“I will remember this the rest of my life.”

August 15th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

In the middle of my internship, I took one of the restaurant staff members out to dinner to show my appreciation for feeding me throughout my time. I took her to a Mexican restaurant because she never had Mexican food, but knew that burritos were my favorite. After watching me eat two burritos and two tacos and finishing her own meal, she smiled and said “I will remember this the rest of my life.” I didn’t realize how a small gesture could mean so much, until my own experience came to an end.

My last week on the job, my coworkers had a small party, took me out, and gave me food, homemade cards, and small gifts. I realized that they were no longer strangers from different cultures; they were my friends. I hope to remain friends with them the rest of my life and host them in Washington to return the favor. My supervisor, Mark, had a toddler and I will definitely watch him grow up through pictures.

Reading my blogs, I realize that I intended to give more information and be more specific, but being busy with studying, having my girlfriend visit, traveling through Cambodia, Laos, and Thailand, and working six days a week prevented me from writing more. What I can say is that this was an amazing experience for me.

The challenges that I initially identified including language, food, and weather, were not my real experience. I overcame all those issues quickly, only to see a much deeper challenge– navigating the subtle cultural differences and learning to communicate across languages. The experience was sometimes isolating and frustrating, but at the same time the frustration and isolation were what made the experience meaningful.

Only in proper time will I understand what I learned and precisely how it will help me in the future. For now, I can be happy that I adapted and succeeded, and know I want to continue to work and travel internationally for the time being. In the meantime, I have plenty of stories:  from my professional experience composing marketing materials for a top ranked NGO, to the fun trips such as riding a elephant, and having a farewell dinner with Smith School Alumnus, Nutchapol Thanyarattakulas “Terps helping Terps” worldwide. There are, of course, my favorite stories; saving a British person from drowning while tubing during rainy season, and carrying a girl with a broken foot to the hospital! In time, I will have the proper perspective to tell the stories, but for now, I have a plane to catch back to America, back to my other internship, back to school, and back to my home.

Thank you to everyone, especially Karen Watts, Nutchapol, the PDA staff, my friends, my family, and Meryl for making my trip a reality and being there for me during my adventure!

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A Differet Place, A Similar Feel

August 1st, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

Recently, my employer for the summer, Population and Community Development Association (“PDA”) sent me to Cambodia to see the organization’s development work outside of Thailand. Despite difference in development level and need between Thailand and Cambodia, PDA’s work showed remarkable similarities.

To clarify, it was not actually my organization, but rather a sister organization, Population and Development International (“PDI) that sent me to Cambodia.  PDA/PDI have many of the same personnel and share oversight by the same founder, but PDI is a legally separate organization with a more international focus. While PDA focuses almost exclusively on Thailand, PDI does development work in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia. PDA has mostly Thai donors and partners, but PDI is a registered 501(c)(3) charitable organization in the United States.

There is a difference in development level between Thailand and Cambodia. Thailand’s per capita income is about three times that of Cambodia, and Thailand is 36 places ahead of Cambodia in Human Development Index Rankings. In Siem Reip province Cambodia, 5 star hotels are within walking distance of villages that lack electricity, wells, plumbing, and paved roads. Three quarters of a million annual foreign tourists visit Siem Reip to see the world famous Khmer temple Angkor Wat, but very little of their money trickles to fund village development.

To be fair, I am only using high level UN statistics and going off my own limited experience.  I am not comparing the capital cities Phom Phen and Bangkok, but rather rural development projects. My experience is that PDA’s partner villages in Thailand have potable water, functional plumbing systems, respected local governing organizations, and developed roadways.  Cambodian villages have much more basic needs, and the work in Cambodia is not yet to the same level of complexity, integration, sustainability, or capital intensity, in part because of the infrastructural and development difference.

Comparing PDA’s Thai I-BIRD (Industry-Based Integrated Rural Development) projects to PDI’s work in Cambodia shows how these development differences manifest in terms of project complexity. The “I” or industry of a Thai I-BIRD project can be a sponsor company, school, hospital, or even a jail. For example, in a School-BIRD project, a community school serves as a hub for community development activities.  Community volunteers raise crops for school income; education experts train teachers from an entire region, and community members have access to established microcredit loans. In contrast to complex I-Bird projects, PDI Cambodia is still establishing microcredit banks, helping bring wells and potable water, and working with smaller scale educational projects.

