SOM students put school skills to work

Two weeks in Colombia filled with broken English, fresh coffee and social change — this spring break was a considerable change of pace for School of Management students accustomed to analyzing revenue streams and organizational structures in a Yale classroom.

Twenty-four students from the Yale School of Management’s Global Social Enterprise Club spent their break doing pro bono consulting for social enterprises in Latin America ranging from funders for education programs to environmental preservation groups.

The club, which was founded four years ago as a way to practically apply SOM’s business curriculum to consulting projects with some social value, is a student-run, for-credit class offered at SOM each spring.

Gwyneth Jones SOM ’08 said the opportunity to work with like-minded students to make social change was a valuable academic experience.

“It’s one thing to take classes and think about things in an academic way, but when you actually have to apply it in a client setting, you apply the tools and internalize it in a different way,” she said.

GSE students are no strangers to social change.

Brian LoBue SOM ’08 spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Tanzania before working for the Peace Corps in the United States and then matriculating at SOM. After graduation, Giovanna Masci SOM ’08 plans to work for Kiva, an organization whose Web site allows individuals to give small loans to specific entrepreneurs in the developing world. Gwyneth Jones SOM ’08 said she comes from a background in “international public health and social justice.” And Katya Levitan-Reiner SOM ’08, who comes from a public education background and plans to go into consulting, is interested in nonprofit management and consulting.

The semesterlong class is divided into three phases. During the first six weeks of the spring semester, GSE’s student leaders, with the help of faculty advisor and professor Garry Brewer, bring lecturers and professors to speak in a weekly class that focuses on everything from nonprofit management and consulting to the political situation in that semester’s focus country — in this case, Colombia. Concurrently, the student leaders choose organizations in the country on which to focus their consulting efforts before, during and after the trip.

The second phase of the course is the spring break trip, when students travel to meet with their organizations and work together to develop practical and feasible deliverables, such as marketing strategies and plans for business expansion.

For the duration of the semester, students work on achieving their deliverables in a sort of independent study, through continued collaboration with their partners in Colombia via Skype and e-mail.

Many students, like Dave Vosburg SOM ’09, said they found the hands-on experience of the trip invaluable.

“Personally, I find it difficult to learn in classrooms divorced from reality,” he wrote in an e-mail. “I’m a learn by doing person, so I have probably learned more from GSE than I have from any two or three of my other classes here.”

This year, the group leaders selected six Colombian social enterprises — the World Resource Institute’s New Ventures program, the World Wildlife Fund, Fundacion Natura, the Genesis Foundation, AVINA and Corporacion Somos Mas — for which to do pro bono consulting.

This year’s social enterprises were mostly focused on environmental causes in Colombia.

“There is potentially an idea for Colombia to leverage its environment to attract tourism the way that other countries in Latin America have done,” Masci said.

She explained that many of the GSE students are in SOM’s joint degree program with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, which added to their desire to work on environmentally focused projects.

Masci was one of this year’s four student leaders, who developed the coursework and planned the spring break trip. The leaders were responsible for dividing the GSE students into smaller teams of three to four and assigning each team to work with a specific organization.

Levitan-Reiner was the team leader for consulting work with Corporacion Somos Mas.

“Somos Mas is a small organization that is hoping to create a large social network for nonprofit organizations in Colombia,” she said. “Their initial premise is that there are a lot of small nonprofits in Colombia that would be stronger if they were able to connect with each other to help one another build capacity.”

The team is working to create a financial model for Somos Mas to look at different revenue streams and analyze which ones they should be pursuing, and in what proportion.

Jones headed the team that focused on AVINA, the largest private foundation that works exclusively in Latin America. Jones and her GSE team helped AVINA develop a plan to scale up recycling cooperatives throughout Latin America.

“There are thousands of these people who call themselves ‘recyclists,’ ” she said. “They come into urban centers and collect recyclable materials. They’re very poor, and they tend to be socially and economically marginalized, with no supplier power. We were helping groups form cooperatives to have more negotiating power, increase their profit margins and improve their quality of life.”

One of the most dynamic meetings of the trip was with a social entrepreneur who started as a recyclist himself when he was 12 years old. He went on to found the first cooperative in Bogota, and is now the founder and director of the Association of Recycling Cooperatives in Colombia’s capital.

“He’s this amazing, really charismatic, driven social entrepreneur,” Jones said. “He’s a great guy, and we got to meet with him and understand where he came from and talk about his vision for how to increase the movement.”

Other GSE members had similar experiences with dynamic Colombians dedicated to social change. Brian LoBue worked with the New Ventures Program of the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank in DC that hopes to promote environmentally oriented small and medium businesses in the developing world by connecting them with potential investors.

In determining New Ventures’ strategic partners, LoBue and his team met with everyone from a man who recycles plastic and turns it into construction material to executives at Bavaria, the largest brewery in Colombia.

LoBue said the energy at some of his meetings was tangible.

“On one of the walls in the [Bavaria] office, they had this huge frosted glass wall, and they used the whole wall as a whiteboard, so we diagrammed this online network on the whiteboard that trades virtual currency,” he described. “You could tell that there are a lot of very dynamic people working on these problems in Colombia. It’s exciting — you can feel the energy of these people.”

That energy extended beyond social entrepreneurs in Colombia. GSE worked closely with faculty advisor Brewer — “dynamic and excited” himself, according to Masci — as well as individuals at Bogota’s Universidad de Los Andes.

After a full first week of meetings, the group spent their second week traveling throughout Colombia, stopping in the coffee region and coastal towns. The course will culminate in a luncheon presentation of each group’s results at the end of the semester.

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