Posts Tagged ‘entrepreneurship’

Over the past 6 months I have worked with Centro de Entrenamiento para la Producción (CEP). They are an NGO established to assist small and medium sized businesses (PYMES) through technological development and business training. The Argentine government recently created subsidies and tax credits aimed at increasing the competitiveness of Argentine PYMES. CEP acts as a window for these programs by assisting in paperwork and requirement fulfillment. They also manage the government sponsored training programs, by designing course content and allocating in-house instructors. Another side project at CEP involves supporting two new inventions to market, including a novel suspension system for cars or machinery, recently patented in the Europe and U.S., as well as, a new energy efficient windmill, still in the design and prototype construction stage.

My greatest accomplishment with this organization was built around a personal idea utilizing their resources to create a consulting and training project within the marginalized areas of the local community. It allowed me to directly work with and help at least 20 individuals while truly left a legacy in Argentina! For about 2 months I networked, sympathized and analyzed a mountain of information with a large number of people all over the city from social movements and cooperatives to entrepreneurial assistance groups. Through this research, I was able to write and win a grant proposal for a consulting project working with a few local comedors in Buenos Aires province leading workshops in social entrepreneurship for cooperatives. The project was a pilot program aimed specifically at social cooperatives in local comedors1.

These cooperatives formed out of a need for resources in the comedors as well as a desire by local women for respectable work close to home. One of the participating cooperatives was still in the organization stage buying start-up materials for their bakery through a grant received by another FSD intern and were in need of a how-to business plan. The other participating cooperative is a sewing group which began a little over one year ago. They were dependent on NGO support and lacked organization, management and sales volume. Through the information gathered in the needs assessment as well as assistance from CEP and other NGO specialist organizations, five strategic workshops were designed in team building, accounting, marketing, costs and operations.

Most of these “entrepreneurs” had low levels of formal education and a few were illiterate, making the design and substance challenging. To my great surprise, after utilizing a few comic strips, pictures, diagrams and role play examples, the women participated comfortably and discussed a lot of interesting ideas and opportunities.

The final workshop was a small discussion group, bringing together the two cooperatives with another well known cooperative group in the local area. During this workshop they not only shared experiences of best practices, challenges faced and advice, but they networked together and will now sell to one another. As a special guest, two men from La Obra de Padre Cajade shared their experiences. The Obra is a well known and very large social entrepreneurial group in the province. All of the cooperative groups chatted back and forth sharing stories and asking interesting questions about the others work. It was the perfect networking session as I really think they learned from each other. At the end of the workshop, they even coordinated to work with and buy from each other! The sewing cooperative and bakery found a new client in Padre Cajade. As a supplement to the classes, I created a 50 page manual in Spanish and using many pictures and examples. The manual goes into a bit more in depth on all of the subjects covered in the workshops and includes a section on common mistakes and general advice. I assembled an appendix providing extra entrepreneurial and community resources as well as a section of fair trade national and international organizations. The manuals were distributed to each of the participating women and to the representatives of the Obra. Copies were also given to various NGOs with hopes of further distributing to those in need of the information.

During the final discussion, my co-workers from the other departments of CEP began discussing the project. My direct boss proudly told them of all my hard work and showed them a copy of the comprehensive manual. Through this connection, all areas of CEP jointly expressed interest that future FSD interns will continue the workshops to reach more cooperatives as part of a community outreach program for the NGO!!!

In the end and all of my hard work, multiple marathon miles of walking and hours of planning and writing paid off. The manual is my pride and joy and will help many people even after I am gone. By giving personal attention to each cooperative and working directly to help shape their individual business models, I was able to teach them practical skills increasing their organizational desires, personal work ethic and a more dynamic understanding of their companies and themselves. They in turn, taught me a great deal about bravery, flexibility and tenacity.

Amid both success and challenge, I became incredibly humbled and found a sense of irony in the ultimate simplicity of it all. Some of the women could not read or write and most never finished primary school, but all shared their experiences and learned from one another. This manner of collaboration and education has laid the groundwork for a network of social commerce services. These lasting memories are a true sense of pride and fulfillment that can only come by teaching and learning from others.

Information about the groups this project was able to directly reach:

Estrategia & MTD

This link is a video explaining the MTD movement. For those that cannot understand the Spanish, the pictures explain a lot.