Despite apparent differences, there are remarkable similarities. PDI Cambodia and PDI Thailand both use entrepreneurship and community involvement to further development, empower villagers, and create sustainable projects.  PDA has decades as a head start in Thailand, but I can already tell that Cambodian projects will match Thai projects one day.  PDI is applying the same proven principles, industries, and spirit of volunteerism. Hopefully, the Cambodia projects will match their Thai counterparts in complexity, sustainability, and, most importantly, in success.

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From Buzzwords to Buzzworthy

July 5th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

In the past month, I have been observing Population and Community Development Association’s (“PDA”) poverty eradication efforts throughout rural Thailand. It was not until I viewed the Thai villages first hand and felt the pride beaming from the villagers that I truly began to understand and appreciate my organization.

Prior to my trip, I had seen my organization’s founder give innumerable presentations about integrated, sustainable, rural poverty elimination efforts. Khun Mechai Viravaidia is a very inspiring speaker, but at a certain point, I began wondering if his words were just buzzwords. Lucky for me, I went on rural village visits when I began to question the substance behind his speeches.

Last month, I saw PDA’s School Based Integrated Rural Development (“School-BIRD”) project. School-BIRD projects are a combination of three programs:

1: The Mechai Pattana School- a secondary school for village children

2: Village Development Partnership- sponsors companies helping develop rural villages

3: Toy Library- a library that lends toys to rural children in exchange for community service

All three of these projects seemed very abstract and unrelated to me, until I saw them in action. The best way I can describe it is the school serves as a centerpiece around which all three activities occur.

The Mechai Pattana School serves as a headquarters for teacher and social enterprise training, while also educating a selected group of students.  Once trained and educated, students, teachers, and entrepreneurs leave from the school and return to the villages to lead classes or development projects.

Those students not directly educated by PDA learn at government schools supplemented by the Village Development Partnerships. Corporate sponsors help the schools raise income for materials, school meals, teacher training, and other needs. One school that I visited built a full “rural poverty eradication laboratory,” which is comprised of supplemental agricultural projects that surround the campus. Students, parents, teachers, and other villagers volunteer to grow crops, and raise pigs, and fish to earn money for the school.

Finally, I saw students picking out toys as a reward for planting trees and cleaning the villages. The kids, many of whom had very little, were thrilled to do community service in return to get to borrow toys.

I was amazed that three seemingly unrelated activities had complete buy in from the villagers. The villagers have seen improvements from the PDA School-BIRD mode. Sure, there are better teachers at schools with more money, but the real impact is better citizens. Youth, teachers, and villagers understand their role in the community and work for the betterment of the village, not for self.

The buzzwords became a reality.

