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Baverman: When entrepreneurship is only way forward
ANTIGUA, Guatemala — Javier Villatoro grew up without a mom and dad in Guatemala City. He dropped out of school in his late teens to learn to cut Guatemalan jade and other precious stones and to work silver with Argentinean jewelers.
He used his earnings to buy drugs, alcohol and snuff. He struggled with thoughts of suicide.
Villatoro didn’t have parents, let alone a community of successful entrepreneurs to teach him about business and build his character. His life changed five years ago when he became a Christian, but only today is he crafting bracelets, necklaces and earrings that will make him a good life.
Villatoro is living in Antigua, Guatemala, alongside a handful of missionaries from the United States, young men and women who are teaching him and others about personal finance, marketing and sales, business ethics, budgeting, accounting and how to price products or services. They’re helping him design pieces that American women would find fashionable, and helping him tell his story through each sale.
His goal today is to set up an Internet store and begin selling his jewelry along with art, clothing and accessories made by others. Hehopes to hire young Guatemalans who need direction in life and teach them about entrepreneurship, and to travel the world as a missionary, spreading a message of hope.
“One problem we have in Guatemala is we don’t have any mentorship,” Villatoro says. “You see girls pregnant and only 16, 17 years old — there is a fatherless generation. It’s really hard for us to look for a better future.”
A team of researchers at Babson College annually publishes data about the state of entrepreneurship around the world in a report called the Global Entrepreneurship Monitor. One of its key measures is of the percentage of people starting companies out of opportunity vs. necessity.
Here in the U.S., we celebrate when entrepreneurship is opportunistic. That means the economy is rebounding. People feel more hopeful about their situations. They’re making the choice between working for a corporation and starting something for themselves.
But in Guatemala and other poor nations, necessity-driven entrepreneurship is what can be celebrated. It offers people a sustainable way out of poverty. Entrepreneurs there see opportunity only after they’ve built something out of necessity.
My husband and I spent eight days in Antigua in early July to participate in a week-long mission trip with high school students from Maryland and North Carolina. We stayed in a hostel and traveled by bus a mile outside of town to build the foundation of a home for an impoverished family, make repairs at an orphanage, deliver food and clothing and visit with children who live in a village overlooking the city.
Many who visit Guatemala are people like us, hoping to donate our time and make a difference for a week or two. But there’s a growing base of organizations picking up where those donations and services leave off. They’re building financial literacy and skills in product development, accounting, marketing and sales within the Guatemalan people.
Greg Van Kirk’s Community Enterprise Solutions began working in Guatemala in 2001, developing a model called MicroConsignment to provide villagers affordable access to cookstoves, water filters, solar lights, eye exams and reading glasses, products that improve health, save money and allow for economic opportunity.
The items are sold by a group of Guatemalan entrepreneurs, most of whom are women, trained in technical, sales and business skills. They can earn up to $2 per hour, compared with average earnings in Guatemala of $3.50 to $4 per day, Van Kirk says.
In recent years, eight of the most successful entrepreneurs set up their own social enterprise to distribute the goods. Called Soluciones Comunitarias (SolCom), it will earn the equivalent of $300,000 this year. More than 100 Guatemalans are now selling the items in villages across the nation. Van Kirk estimates that the products have helped Guatemalan villagers save $3.5 million.
To help more Guatemalans get into business for themselves, in 2005, Van Kirk set up a summer internship program called the Social Entrepreneur Corps. In partnership with 13 U.S. universities, it now operates in six Central and South American nations.
During our visit, 28 students were wrapping up eight weeks of consulting with existing and aspiring business owners across Guatemala. One team helped a woman from the Lake Atitlan region create a business plan for a café and learn to make French press coffee. Another worked with Juana Xoch, a Community Solutions entrepreneur who moved up to become a regional coordinator with the organization. She’s now working with weavers in her village of Solola to sell and market their creations.
“I learned how to manage a company and organization, and how to increase access to products and services,” Xoch says. “Now I can create job opportunities for those who need them.”
Villatoro’s work is with Adventures in Missions (AIM), a Gainesville, Ga., non-profit that sends people on mission trips around the world and recently established a long-term presence in Guatemala.
AIM team leader Noe Rivera, a former human resources manager, says they’ll be expanding soon to the Lake Atitlan area, working with entrepreneurs to develop vegetable and rabbit farms and beehives for honey production.
“We’re not typical missionaries,” he says. “The needs are different nowadays. We want to create self-sustaining, healthy adults who can be the disciplers.”