When I was applying to business schools this time last year, Project Nicaragua was something that gave Wake Forest a leg up as I weighed my options. Having adventured through several countries in my 20s, including India, South Africa, Nepal, and Peru, I was looking for a b-school experience where I could apply the lessons I’ve learned in those travels in a way that would have a meaningful impact on the communities I visited.
So I knew that I wanted to participate in Project Nicaragua even before I got my acceptance letter, and over Spring Break, I finally got the chance to travel to Managua! Our goal was to teach local entrepreneurs some fundamental concepts in finance and marketing, which they could apply to their own businesses. However, even though we came to Nicaragua as teachers, Nicaragua had a lot to teach us.
1. Stakes are high. People are counting on you.
The first days of our work began with site visits to the businesses that would be participating in our classes. Not only did this afford our team one-on-one interviews with the entrepreneurs to learn more about their unique businesses needs, we were able to observe operations first hand. Understanding the range of conditions under which these businesses function is crucial to understanding what they need in order to grow. For example, we visited a candy-maker whose production was constrained due to the lack of automated machinery. Other businesses were restricted by the lengthy and expensive procedures required to obtain permits.
Often, the stakes for success are high, and Berlis Alonso Cano of La Cosecha brought that lesson home hard as she told us about why she needed her business to succeed. Her sister and brother-in-law died unexpectedly and she suddenly had to care for her two nieces, in addition to her own daughter and son. In the midst of bringing her nieces to come live with her, her son suffered a serious construction accident, in which he lost an eye, as well as the ability to bring in income for the family. Already living in a destitute, dirt-floor neighborhood in Managua, her business, a soy drink producer called La Cosecha, was borne out of the need to provide for her family.
Listening to Berlis’ story made us realize how much the entrepreneurs were counting on us to provide them with new ideas and ways of thinking about their businesses. Her strength motivated us to make sure we delivered during the two-day seminars.
2. Turn the tables by becoming the teacher – but stay humble.
As business school students, we are typically the ones sitting at our desk, taking notes, hoping to impress our professors. So it’s a bit jarring to suddenly stand up in front of a group of business owners, who are looking expectantly toward you to be the voice of authority. Two insights come out of being in this position:
First, standing up in front of a room, while it can be intimidating at first, actually helps build your confidence as a presenter. Once your start your lesson, you realize that the classroom is completely engaged. They want to hear what you have to say. You realize that you know your material better than you think you did and you can begin to focus on things other than just the content – how can I get the shy student more involved? how can I improve my body language or manner of speech?
Secondly, it’s important to remember that as a student, you aren’t necessarily an expert on the topic you’re teaching. You might not know the answers to every question that comes your way. It’s not a good idea to pretend that you do. While it’s true that the business owners are counting on us to teach them, we are not experts at running businesses in Nicaragua. The sharing of ideas and experiences between entrepreneurs is just as valuable to the students as the content in your PowerPoint. These discussions are an excellent way to learn something new from them.
3. Getting out of your comfort zone together helps you take your friendship to a whole different level.
Making it through Quant together is one thing, but wait until you’re eating bull testicles and drinking Macuas together at a picturesque restaurant in Managua after a long day of business visits. That’s when you really know you have made life-long friends.
One of the best things about Project Nicaragua is that it’s not all work. Part of the “project” is teambuilding with your classmates. Activities such as ziplining through the rainforest allow you to share in new experiences with your classmates and discover new aspects of their personalities. When it comes to a canned octopus eating challenge, there’s really no comparable experience you can find in Winston-Salem.
4. Taking in the natural world offers a subtle but powerful message.
Traveling to a developing country like Nicaragua extracts you from your familiar environment reminding you, to some extent, of your cosmic place on this planet. Amidst the teaching experience, the tourist outings, and the piles of tostadas you consume throughout Project Nicaragua, the natural world surrounds you. As you observe and speak with the locals, you get a better sense of how the natural world connects with their daily lives in ways we don’t give much thought to here in the U.S. Winding through dirt streets to find our way to Berlis at La Cosecha, we watched horse-drawn carts deliver commodities like sugar to the pulperías, and saw an unfortunate goat get its head stuck in a wrought iron door on someone’s front stoop.
Moreover, as you travel about the country, you come face to face with a landscape starkly different from the oak forests and dogwood trees of North Carolina. One of the most striking instances of natural beauty can be seen at the Masaya Volcano.
Overlooking the steamy volcano (where they literally used to sacrifice virgins to the gods), you are forced to remember your own humanity, and the small piece of the giant world you make up. It’s a big world out there, and it’s more than just landing a prestigious internship or acing your finals. As a Wake Forest business student, what role are you going to play?
Project Nicaragua offers WFU students a way to engage with the global community and make an immediate impact on local businesses, and I can’t wait to send more of my classmates off on these rewarding adventures next year!