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My Origin of Purpose

July 2nd, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

I have been back from Sri Lanka for a week: back to work, back to my 30 minute commute, back to central air conditioning, back to driving on roads so well maintained that you can easily accelerate up to 80 mph without really noticing because everyone else is going just as fast- back to stop signs and traffic lights, and life via credit cards. I’m still processing my two week experience in Sri Lanka. I can tell you that I loved it. I can tell you that I thought the people were just wonderful and that I never felt unsafe. My head still resonates with the predictable barrage of singsong questions that always started with a big smile and a very friendly, “Hello Madame”, and continued with, “How are you? Are you on holiday? How long are you here? Where are you from?” And then continued with the effort for the sale: “Would you like a taxi? Would you like a tour? Would you like to see the temple or the fish market? Would you like to buy some beautiful dresses?” And when my colleague, Valerie, and I needed to say no, we were met with persistence: “How about tomorrow? I can give you a good deal. How about Saturday? Would you like to buy some souvenirs? I know a good shop.” When we did not want or need what they were selling at the moment, we would have to say “no thank you” many times, when finally, as friendly as the conversation had begun, it would end with a smile and an, “Ok. Thank you Madame. Have a nice day.”
Valerie and I spent the majority of our time in the city of Negombo, which is about an hour north of the capital, Colombo. The city bustled with shopping stalls and both foot and motorized traffic. Our hotel was on the beach and monsoon season loomed. Every day the sky was overcast; the sea seemed surly and churned with waves that appeared unable to decide on a direction or size. The wind blew constantly, caressingly, making bearable the heat and humidity. Every morning we would sit in the restaurant, open to the elements but for the roof, and have breakfast. Every morning we watched the staff chase crows and witnessed chipmunks steal their morning sugar packets from unattended tables, to the delight of guests. I would drink coffee and Valerie would have tea and we would talk with the staff. We learned from one waiter that he traveled seven hours by bus to his job. He would stay in Negombo for his shifts in a place he shared with others, and on his days off, he would travel the seven hours home, excited to see his family. Another staff worker traveled six hours by train and also only returned home for the days he had off.
Everywhere there seemed to be commerce, entrepreneurship, competition, and struggle.
One tuk-tuk (a small, three wheeled taxi) driver we hired to take us to the grocery store came in and helped us with our shopping and cart, taking customer care to a new level because he also wanted the return fare. While this may seem terribly assertive, he could not have been nicer.
It was these human encounters that accompanied us to the office at Aqua ‘N Green and these encounters gave our work greater purpose. Anura, the CEO of Aqua ‘N Green, obviously wants to run a successful and profitable business, yet when we had conversations with him and his wife about the business model and company vision, it was crystal clear that it is also very important to them to provide value back to their community and to contribute to the economic development of their country.
They have a great story to tell: Aqua ‘N Green is a business in aquaculture and they currently produce Asiatic Sea Bass, otherwise known as Barramundi, or locally, Modha. Here is their current vision statement:
“Aqua ‘N Green is a socially responsible firm that specializes in the development and application of cutting edge aquaculture technology and sustainable processes to grow and deliver high-quality seafood naturally, safely, and efficiently.”
Right now the company is small, but they have big plans and are working on big things. They are building their own processing plant, scheduled to be completed in just a couple of months. From there, they plan to continue growing, eventually planning for full vertical integration. To help with economic development in the conflict afflicted Northeast region, [and with the help of USAID, VEGA, and IESC] the company is training local fishermen in the cage culture techniques of raising the sea bass. Aqua ‘N Green provides the cages, fingerlings (young sea bass) and training to qualifying fishermen, guaranteeing them a set price at harvest for the fish they raise. There are many challenges ahead, and initially the idea of marketing to the U.S. seemed daunting, but after much research, Valerie and I realized there is a lot in Aqua ‘N Green’s favor: Aquaculture is growing and the technology is continually improving. The demand for fish, as well as the global demand for food is also growing, yet our wild fisheries are being over harvested. Consumers are beginning to understand the importance of sustainability in food production and are generating demand for it. As a result, many international organizations have gained credibility for certifying agriculture, aquaculture included, as sustainable. To provide Aqua ‘N Green with helpful recommendations on a marketing plan, we not only had to understand the vision and plan for the company, we also had to work hard to understand the market and trends for both aquaculture and sea bass in relation to the U.S. market and global competition. This was no small task and we are still compiling our report. What I have learned in my MBA program at Smith has been invaluable in this process. Valerie and I were able to focus on the vision for the company, identify a sound value proposition, analyze the market and the competition, evaluate Porter’s five forces, detail critical steps in the growth of the company, articulate the great story that Aqua ‘N Green has to tell, and with their plans to control the full value chain, we were able to reveal a long term strategy and the potential to develop and build a truly powerful brand. While our findings may not be telling the CEO of Aqua ‘N Green anything that he does not already know, by organizing all our realizations and ideas into a marketing road map, we expect to provide the company with clear points of focus that will help with strategy and marketing for selling their product long term, and in building and protecting the Aqua ‘N Green brand.
So, while the task initially seemed a bit daunting and intimidating, when we dug in, it became challenging, gratifying, and purposeful. It was a real treat to have such a smart, thoughtful, and fun colleague as Valerie, and we had great fun brainstorming and beating on ideas. It was also a great pleasure and gift to work with Aqua ‘N Green and share, however small, a part in Anura’s vision for both his company and Sri Lanka.