Estrategia is one of the Comedor cooperatives involved in the training workshops. They are a part of the MTD movement as explained in the link above. This movement basically fights for the rights of unemployed workers. I was able to sit in on a members meeting, where as activists they discussed not only “lobbying” options, but also an array of community support activities. Estrategia is part of the community service arm of MTD, officially a separate community comedor. As mentioned previously, another FSD inter, Arvil Antonio Gonzales was able to help assemble a local bakery business to not only support the comedor but the local community and many excited local women bakers. They received a mixed material oven from another NGO, which can use anything as fuel, including old newspapers or wood scraps mixed with grass and weeds. This business is ideal because of its location within the villa or township area of the city and the needs of the community for local commerce. Their bread is made from a Bolivian recipe, which is reflective of the heredity of the neighborhoods residents. Not only this buy the bread can be cheaply made and has a unique exceptional flavor. Yum!

Arco Iris, Working World and Otro Mercado

Arco Iris already had a relatively structured business system in place and new infrastructure. This sewing cooperative specializes in dog clothing but has been able to accommodate special orders, such as messenger bags and babies clothing. Through a micro finance loan, they purchased beautiful new high-tech sewing machines, on which they have all been trained, significantly increasing the quality of their products! This cooperative lacks a bit of direction and organizational structure as well as consistent sales. They also seem to have a high reliance on outside NGO assistance and I believe the workshops have brought them closer to independence.

Working world also known as “La Base,” is a micro finance organization which provided the loan for the new sewing machines and works closely with them offering advices and acting as a middleman, selling their products online. The link above shows their line of dog clothing, which is of fairly high quality. I was impressed by their attention to detail and concern for quality control. Their outfits come in both polar fleece and cotton and vary in styles. They are extremely cute and well-made so if you have a small dog click on the link above and buy some!!

The cooperative is currently in the process of connecting with the international fair trade movement through an Italian company called, Otro Mercado, who happens to have a retail store in downtown La Plata. This provided the opportunity to cover the fair trade objectives in the operations workshop as well as the final discussion. Many resources to this movement were provided in the appendix of the manual as a very strong and secure option for many social cooperatives.

Obra de Padre Cajade

This organization was started by a priest who left an amazing legacy and a strong system of community support to continue his work. The Obra is very well-known and a very large social entrepreneurial presence in the province of Buenos Aires. It includes three orphanages hosting various ages of children and five social businesses. The amazing concept of these businesses is that they are used as a form of apprenticeship teaching above the education they receive in the orphanage. The profits from these businesses are all reinvested into the orphanages to create more opportunities for the children. Definitely check out their website, although it’s only in Spanish but if you can read it, you cannot help but be impressed! Representatives attended the final discussion and shared insight based on their past experiences.

1 Comedors are NGO community assistance programs located in the most impoverished areas of the country, which provide food, education and other support activities for the community.


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Some of the young women practice beadworking at the vocational schoolI am volunteering in Jinja, Uganda, with the Phoebe Educational Fund for AIDS Orphans and Vulnerable Children (PEFO). Part of my work involves administering a vocational school that PEFO established in December 2007 in order to help young women who had had to leave school early because they could not afford the school fees.

There are 12 students at the school, all between the ages of 16 and 23. Many of their parents died of AIDS, and they are being cared for by their grandmothers. In addition, about half of the young women are mothers themselves, and struggle to provide for the many dependents in their families. The opportunity to learn a marketable skill—in this case, tailoring—is a potentially life-changing one for them.

I was startled one night a couple months ago to receive a phone call from one of the young women at the PEFO vocational center. The reason they don’t have cell phones or the ability to make frequent pay phone calls is more or less the reason they’re in this program: they’re extremely poor.

But there was one of my brightest students, “Sarah,” 23, on the other end of the line one evening. I greeted her with pleasant surprise.

“Madam, I can’t come to class tomorrow,” she said. Her voice was muffled by the static of the pay phone line.

“Oh…well that’s okay, Sarah. It’s no problem. Thanks for telling me, though.” As an afterthought: “Is everything all right?”

She paused. “Madam, our family is visiting tomorrow for my son. Last week he fell sick, and he was lost.”

That couldn’t be right. Sarah has a five-year-old daughter and two-year-old son, and they are the joys of her life—especially since her husband left the family a year ago for another woman, which she talks about with lingering bitterness and pain.

“He is lost? What do you mean?”

Her voice seemed to grow fainter. “He was sick very suddenly, and we took him to the hospital, and on the way…he lost his life.” She added: “So I will not be at the school tomorrow.”

I was suddenly overflowing with condolences, offers to help, profound apologies—all of which sounded empty and clichéd as I uttered them. And just then, her phone credit ran out and the line went dead.

I spent the rest of the night alternating between attempting to call her back and fighting back my own tears. Child mortality rates in developing countries are shocking by Western standards, but they’re still little more than numbers on a page until one of the most intelligent, prepossessing young women you meet in one of those countries has the light abruptly sucked out of her life.

