This summer, we will feature guest posts from students who received a Dingman Center scholarship to participate in the Maryland Social Entrepreneur Corps (MSEC). They will share their experiences learning about social entrepreneurship while consulting with local businesses in Latin America for eight weeks this summer. Learn more about MSEC here.
by: Gunleen Deol ’21
My time in-country here in Ecuador with the Maryland Social Entrepreneur Corps (MSEC) has been phenomenal. I’ve had the opportunity to learn a tremendous amount from my peers, not just those from UMD, but also those from the University of Conneticut. Moreover, I’ve experienced an incredible amount of personal growth from conversing with my host familes in Spanish and really getting to know them by immersing myself in their culture. The most rewarding part of my experience, however, is the work that we do here in the rural communities.
Before dividing off into two groups and traveling to different rural communities in Ecuador, the entire SEC team spent two weeks in Cuenca, Ecuador, familiarizing ourselves with the four main projects that we have the liberty to work on during our time in the rural communities.
First, there’s a project called “Good Stuff Good Works” that aims to create a self-sustainable business model for distributing breathtaking beaded bracelets and necklaces created in Saraguro, Ecuador by female artisans. Since this type of craftsmanship is common trade in Saraguro, the market for this type of jewelry in Ecuador is rather saturated, with increasingly high competition in central markets from different groups trying to sell the same type of artisan goods. The goal of this project is to use university students as a medium for selling the jewelry created by the organization “Mushk Kawsi,” an alliance of 6 female artisans, at U.S. college campuses so that these women can earn a fair wage. Our team believes that there a lot of kinks to be worked out in this business model in order to make it self-sustaining, as university students have sold some of these bracelets in the past but upon graduation, the bracelets are left with no one to claim ownership of them. Currently, we’re trying to learn from past mistakes by contacting the students who took leadership of these operations last year so that we can smooth out the kinks and create a model that will truly be helpful to these women in the long-run.
Second, here in Saraguro, there’s a small community called “Ñamarin” which is trying to launch a “Living Tourism” program called “El Turismo Vivencial” where tourists spend a minimum of 8 days with one of six homestay families, truly immersing themselves in the culture of Saraguro by helping out with daily activities such as picking crops, cooking, and taking care of the animals. Our goal is to help the community market this program by updating their website and creating printed material that can be posted in restaurants and bars in Cuenca to attract tourists. This project has really given me an insider’s look into consulting, as we’ve had the opportunity to sit down and discuss the vision and design constraints of this project with the community leader, so that we can create something that suits his needs. Throughout this project, we’ve had to remind ourselves not to get carried away by how we see the end result, since that’s worth close to nothing if the person who we’re creating it for doesn’t find it useful.
Third, through a project called “El Colaborativo,” we’re trying to connect local businesses so that they can leverage one another’s resources. For instance, if one business can assist another business with its financials in return for marketing assistance, we’ve created a mutually beneficial alliance. We have yet to explore this project’s role in the rural communities, along with its long-term aspirations.
Fourth, we have a project called “Boxed Impact,” where we conduct surveys to see which resources a community is in immediate need of. The ultimate idea is that students or other tourists from the U.S. would purchase “boxes” full of these resources (e.g. reading glasses, flashdrive with how-to articles on a variety of topics, solar-powered lights) to bring with them to developing countries and distribute to communities with a perceived need. We’re still trying to determine how to go about this project in a dignified way that empowers communities and avoids the savior-complex.
Overall, all four of these projects involve a great amount of uncertainty and lack pre-specified structure, but as MSEC founder Greg Van Kirk stated during his visit to Cuenca, our role as consultants is two-fold: 1) To advise local businesses in Ecuador through these projects and 2) To test and refine the business models of these projects so that SEC can continue streamlining its methods of social assistance.
Even though there’s a lot going on right now—exposure to a whole new culture and people, personal growth and challenges, determining the best way to tackle these projects—I hope to leave the Ñamarin community, and Ecuador in general, knowing that we made it a little better by providing/creating something beneficial for the people.
Gunleen Deol ’21 is a rising sophomore at the University of Maryland, majoring in Information Systems and Psychology, with an honors concentration in Entrepreneurship & Innovation. In her free time, she enjoys traveling, playing the guitar, spending time in nature, and taking artsy photographs.