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Working with the Jesuit Academy in Trincomalee

June 20th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. 2 Comments.

My partner Andres and I are almost finished with our work at the Jesuit Academy in Trincomalee, a town in the Eastern Province of Sri Lanka. Trinco is bustling town of over 100,000 people and is located in one of the world’s largest natural harbors. It’s beautiful here. The beaches are wide and filled with soft, white sand. The Indian Ocean is very calm, unlike in Colombo, and sparkling blue. This is the dry season so the temperature is pretty hot but luckily not too humid. The rain doesn’t come until August and everything is very dry. This part of the country was under the control of the LTTE (Tamil Tigers) during the almost 30 year long civil war. As a result, the northern and eastern parts of Sri Lanka lag behind the western part of the country in terms of economic development.

Andres and I flew here from Colombo last Monday morning with Jamal, a VEGA representative, and two other UMD students, Valerie and Martha. Valeria and Martha are working with Aqua n Green, a sea bass harvesting company, for their consulting project. AG has fisheries here in Trinco and they flew with us for a site visit. We flew out of a small, local airport in Colombo on a plane owned by the Sri Lankan air force. The flight was filled almost entirely of military personnel. The flight across the country was only 45 minutes–compared to a 7 hour car ride!

First, we took a quick boat ride out to a lagoon and toured the AG fisheries. Then the group dropped Andres and me off at the Jesuit Academy. Our first day of work! We met with Fr. Yogi, the director of the school, Purushoth, the manager, and Shiyanthi, an administrator. We discussed myriad topics related to the school, funding their interactive English language program DynEd, marketing tactics and student enrollment. We were also able to get some clarifications on questions we had been discussing prior to departure. After the meeting, our hosts gave us a tour of the facilities and later we played basketball with some of the students.

Our work at the Academy has been productive. We decided to tackle online marketing first. We converted the school’s personal Facebook page into a business page so the staff can utilize Facebook tools to determine the extent of their reach on Facebook. They can also use analytics to get a breakdown of their audience demographics. Hopefully, this will be helpful to the staff at targeting posts for their audience. We also created a Twitter page and a YouTube channel for the Academy’s videos. Internet use is growing in Trincomalee and we want to ensure that the Academy is update to date with all of the social media outlets. For ease, I linked all of their social media sites so that when a post is made on one site, it will appear on the others. We created a frequency chart of social media and general marketing activities for the staff so they now have a sense of how active they should be on Facebook. We believe this is integral to the success of their social media campaign. Active social media sites will keep their audience engaged and interested in the events and programs at the Academy.

Presently, the Jesuit Academy’s website is not very functional. Andres and I met with the school’s manager, Purushoth, and asked him to describe his plans and visions for the website. We were able to offer recommendations on what information should be included on the site, a draft website map, and visual organization. Since most people in the area here about the Academy through word of mouth, we decided it would be a good idea to send out monthly newsletters to the school’s email list. The newsletter will reach people, such as parents, who may not be on social media sites. The last newsletter that the Academy sent out was four years ago so Andres and I drafted a June newsletter. In the newsletter, we wrote about the weekly yoga classes the school just started offering, included pictures from a recent basketball tournament, interviewed and profiled a current student, and shared a poem written by another student. We hope the newsletter will create a buzz in the community about the various events the school hosts and help spread the word about the Academy.

Andres has also been diligently researching IT programs that the school can offer its students. This has been challenging since Purushoth is looking for more advanced IT programs, such as computer programming, website design and hardware. It’s been difficult finding programs, but Andres has a few leads for the school to look into further. Besides online marketing and the IT programs, we’ve met with students and helped them practice their spoken English, as well as interviewed a student for the website.

The staff at the school has been very accommodating and have shown us a great time. They took us on several field trips to temples, hot springs, local schools and shopping! Last night, a bunch of students and the staff got together and cooked us dinner. It was delicious! I’ve been attending their tri-weekly yoga class which is very relaxing after a long day of work.

Today is our last day at the school and we will be meeting with the staff to discuss our recommendations this afternoon. But before that, US Ambassador Patricia Butenis is stopping by the school for a visit!

