By Jeremy Woo
The University of Calgary branch of the Global Business Brigades, a non-governmental organization that provides consulting services to entrepreneurs in the developing world, is preparing for its third annual trip to Panama next May.
The club teaches business skills to small business owners in impoverished villages. The U of C branch was formed in 2011 under the leadership of accounting instructor Anita Lakra.
“What I do is work with students,” Lakra said. “I wanted to take these talents and interests and combine them to make the world a better place.”
Instead of giving financial aid, Global Business Brigades tries to improve entrepreneurs’ business skills to benefit the community’s long-term economic success.
“Global Business Brigades is about identifying global issues and discovering and exploring leaders to make sustainable solutions,” said Global Business Brigades Calgary vice-president and fourth-year energy management student Rose Ferrer.
The club traveled to Panama’s countryside twice during the past two years. Once there, they do business consulting during the course of one week in villages of approximately 100 people.
“People live on an as-needed basis. There is great economic disparity,” said veteran brigade member and fifth-year business student Marc Di Manno. “A lot of people have a Grade 2 or 3 education and don’t comprehend concepts that we take for granted, such as separating business and personal expenses.”
Global Business Brigades Calgary’s former chief of marketing and fifth-year business student Suraj Chandrasekaran recalled a moment while working with a 55 year-old businessman in Panama using a set of plastic coins.
“His eyes lit up when he finally realized that two plastic coins plus another three plastic coins could be exchanged for a five-dollar bill,” Chandrasekaran said.
Di Manno was also moved by a businessman that was thankful for Global Business Brigades’s services.
“One man asked the translator how to say ‘thank you for changing my life’ in English so that he could say that to me before I left,” Di Manno said.
Global Business Brigades’s members must adapt to the clients’ needs during their service. McLean recalls a situation where clients asked for a workshop on leadership instead of financial topics. Brigade members quickly improvised a lesson plan.
McLean later asked a businesswoman about the lesson. The woman began to cry, thanking her for the help.
“This really worked. People were happy we were there,” McLean said.
The club’s program emphasizes a two-way information exchange, as the club is convinced that both clients and students will benefit by combining their knowledge.
To help cover travel expenses that amount to $1,500 per student, the club hosts several fundraisers and receives university grants. The club is looking to corporate donors for future funding. Global Business Brigades Calgary is not exclusive to business students. In the past, arts, engineering and graduate students have traveled with the club to Panama.
“This is not just a business club. It’s about international development, health, critical thinking and solving major problems,” Tahir said.
Chandrasekaran acknowledged that there are challenges.
“People may not be aware of us,” Chandrasekaran said. “We want to let people know that this is a fantastic opportunity.”