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: Yuvraj Walia ’21
Living in Ecuador and interning with the Social Entrepreneur Corps has given me first-hand experience with the unique culture and rich history of the country. My internship has not only exposed me to the problems that different local businesses face, but also an entirely new perspective on how others live their lives. From participating in the indigenous festival of Inti Raymi or consulting with a local artisanal women’s organization, I have been given the rare opportunity to immerse myself into a new culture. When I am not living in Ñamarin or Pulinguí, two small villages in the mountains of Ecuador, I am staying in the small city of Cuenca. With its colonial architecture and old Incan ruins, the city is heavily influenced by Spanish culture while also staying true to its indigenous roots. Personally, I love Cuenca because of the curiosity and openness of the locals. One example of this is when my Spanish teacher went around the room and asked each of us if we believed in God. When she received answers from all sides of the religious spectrum, she proceeded to teach the lesson of that day per usual. These intimate questions are just a glimpse into the vast cultural differences between Ecuadorian and U.S. culture.
Another aspect of Ecuadorian culture that I experienced was the stigma surrounding the indigenous people by people of Spanish descent. One of the businesses I’ve been working with is a small cheese factory called El Wagrero. Carlos, the owner of the factory, works 15-18 hours a day just to make enough money to feed his kids. My task as a consultant has been to conduct a product analysis on his three main cheeses: Mozzarella, Cheddar, and Queso Fresco. When looking over his Excel spreadsheets, which were extremely difficult to understand because they were all in Spanish, my team and I found that most of the cheeses had a profit margin of less than 5%. When we presented our findings to him, he was not surprised by the situation. For the next two hours, Carlos explained how he was not able to increase his prices or even enter into new markets because of one glaring problem—his indigenous heritage. He told us how locals in the area considered his product to be inferior because of his indigenous background and this, coupled with a saturated market, forced him to sell his cheese at close to cost. After a few brainstorming sessions, Carlos and the consulting team decided that it would be best to enter into a new market by using a different brand name, Saralac. Consulting with Carlos and living in indigenous communities opened my eyes to the complex cultural stigmas between those with Spanish descent and the indigenous people.
One of the biggest challenges that I have faced in Ecuador is the language barrier. Although I did take Spanish for a couple years in high school, I came into my internship with an extremely basic knowledge of Spanish. In the beginning, it was hard to accomplish simple tasks such as buying a snack or communicating with my host family. However, over time, I have gotten better and can now hold a conversation. One thing I have taken away from my internship experience is the importance of adaptability. For the past two months, I have been repeatedly forced to put myself in uncomfortable situations which have left me even more confused and frustrated than when I started. Now, I firmly believe that self-growth doesn’t come from being comfortable with every situation, but rather by adapting to your circumstances and learning from every mistake. From analyzing complicated Spanish excel spreadsheets to trying to tell my taxi driver that I need to use his phone because I got locked out of my house, Ecuador has constantly thrown new challenges at me which has opened my eyes to a new way of thinking, learning, and living.
Yuvraj Walia is a rising Sophomore majoring in Finance at the Robert H. Smith School of Business. Outside of the classroom, Yuvraj enjoys playing tennis, keeping up with politics, and watching The Office on repeat.