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2.5 weeks in Sri Lanka have taught us:

June 19th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

1) Watermelon juice is delicious.

2) How to eat crabs using only our hands and teeth as utensils. (As a byproduct, we also learned to provide great mealtime entertainment!)

3) In a competition of coral reef vs. kneecap, coral reef wins.

4) That consulting work can be very enriching, rewarding, enjoyable… and a little bit exhausting (but in a good way!).

Our time in Sri Lanka so far has flown by, and we cannot believe that tomorrow will be our last day working with our client. We have been working with BIZ+, a grant administering organization that is a collaboration between the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Land O’Lakes, Inc., and Volunteers for Economic Growth Alliance (VEGA). BIZ+ was created to encourage the development and growth of small and medium enterprises in post-conflict regions (in the north and the east) in Sri Lanka. The program has over $14 million to allocate in grants for eligible businesses, and additional funding to provide technical support for grant recipients. So far, the program has signed one grant agreement, with an ice factory located near the Northern Province’s capital city, Jaffna. Numerous other businesses are at different points in the application process, ranging from inquiring about the application to awaiting a signed grant agreement.

Since arriving in Sri Lanka, we have had the opportunity to travel quite widely — from our starting point in Colombo to Vavuniya, Jaffna and Mannar for work, and to Kandy and Trincomalee on weekends. During our work trips, we have been visiting businesses that seek funding from BIZ+, including the ice factory, a crab processing plant, and a garment factory. Once there, we toured the facilities and asked questions of the business owners based on information gathered from our review of their concept notes, auditor reports and full business plans. Following each visit, we formulate recommendations for what conditions the business should be required to fulfill prior to signing a grant agreement. In the case of the ice factory, for example, BIZ+ required that the company hire a certified bookkeeper and put a payment voucher system into place, in addition to fulfilling other conditions.

The work has been fascinating, because BIZ+ faces a challenge in that most businesses seeking their support do not employ sound accounting or record-keeping practices. From what we have learned so far, it appears that this is not uncommon in post-conflict regions here. The lack of information means that the sustainability and viability of businesses can be unclear, but most business owners are eager to learn how to improve their companies. Fortunately, our colleague says we’ve been asking the questions he wanted the answers  to (but didn’t know how to ask), and we will be providing him and another employee with capacity building training tomorrow — so, hopefully we can help BIZ+ to strike the proper balance between due diligence and funding deserving companies (even if they may need a little help making their business case).

Although we have been formulating technical assistance plans for businesses and completing evaluations of Business Development Services (BDS) providers, it hasn’t been all work. Sri Lanka is a beautiful country, and we have been fortunate enough to try a wide variety of new foods (and juices!), and meet many friendly business owners and other locals. We also got to visit the beach in Jaffna, spend an afternoon snorkeling in Trincomalee and enjoy a fresh crab lunch at a proprietor’s home. Overall, we have enjoyed our time in Sri Lanka immensely — the learning experience through work and simply being somewhere so different from home has been invaluable… And that’s all for now, because we need to get back to preparing deliverables!

–Caitlyn & Sergio

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It’s More than Just Fish for Aqua ‘N Green

June 18th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

Today is my 10th day in Sri Lanka and my fourth day working for Aqua ‘N Green (ANG).  Sri Lanka is a beautiful country and this consulting program has allowed me to see so many parts of it!  Starting from the capital, Colombo, we flew to the northeastern coastal town of Trincomalee.  Here, ANG maintains their fisheries, from nursery to full grown fish.  ANG is currently primarily focused on Asian sea bass, also called barramundi.  One of the things that makes ANG unique is the outgrowers network.  This is a collection of local farmers whose responsibility it is to maintain and grow the fish from fingerlings to fully harvestable fish.  

