The business of doing good

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In the mornings, the students were curious learners, studying the ins and outs of microfinance and economic development in Latin America at the Santo Domingo Institute of Technology. In the afternoons, they were unpaid consultants, surveying clients of Esperanza International, a leading microcredit organization, and writing qualitative reports for the nonprofit’s chief financial officer.

It was May and some 30 undergraduates were working their way through the first two weeks of the Social Enter­prise Institute’s month­long inter­na­tional field study pro­gram to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Expe­ri­en­tial learning oppor­tu­ni­ties like these, built on the prin­ci­ples of the Grameen Bank model of micro­fi­nance, give stu­dents the chance to take global ser­vice to a new level through cul­tural immersion.

I’m really inter­ested in under­standing micro­fi­nance within the con­text of Latin Amer­ican and the Caribbean,” said Katherine Panay­otov, SSH’15. “This pro­gram was the per­fect way to under­stand how the field works and how inter­na­tional orga­ni­za­tions imple­ment changes in coun­tries that are trying to get out of poverty.”

Indeed, SEI is grounded in the belief that busi­ness can be a pow­erful tool in helping to alle­viate poverty in the devel­oping world. The insti­tute was founded in 2007 by Dennis Shaugh­nessy, an exec­u­tive pro­fessor of inno­va­tion and entre­pre­neur­ship in the D’Amore-McKim School of Busi­ness. In 2008, he started run­ning field study pro­grams to South Africa and the Dominican Republic and spear­headed this spring’s pro­gram with Gordon Adomdza, an assis­tant aca­d­emic spe­cialist of entre­pre­neur­ship and innovation.

The pair designed the pro­gram in accor­dance with Northeastern’s edu­ca­tion model, which inte­grates class­room study with pro­fes­sional expe­ri­ence. “In class, we give the stu­dents the theories,”Adomdza said. “In the field, they val­i­date those theories.”

As a case in point, the stu­dents trav­eled to El Caño, a rural com­mu­nity in the Monte Plata region of the Dominican Republic. There the group sur­veyed some 20 impov­er­ished women, gauging their interest in working for a sewing coop­er­a­tive aimed at building sus­tain­able economic growth.

This past spring, Panay­otov helped design a busi­ness model for the coop­er­a­tive. Later this month, Dominican Republic native Richard Ng, DMSB’17, will travel to El Caño to con­tinue working on the project.

El Caño is iso­lated and eco­nomic activity is vir­tu­ally non-​​existent,” Panay­otov explained. “The sewing coop­er­a­tive gives these women a way to apply their skills to gen­erate a sus­tain­able form of income.”

When Panay­otov and her peers weren’t con­sulting with fledg­ling entre­pre­neurs, they were vol­un­teering in other ways. In mid-​​May, the young human­i­tar­ians vis­ited two sites—a church called Mis­sion Emanuel and a fair-​​trade clothing com­pany called Alta Gracia Apparel, which sup­plies T-​​shirts to Northeastern’s book­store. There they offered free eye exams to some 350 com­mu­nity mem­bers and dis­trib­uted reading glasses pro­vided by Vision Spring, a non­profit partner of the field study program.

We weren’t curing blind­ness, but it was an amazing expe­ri­ence to watch as the com­mu­nity mem­bers tried on glasses for the first time,” said Miranda Beggin, DMSB’17, who helped design eye exam training mate­rials in Shaughnessy’s impact investing course this past spring. “Most of these people had never been able to afford glasses.”

After com­pleting the com­mu­nity ser­vice project, the stu­dents trav­eled to Havana, the cap­ital city of Cuba. They stayed for one week, touring a country that only recently opened its bor­ders to out­side invest­ment and speaking with sev­eral Cubans, including an econ­o­mist who reg­u­larly con­sults with Raul Castro, Cuba’s head of state.

Adomdza, who led this por­tion of the pro­gram, asked the stu­dents to design two empathy maps of the life of the average Cuban–one before the start of the week­long expe­ri­ence and one after. What does the country’s typ­ical cit­izen think and feel? What does he say and do? How does the hypoth­esis com­pare with the reality?

The find­ings sur­prised the stu­dents, many of whom had pre­dicted that the typ­ical Cuban would be poor, unhappy, and on the verge of fleeing. “We went in with a very dif­ferent per­spec­tive than we came out of there with,” Beggin explained, noting that the Cuban gov­ern­ment has under­gone some­thing of a trans­for­ma­tion over the past few years, devel­oping new part­ner­ships with inter­na­tional cor­po­ra­tions and the hotel industry. “The people I spoke with seemed happy. They didn’t seem like they wanted to leave.”

Added Adomdza: “One of the main lessons from Cuba was that there were so many reforms going on in the private sector that it was difficult to get a sense of where the country was going.”

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Originally appeared in News@Northeastern on July 9, 2014