Weaving a Path to a Better Life
After many hours of travel down a long dirt road, Paul Dent, MBA’10, arrived at a secluded ranch scattered with rustic, wooden outbuildings. It may sound like the beginnings of a Western novel, but the setting, in fact, was one of the poorest regions of Cambodia. Instead of cattle roping or sheepherding, the occupants were busily working at looms, manufacturing beautiful silk scarves.
Last summer Dent rolled up his sleeves and applied his freshly minted marketing skills by helping the founders of the Stung Treng Women’s Development Center (SWDC) expand their vision of providing employment, training and education to women in the region. Proceeds from the silk scarves, which are woven by the women and sold in regional gift shops and at www.bluesilk.org under the Mekong Blue brand, benefit the center.
“My goal was to help them create a plan for sustainability with the hope of decreasing their reliance on outside funding in the near future,” says Dent, whose work was directed and funded by the Allen Foundation, which for years has been actively supporting the SWDC in its goal to achieve sustainability. Dent’s result was a 20-page marketing report detailing some of his findings.
“This was a great exercise in thinking back to the basics of marketing,” he says. “We were working from a very basic marketing level, asking how we get people interested in hands-on, real-time opportunities with a small business that is making a difference in so many lives.”
Dent was struck by the poverty and isolation of the embattled Stung Treng region in the country’s northeast corner, where a majority of the residents are sustenance farmers. Such enterprise as that taking place at the women’s center might have resulted in persecution from the oppressive Khmer Rouge regime that occupied Cambodia just a few decades earlier.
“This center was developed to provide a source of income, training and livelihood for the women. Unfortunately they might otherwise turn to the sex trade, which is pretty prevalent there,” he says. “This gives them a fair trade, a way to learn a valuable skill and also provides housing, health and other services they need, as well as education for their children.”
Dent was engaged in the work in Cambodia by the Rev. Ann Walling of Franklin, Tenn., whose family founded the Allen Foundation. In 2009 Walling established a highly successful Internet presence for the sale of Mekong Blue scarves with the support of St. David’s Episcopal Church in Nashville. The Owen School entered the picture shortly after when Walling contracted with Amy Seigenthaler Pierce, President of Seigenthaler Public Relations, to boost public relations efforts for Mekong Blue. Pierce is the wife of Tim Pierce, a Director within the Vanderbilt Executive Development Institute, who put out the word that Walling was seeking to hire an Owen graduate to assist the SWDC.
Once in Cambodia, Dent focused on the potential of expanding the company’s presence locally, particularly in Phnom Penh, the home of Mekong Blue’s flagship store. He suggested making the scarves available in more stores and actively interacting with managers and owners of shops to generate interest in selling the scarves. A shop clerk he identified also offered to help with distribution efforts.
With increasing numbers of tourists visiting the capital and nearby shrines, such as the Angkor Wat temples in Siem Reap, Dent felt the touching story of Mekong Blue would resonate with travelers. He encouraged founders Nguon Chantha and Kim Dara Chan, who built much of the SWDC complex with their own hands, to reach out to travel agents and guides who might bring tourists to the stores or to the production facility.
Dent detailed numerous other suggestions in his report and left Cambodia with a sense that he was able to make an immediate contribution. “It was a great opportunity,” he says, “to put some of the things I learned at Owen into practice right away.”
Leadership amid the Ruins
The moment in 1994 when Jim Bryson, MBA’85, and his wife, Carol, pulled away from a state-run orphanage in Russia with three adopted children in their laps was both joyful and sad. They had become parents at last, but 20 more orphans stood watching from the steps as they pulled away.
“We wished we could take them all,” he says.
During the next 15 years, as the family grew to four children, Bryson continued to build 20/20 Research, the qualitative research firm he had founded in 1986, with offices in Nashville, Miami and Charlotte, N.C. He even served four years as a state senator and was his party’s nominee for Tennessee governor in 2006. But he never forgot the orphans left behind.
On Jan. 12, 2010, as a 7.0 magnitude earthquake pummeled the island of Haiti, Bryson found himself profoundly moved by the plight of its people. A visit to Haiti four months later provided images he could not shake, especially the number of young teenage orphans who ended up on the street with no education and nowhere to go. Bryson saw a nation in desperate need of rebuilding and leadership.