The business model for these farmers is very interesting and utilizes a numberr of business concepts from the classroom in very meaningful ways.  ANG provides each farmer with two cages in the Trincomalee lagoon where the fish can grow.  ANG partnered with the Bank of Ceylon to guarantee loans for these farmers so they can purchase the fingerlings and fish food.  The farmers and ANG enter into a forward contract to purchase a specified amount of fish for 1 year (which equates to 2 six month growing cycles for the farmer).  At the end of each cycle, the farmer sells the mature barramundi to ANG, pays off part of the loan to the bank, and takes home about Rs. 19,000 (a bit over 150 USD).  ANG seeks farmers who are already fishermen and considers this program (at least initially) as a way to supplement their household income.  Under this program, ANG currently has 69 farmers at work and has the potential to employ up to 1300 farming families!  What a difference this can make in people’s lives!  Not only are they earning more money for their families, but the farmers are also building credit.  As someone with an interest in social finance, this clearly makes me very excited.

As not to neglect my policy studies, it has been interesting to see some of the unique political challenges ANG faces.  For example, the ANG team was telling us that they face huge hurdles in permitting and licensing.  The company is currently building a processing facility in Trincomalee to more efficiently process the fish and maintain the quality.  This has been stalled numerous times because of licensing issues.  Similarly, any time they want to acquire land in a different village, the process for doing so is long, bureaucratic, and highly political.  This is a challenge for ANG because they can only employ farmers in the villages in which they operate.  An overarching issue is that Trincomalee is based in the northeast, which saw a great deal of violence from the civil war.  While the government of Sri Lanka has indicated that rebuilding the post-conflict region is a priority, ANG unfortunately does not receive any of their support.

Working from the headquarters here in Negombo, just north of the capital on the southwestern shore, my parter and I are energized by the passion of everyone we have met in this country and in this organization.  We are leveraging the crucial field experience in Negombo with our daily chats with ANG’s passionate CEO and founder and working on our report on how to take ANG to the next level to fulfill his dreams.  So far he has been pleased with our discussions and the direction we are going, and we only hope to continue to make him proud.

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Oh, east is east, and west is west, and the twain have met.

June 13th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

My blog posts have not yet covered the specifics of my internship, because I wanted to understand my organization and my role before I wrote in detail. I wanted to show major accomplishments and sell my internship as a phenomenal, sexy, and life changing experience. In reality, I would have created a Western write-up of an Eastern internship that did no justice to the situation.

This linked PBS story, (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m0KS8xZK8sQ&feature=related) is a great high-level explanation of my organization. I am proud to be a part of a massive NGO that fights poverty, teaches people to run sustainable businesses, and promotes condom use.

My experience has often been confusing. I quickly realized that I don’t always understand the structure and responsibilities of each department and even if I have the right department, a muddled hierarchy makes it unclear which person in the department I need.  Organizational structure, hierarchy, and communication do not exist in a western sense, but my past travels prepared me for my current experience.

In my previous travels, I always approached friendly non-Americans after they had a few drinks and asked, “What do you think of Americans?” Generally, I hear that Americans:

1. Come with well-intentioned results in mind;

2. Act as if we know everything;

3. Force everyone to do things our way; and,

4. Leave.

I don’t believe that most of us are like that, because I have met many of the most open-minded, culturally sensitive Americans who have amazing international accomplishments. The perception of the closed minded, overconfident “Yankee Cowboy,” exists, and I struggle to overcome this perception.

Foreign nationals have told me stories where well-intentioned projects did not achieve sustainable results, because Americans weren’t listening, didn’t get buy in from the people they sought to help, and didn’t allow people to make their own decisions.

Well, I’m listening, and I’m trying to work within the structure to give people tools and teach them to lead themselves, but things change without warning and I don’t always hear what is different. I hear mixed messages with Western ears, and have plenty of great ideas for change. NGOs never lack ideas; they lack consistency and legacies of success.

My idea to solve the communication problem would be a simple email with all the important decision makers copied. Everyone could talk to the group on one email, which would solve the uncertainty, let people know what is happening, provide a record, and allow for a discussion forum.

That idea is my Western idea, which does not fit the organization’s “manage by walking around” structure, and nobody would email after two weeks. I must pick areas where Thais are helping themselves, and help nurture their best ideas. This organization has grown because it is successful, and I respect the leadership greatly.

