one woman is pursuing a law degree and the other, a degree in social work.
“Having a college degree is extremely rare; many of the women do not even have a primary education,” says Ferrer. “It is so rewarding to be able to help them.”
Funding from Para Adelante not only pays for the women’s tuition and books, but also for child care and transportation to get to school.
The women are required to “give back” by volunteering their time in the local library and sharing what they are learning with the community.
“Research shows that helping women helps the whole community,” says Braunsberger. “The women invest back into the community through their children and they want everyone to have better living conditions.” As president of St. Petersburg-based Bridge Builders, Chris Eaton puts together the trip USFSP trip to Guatemala each year.