Rebecca at Sarah’s home a few weeks after her initial visitThe next day, another PEFO staffer and I drove into her village, down bumpy, red-dirt roads lined with banana trees and mud huts in front of which children shrieked and played. Each one must have been a reminder to Sarah of what she had lost.

She was waiting for us on the side of the road, at a neighbor’s house. She smiled the same smile I saw every day at the vocational school, as if nothing were wrong. I got out of the car and gave her our gifts of bread, tea and sugar. Then, not knowing what else to do, I put my arms around her and told her I was sorry.

And then she began sobbing quietly. “Madam—I have lost all my hope.” She shook her head as tears streamed down her cheeks. “I miss my child.”

We spent the rest of the day back at her house, chatting with her neighbors and family members, playing with her little daughter (who Sarah kept obsessively by her side the whole day), and walking out to see the fields where she cultivates corn, beans, cassava and potatoes.

One of the neighbors pulled out a photo album at one point, and showed me Sarah’s late son. He was, by any measure, a beautiful child. He had his older sister’s same shy smile and his mother’s large, bright-alive eyes. At that point, after doing her best to talk and laugh with her visitors throughout the day, Sarah began brushing away tears. The neighbor quietly put away the album.

Soon after that day, the vocational project really took off; we began making deals with local schools to buy school uniforms en masse from our young vocational tailors, ensuring a potentially enormous, sustainable market for this class and all future classes. Every day I visited the school, the girls had made new skirt and shirt designs and hung them proudly on the walls. And I was starting to see a new confidence in the way the girls carried themselves—a new spark in their eyes.

Sarah continued as she always had—energetic, inquisitive and determined. She made no reference to her dead son, never faltered when other students brought their young children to the school with them for the day. But I continually wondered and worried about her state of mind.

A couple months after my visit to the village, we learned about a two-day finance and bookkeeping workshop being held in Jinja. Since the young women would be starting their own tailoring business together after graduating the vocational school, it was critical that some of them have a sophisticated grasp of accounting. (We hold periodic “Entrepreneurship” lessons at the school, but we only cover the basics.)

PEFO could only manage to pay for one young woman to attend the workshop. I thought back to all those “Entrepreneurship” classes, to the hand that was raised the most frequently, to the person who asked all those questions I often struggled to answer, to the young woman who listed seven subjects—including accounts and commerce—when asked what her favorite classes in school had been.

Sarah and her five-year-old daughter at the vocational schoolI met Sarah on the morning of the workshop and guided her to the hotel conference room where the lectures were being held. She was easily the youngest person there, and her simple attire stood in stark contrast to the business suits and tailored dresses of the other participants in the room.

“Now, don’t be afraid to ask questions,” I told her (though I could imagine no such thing), “and think about how this will apply to your business. You will have to use this knowledge in just a few weeks!”

She nodded, oddly quiet, and I realized she was quite nervous. “You’ll do great!” I added, and then left her to the workshop. Well, I thought, at least she’ll get some good food.

The rest of that week at PEFO, we rushed to solidify plans for the vocational students’ graduation: we picked out a place for them in their local village to set up their business, we signed up more schools to buy uniforms by the hundreds, and we began recruiting the second class in what (I hope) will be a long line of groups to have their quality of life improved significantly by acquiring the means and skills to earn a decent living for their families.

The next week, I dropped by the school and learned of all the progress the girls had been making recently. But I was especially eager to hear how Sarah had fared in her workshop.

“I will show you,” she said. She took out a notebook and opened it to a page of complex tables and figures. “This is the [incomprehensible term to me] method of accounting,” she began. And then she flipped to the next page, and the next—countless pages of meticulous notes—explaining everything she had learned in the workshop.

“At the end of the class, we had an exam on everything they taught us,” she said. “And they awarded certificates to those who passed.” At this point, she pulled out a glossy, laminated certificate with her name on it and showed it to me. “Only 18 passed.”

“How many were in the class?” I asked.


Suddenly I felt tears spring to my eyes. I picked up her certificate and stared at it. “Oh my God! That is…oh my God!”

I had the feeling then that the project was going to be a success, that the tailoring business would be in good hands when I left, that inside all of these young women were countless untapped talents that just maybe stood a better chance now of finding expression.

I know life won’t always be easy for these women. Already, many have overcome more difficulty than most people in the Western world will know in their lifetime. But all I wish for them is what I began to see happening during their time at the vocational school: pride in their abilities and confidence in their way forward. And for some of them—to find hope again after losing it along the way.

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