Still, I have to be true to myself and accept that I value accomplishments. What I have done so far is:

1. Create a brochure to advertise our work to western donors;

2. Research industrial estates for potential industrial partners;

3. Reach out to the Thai Red Cross for CPR and First Aid Certification for our students and teachers;

4. Helped create a massive emergency plan for the school and the attached resort;

5. Teach aerobics courses;

6. Expand my personal business network with Thai and expatriate contacts; and,

7. Find time to call home and blog.

These accomplishments are tools for Thais to help themselves. I am learning to work within an existing organization to analyze structure and deal with disparate personalities. Wait! Am I learning business and consulting skills?

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First week in Sri Lanka

June 12th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

After a two day journey half-way around the world that included a ten hour layover in London and a travel mishap that nearly stranded one of my classmates, I did not think I would have the energy to fully appreciate the experience of my first few days in Sri Lanka. So far this trip has exceeded my expectations.
After landing early afternoon, our 45 minute drive to the hotel immediately brought several things to my attention. One is the Buddha statues on nearly every street corner, adorned with flowers and candles. Second is the wild assortment of countless advertisements every town center has, all jammed together in a manner that makes differentiating them an eye straining exercise. In a post-conflict country, the massive number of business vying for consumer attention is impressive.
The Galle-Face hotel will be home for the first few days in country. Opened in 1862 during the Victorian era, the hotel has a definite British feel to it, with its ornate furniture comforting guests and elegant art work donning the walls of its hallways. While publicized as one of the most luxurious hotels in Asia that treated the likes of The Duke of Edinburgh Price Philip, Yuri Gregarin, Arthur C. Clarke, and Richard Nixon, to me it resembles the hotel from the movie The Shining: big, spacious, creaky old, certainly not cozy. Nonetheless, my room is comfortable enough to enjoy my first few days.
The exchange rate between the rupee and the dollar is generously favorable to us. After settling into our rooms, my classmate Caitlin and I ventured out in search of an ATM to take out spending money. Almost immediately we encountered strangers hustling us for money. Unlike my previous experience in Morocco where natives would explicitly ask for money or grab you to shop in their store, Sri Lankan panhandlers are more pleasantly deceiving. On several occasions they would suggest an ATM different from the one recommended by the hotel and bring us to a tuk-tuk – a kind of scotter taxi – owned by an acquaintance of theirs, hoping to earn a commission. New to the area, we almost fell for their charm when they warned us that our desired ATM only contained Indian rupees. Charm has its limits and luckily we knew better to trust our suspicions and avoid getting duped on our first day
Thursday we started our official schedule. After a morning briefing with Jamal, our helpful and extraordinarily courteous country director of VEGA, the organization overseeing our consultancy work, we visited PIM, the Post-Graduate Institute of Management, Sri Lanka’s finest business management school for current professionals. Similar to an executive MBA program, the school only teaches part-time students who currently work in a variety of areas, all seeking to supplement their education with management skills they hope will one day translate into better, higher paying job opportunities.
I sat in one of the classes, business law, and noticed some differences between American and Sri Lankan classroom instruction. The biggest was the classroom relationship between the students and the professor. Whereas American universities strongly emphasize classroom participation, there was a palpable reticence from students towards the professor’s assertions. While the professor urged students to offer ideas and ask questions, very few braved to do so. The reason why is hard to pinpoint. The enormous restraint is not so much respect but, I believe, fear that need for clarification or desire to challenge what is being taught would be seen as dangerously confronting authority. In my opinion, sitting through class without interactive dialogue does not equal an enriching learning environment, but several students I spoke with after class expressed their appreciation of the opportunity they were given to study at such a reputable institution.
The next day will make me forever appreciate what goes into the next t-shirt I buy. We toured a factory 2 hours east of Colombo that manufactures cloth for apparel companies that then turn it into clothing. The process of turning a roll of unadulterated cotton into the soft, thin texture needed for garment production is highly capital intensive. In a complex the size of several football fields, blast-wall thick rolls of raw cloth are pressed, doused, steamed, and dyed along a series of gigantic machines 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, stripping away any impurities that would make subsequent stitching and sewing difficult. I was impressed with how efficient the whole operation seemed to be not only with the material production process but with how the company handles excess waste in an environmentally conscious way.
Saturday was an off day for sightseeing. In the morning my group toured an elephant orphanage 1 ½ hours northeast of Colombo. The park is home to at least four dozen elephants of all ages and sizes. Elephants are beautiful animals, much smarter than one imagines. The dexterity of their trunks is remarkable, as I saw when I fed one of them fruit. Using the trunk as a claw, the elephant used his snout to snatch the fruit from my hands like a vacuum cleaner. It appeared they were treated well by the park staff.
In the afternoon we visited the Buddhist shrine of the Ancient Tooth Relic in Kandy, near the center of the country. Supposedly one of Buddha’s teeth is enshrined and Buddhists from all over the world visit the temple. Walking with shoes off was challenging given the floors were stone. But the shrine’s ornateness and stunning artwork demonstrated the buddhist’s devotion to their faith.
Now it’s one long journey back to Colombo for our last day before we venture off to our work sites. These first few days have been a fantastic introduction to the country. I cannot wait to experience more of Sri Lanka!

