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Sharing The Wealth In Nicaragua

Nicaragua Home Page thumbnailJay Kapoor is only entering his sophomore year at the Tepper School of Business, but thanks to a spring break trip to Nicaragua, he can already claim experience as both a business consultant and a homebuilder.

As part of a trip organized by Students In Free Enterprise, an undergraduate group dedicated to improving the local and global community through service projects, Kapoor helped teach a three-day workshop in skills such as entrepreneurial planning and financial management to local business owners and employees in Leon, Nicaragua. Though the group awarded a total of $1,000 in micro-equity grants to projects that showed particular promise, one owner revealed to Kapoor that winning a grant was less important to him than the knowledge he gained about his business structure.

For the nine students who made the trip, the project was a lesson in applying what they’d learned in their undergraduate coursework — and acquiring new skill sets to do it.

“We had to apply a lot of what we learned in our classes and teach principles in a different language to people who have been doing business their own way for years,” says Kapoor, a Business Administration major who is spending the summer interning at Bristol-Myers Squibb as an Auditing Services intern. Though Kapoor is taking Spanish classes, he was not yet fluent. But, he quickly gained proficiency in both the language and the local culture as the team immersed themselves as in-country consultants.

Among the subjects they covered were components of a business plan, organizing finances, and tracking revenue and expenses. The students also did some independent consulting, recommending solutions for individual business problems. One land surveyor hoped to capitalize on the large tracts of undeveloped land in his country by becoming a private consultant to people who want to build homes. Another participant was a bank employee who dreamed of opening his own hardware store.

The winner of the largest grant, which totaled $500, was the owner of a school uniform shop who hoped to expand by bringing in machines that would increase his production.

“This guy was really passionate about his business. We felt how much he wanted to grow,” says Kapoor.

The workshops allowed students to stand in as teachers for a few days, and also taught them the give-and-take of working on a group project and filling in each others’ knowledge gaps. For example, as a freshman, Kapoor had not yet taken business communication courses, but upperclassmen had — so Kapoor learned from them, too.

In addition to the workshop, the students also built a house for five members of an extended family that was working on a farm in the foothills of an active volcano about 20 minutes from Leon. Students contacted a contractor to build the foundation in advance of their trip, then rolled up their sleeves and got to work when they arrived, laying bricks, mixing concrete, and bending coils for structural support. The language barrier required some creativity and charades at first, but ultimately the students were able to effectively communicate with their temporary co-workers as well as their host families.

“It was an amazing learning experience, and it was very, very challenging,” says Kapoor. “By the end, we were bending metal and laying cement like pros.”

The team used principles of sustainability to build the house, which should survive “for the next 200 years, barring any disaster,” says Kapoor, citing the forecast of the contractor.

Members of the family that will move into the house also helped with its construction and bonded with the students. One, a 15-year-old boy, took an interest in the students’ lives and exchanged e-mail addresses with them so he can stay in touch as he prepares for school exams this fall.

Kapoor and fellow business major Sasha Urquidi, BA 2010, planned the trip as project leaders and plan to return next spring to work in the same region with a new family. Business workshop attendees also asked to be contacted for next year’s event.

SIFE is a growing organization on the Carnegie Mellon campus. Though based at the Tepper School, it attracts members from many disciplines, and its base of nearly 150 students is expected to grow in the coming academic year. The chapter gave a presentation about its service projects this year, including the trip to Nicaragua, at the SIFE Regional Competition in Cincinnati. They won a spot to compete in the organization’s national competition in May, but do not yet know the results.

For Kapoor, an Eagle Scout who worked on service projects throughout his high school years, the appeal of SIFE is that it emphasizes giving back to the community.

“It’s showing people that business is not just about making money and walking away; it is about giving back,” he says.

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