Global Business Brigades student group takes business skills to rural Panama

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- More than 40 Penn State Smeal College of Business students spent spring break applying their business skills on a service trip to a rural community in Panama.

Global Business Brigades provides business consulting to support under-resourced microenterprises in developing countries. The group is matched with communities by the national Global Brigades organization to provide financial consulting.

Ipeti Embera is about 75 miles from Panama City with a population of about 700 people. Its economy, according to Smeal Global Business Brigades Vice President Karl Osis, is predominantly centered on agriculture and artisan work, like wood-carving and basket-making.

"Life is so different down there. It’s a really eye-opening experience," said Karl Osis, vice president, Global Business Brigades-Penn State.

Some community members are interested in attracting tourism to Ipeti Embera, so one of the student projects was to work with members on marketing strategies and building a sample tour itinerary.

The students also spent time working with smaller, family-owned shops. Osis, an Actuarial Science junior, said he and several other students worked with one shop owner on how to better track his inventory.

“He didn’t keep track of what was bought or sold, or how much he sold things for,” Osis said. “We also talked a little bit about customer service and rearranged the shop to make prices more visible.”

Cristina Fernandez, a sophomore in Actuarial Science, said that one of her team’s goals was to help shop owners think about things in a more business-oriented way. Some shops, they found, had higher overhead than profits, so the students taught them about profit margins and how to better price their goods.

First-year student Brian Zolot said, “I learned a lot from watching the seniors work. The marketing aspects were really interesting to me.”

A big part of working with the community was gaining their trust and forming relationships, the students said. On their first day in Panama, the students played a savings game with the local children to teach them about saving money.

The community members also involved the students in some of their cultural activities.

“Over the course of a week, we got to know a lot of the community members,” said Osis.

Osis said he was inspired to contribute in a bigger way to the community after the first Global Business Brigades trip, and this year he got to see that inspiration happen in other people.

"Life is so different down there,” said Osis. “It’s a really eye-opening experience.”

About 60 students are involved in the Global Business Brigades at Penn State. The Global Business Brigades group takes about two trips per year to different locations. They are also involved on campus with the other brigades, which include engineering, medical and more. They meet weekly with these other Global Brigades groups to hear invited speakers, watch relevant documentaries, view trip spotlights and foster discussion among the disciplines.

“These meetings are a great way to stay involved with the club if you are interested in these global issues but are unable to travel on a brigade,” said Osis. “We also do a lot of fundraising activities to lower trip costs throughout the year.”

A group of business brigades students will go to Ghana next month to help set up a community-run bank. To find out more about the group and how to get involved, contact Karl Osis at kdo5026@psu.edu.

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Last Updated September 10, 2013