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Doing Business in the Land of Smiles

June 4th, 2012 by under Uncategorized. No Comments.

I just came back from my Smith Experience. I was in Bangsaen, in the Choburi province in Thailand, for CIBER Global Business Project. Despite the jetlag, I’ve had time during the weekend to reflect on my trip want to share my impressions about the cultural aspects of doing business in the Land of Smiles.

Our project was to work with a small travel agency looking for opportunities to expand their services of customized trips in Asian countries. Our role was to deliver recommendations for a growth strategy that focused on a long-lasting competitive advantage. We decided to interview some of the agency’s customers and competitors to have a more detailed perspective on how our client could offer better service.

The collection process became one of our major difficulties as we encountered some cultural differences that needed to be addressed. One was the lack of client feedback and the second was unclear communication.

Firstly, even when we specified that the information was confidential, interviewees would not answer questions that might signal a weakness of our client.  Luckily, we got to interview one customer who had studied in the United States and understood the western approach on the role of feedback to create business development strategies. For the subsequent interviews we  changed our survey methodology and asked questions in a very general form, which seemed to be helpful.

Secondly, it was frustrating  to ask completely opposite questions and get the exact  same answer: a smile, a nod and a “yes”. We had to find a way to detect which one of the “yes” was a “no”. Our approach was to repeat similar questions and be extra aware of body language while they answered. This worked most of the time,  although we sometimes had to look for alternative sources of information.

As a takeaway, I want to further address how we managed these differences and provide some tips for the first time business visitors to Thailand.

Cross-cultural tips

  • Be patient and deal with uncertainty

There is a Thai expression known as Sabai Sabai,* which is used to show that everything is good, that things are relaxed as they should be.  So, if someone has not gotten back to you it might be just because they doing something else. Meetings are not confirmed until they happen.  It is usually recommended to set only one meeting in the morning and one in the afternoon to avoid overlaps. For example, 3pm, can mean 3-ish, or even 5-ish.

Also, important decisions in Thailand are taken after a lot of thought and deliberation with the decision maker’s circle of trust. The family is an important social and hierarchical structure in Thailand and most companies are run by families.  The western can feel that responsiveness is not efficient. However, for Thai there is a process that needs to be respected.

  • Learn to read nonverbal gestures

As mentioned before, Thai people don’t like confrontation or criticism, even if it’s constructive. Also, Thai people smile and nod a lot. Thus, to try to get real answers, focus on body language that signals confidence and ask questions in the most general form and repeat them if you need to double check your answers. Eventually, with time  you should be able to identify naturally what people really mean.

After a little research I found out that there are 13 different types of smiles recognized in the Thai language. Only two of them express positive feelings of happiness and genuine admiration. Other five of them are used to avoid or disguise negative feelings and the others are mostly related to feelings of superiority and other hierarchical hints or politeness.

Having this cross-cultural business experience was very insightful. We applied MBA theory to a real project and solved obstacles that typically arise in global business settings. Besides that, we discovered a country full of opportunities, great people and spectacular landscapes!

* Literally sabai means well, good or happy.

For more information on Thailand’s thirteen smiles go to:

http://thetravelingexperientialist.blogspot.com/2011/04/smiles-of-land-of-smiles.html

http://www.thetraveltart.com/thai-smiles-land-of-smiles-good-bad-ugly-and-the-10-in-between/

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