“I began to put these two problems together: There’s a real orphan crisis and there are not enough leaders in the country, and that’s when I had a vision for a concept where we’d build a school for older orphans,” he says. A return visit last summer cemented an ambitious plan—to transform a national crisis into a leadership opportunity by founding a boarding school for secondary education.
According to his vision, The Joseph School, as it has become known, will offer academics, leadership training and service training. The school is named for the biblical figure in Genesis who was separated from his family because of his brothers’ deception, rose to a leadership role in the pharaoh’s government, and later saved his family and his country from famine through his vision and adept leadership.
The school will partner with an educational institution to choose curriculum and devise admissions testing procedures for talented students. Included in that curriculum will be Haitian cultural arts and history. “We will also have classes in English and French because immersion is crucial to these students being able to function in government and the wider world,” Bryson adds. “However, we will not abandon their native Creole as it is the language of the Haitian people.”
The Joseph School received an initial $20,000 startup grant from the Retail Orphan Initiative, a charitable foundation that aims to raise awareness and provide solutions for orphans worldwide. The school’s interim director, who has experience building a school in another third-world country, has begun researching and identifying best educational practices for Haiti.
Bryson says attorneys have volunteered legal help to get the necessary paperwork in order for the next steps, including identifying a site and beginning construction. “The concept of helping orphans get an education and take on leadership roles resonates with people,” he says. “I’m finding there’s a lot of interest in the business community. Business leaders know the value of leadership.”
Bryson hopes the school will ultimately help empower the people of Haiti to rebuild their nation while addressing other pressing social problems. “We want to help give them the resources to equip them to solve their own problems,” he says.
A Lesson in Sustainability
In 2006, 11 Vanderbilt MBA students used C.K. Prahalad’s book The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid as the basis to form an organization dedicated to addressing global poverty through education, collaboration and action. Since then, the group known as Project Pyramid has grown steadily thanks in large part to the support of Cal Turner Jr., BA’62, retired Chair and CEO of Dollar General Corp.
Today there is a Project Pyramid course at Owen taught by Bart Victor, the Cal Turner Professor of Moral Leadership, that is open to students across the university. One component of this course is a spring break trip where learned principles and practices are put into action to tackle problems of poverty.
Previous spring break projects focused on developing nations in Asia, such as Bangladesh, but in 2010 the group decided to build upon Vanderbilt’s already strong connections in Guatemala, where the university has a significant number of health, development and archaeological projects.
More than 25 students returned to Guatemala in March 2011, dividing into several faculty-led teams focused on issues from microfinance lending to creating marketing plans for nonprofits. Among these teams was a group of Owen students working with Clinical Professor of Management Jim Schorr to investigate microlending opportunities for housing in Guatemala City. The Nashville-based Shalom Foundation had been building houses in the Las Conchas community on the outskirts of the city for several years but was seeking help to find ways to finance an expansion of the program.
In Las Conchas, 800 families live on dirt floors in makeshift homes strung together with sheets of corrugated metal. Schorr’s group learned that with a $4,000 loan a family could build a more substantial home on the same land. A community assessment conducted by some of the students in 2010 revealed that many families could afford such a home with financing help. The students then set out to find a community-minded microlender. After several meetings the Las Conchas team received strong interest from Genesis Empresarial, Guatemala’s leading microfinance institution. This year another group of Project Pyramid students returned to further this initial progress.
The students have learned that the key is to empower local communities. MBA candidate for 2012 Samuel Frank, a project leader who also has traveled and worked with nonprofits in Bolivia, says many such organizations face similar challenges.
“These nonprofit groups are led by passionate people doing incredible work,” Frank says. “The challenge is finding a way to expand these education, health and social programs in a way that is sustainably funded and doesn’t breed dependence. It is relatively easy to do something for someone. It is much more challenging to develop those skills and expertise locally so progress continues long after you leave.”
Ted Fischer, Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Center for Latin American Studies (CLAS), helped the team identify projects and work out the complicated logistics for the trip. CLAS coordinates a number of projects in Guatemala in conjunction with the Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, the School of Medicine, the School of Engineering and the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health.
“The Project Pyramid program is unique in providing business and other professional students the opportunity to gain valuable hands-on international experience while giving back to the communities in which they work,” Fischer says. “All of the Project Pyramid programs are oriented toward sustainability. This is truly doing well in scholarly pursuits while doing good.”