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Students become South Africa entrepreneurial mentors

During the summer of 2012, eight Cornell students participated in Entrepreneurship and Empowerment in South Africa (EESA), a remarkable program that combines education in entrepreneurial skills with social activism, cultural immersion, and academic credit. The program, co-sponsored by the Pillsbury Institute for Hospitality Entrepreneurship and Stellenbosch University, paired teams of students from both schools with business operators in the Kayamandi Township adjacent to Stellenbosch, which is located in the mountainous wine region of southwestern South Africa.

Many of the people living in the township operate businesses of some kind, including home stays, guiding tours, and carpentry. "I think of this as 'survival entrepreneurship,'" said Brennan Spreitzer '13. "We found that if our clients could not make a sale, they don't eat."

This realization made the program far more than an academic process. "We had fun and we met great people, but this is a serious engagement," said Ari Fine A&S '14. "We learned to be careful with expectations, and we focused on recommending changes that could be easily implemented and continued." Added Garret Loh ILR '13, "We mostly focused on producing constructive change for our client."

After several years of successful operation at Syracuse University, Senior Lecturer Neil Tarallo brought the EESA program to Cornell when he joined the faculty of the School of Hotel Administration. Founded in 2005, the Entrepreneurship and Empowerment program has been delivered in three different countries to date. Tarallo explained that in addition to learning about entrepreneurship in a practical way, EESA gives students an opportunity to experience diversity in a different way than one would think of it here in the USA.

Tarallo added that the premise of the program is that entrepreneurship is a powerful force for change. "The EESA program affords our students an opportunity to see firsthand how entrepreneurship can change the lives of one or many people," he said. "The color of one's skin, social status, race, religion--none of these things matter in an entrepreneurial context."

A total of eight students enrolled in the program in the six-credit course through Cornell Summer Session. For Spreitzer, the credit hours were helpful in achieving a December graduation goal, but he also saw an opportunity to ramp up a pilot program for PIHE and gain some experience in another culture. Likewise, George Ruizcalderon '15 wanted something new and different that would help him grow as a person: "I believe a person's character is shaped through experiences, and I saw this as a perfect chance to learn something new."

Several students were attracted by the international aspects of the program. "I've been interested in international relations, and I've been to China," said Chris Nieberding '13. Fine also saw the chance to gain international experience, and as an Arts and Sciences student he also was interested in entrepreneurship and in learning how a small business works, particularly in the hospitality industry. For his part, Loh had just been telling a friend about how interested he was in international travel, even as he looked for internship opportunities in New York City. "When Professor Tarallo suggested this, it was an opportunity that just seemed to plop into my lap," he recalled.

The program started with two weeks of classroom study at Stellenbosch University, which gave the Cornell students a chance to meet their South African teammates. "The most important part of class, in my opinion, was to socialize with our teammates--our South African peers," said Loh. "I learned a lot about the South African market and generally how business is run."

Socialization smoothed out cultural differences. "The South African students made us feel welcome and showed us around," Fine said. "We experienced how the South African students worked, and we had to develop a different working chemistry," added Nieberding. For one thing, he explained that the South Africans had a laid-back style and did not pay the same attention to time as their North American counterparts. Still, said Nieberding, the entire group bonded. Ruizcalderon recalled that many days ended with the American and South African students enjoying a pleasant evening together.

"The people in the townships were extremely kind and welcoming," he added. "They were pleased that we were visiting their community. Although there was extreme poverty, most people lived comfortably within their means."

Once the teams met their entrepreneur clients, a typical day would start with morning class sessions, which allowed the student teams and faculty to review their strategy and progress. Then the teams would meet with their clients to review action steps. Most teams worked with two entrepreneurs. "The entire program was geared to a practical application approach, and we worked as a class to solve problems," said Nieberding. Added Ruizcalderon: "After our morning class session, we would meet in the afternoon with our clients and listen to them. It took me a while to learn this concept."

"The issues varied from one entrepreneur to another," said Fine. "For example, we were mentoring a person who operated a home stay. But we knew of at least twelve others in the same business, and truthfully there's not that much tourism to the township."

Differentiation was one focus of all the teams, and most of the entrepreneurs needed basic business skills. "One of our entrepreneurs was a carpenter who had no idea how to price his services or to engage the market," said Nieberding. "We helped him develop a pricing structure and set up appointments to sell to furniture stores." Ruizcalderon said his group helped their carpenter partners to track and price merchandise, as well as cut redundant tasks to decrease production time. By the end of the program, the carpenters had won a contract from a furniture store. Loh's group also worked on sales and marketing, and then worked on business analysis tools. The goal was to help the clients do all these things for themselves.

Although the program was intense, it allowed time for excursions to the nearby mountains, visits to the valley's wineries, safaris, and even shark cage diving ("that was sick," recalled Ruizcalderon). Cultural immersion included eating the local cuisine, which earned high reviews from the students. Immersion also meant seeing the economic reality of the valley. "Stellenbosch is a wealthy community, but the township has 30,000 people in shacks," Spreitzer observed. The students also worked out how to commute to school without the benefit of motor vehicles. "We lived in a guest house, which was nice, but it was a fair distance to class, about a 25-minute walk," said Spreitzer. "So we all rode bicycles."

In the relatively short time available, the students felt that they helped their clients make progress. "I do think we helped our client," said Loh. "I'm hoping that in the future he can pull out our final business report and review some of the tools we provided."

"My group had phenomenal results," said Ruizcalderon. "We helped one client, a home stay owner, to understand the value of budgeting. Most important, we helped her restore the strained relationship with the tourist company that provided most of her customers. It was beautiful to see the change that could happen in a few weeks."

"It was hard to tell during the process, but at the end we could see progress from beginning to end," Spreitzer agreed. "We made our final presentations in the township for all who wanted to come. The entrepreneurs were appreciative and they planned to use the techniques we introduced, and the people in the townships expressed their appreciation as well."

The students also reflected on the benefits they personally gained from the program. Loh said that he felt he had gained greater perspective during the EESA, as well as learning the importance and challenge of being patient and earning trust. "I feel like we accomplished something," said Spreitzer, "but I cannot necessarily recommend this for everyone. You need to understand what you're getting into."

"I am a strong advocate for EESA," said Ruizcalderon. "I believe there's much to learn with an experience such as this. Personally I got exactly what I was hoping to get--something different. I saw and lived through a perspective I'll probably never have the chance to experience again. I learned and grew from people whose challenges and struggles dwarf my own."

Fine summarized the experience as follows: "I got full immersion in the culture and exposure to people. I have a much better understanding of how to work with a diverse team. I've never done anything quite like this. It's the most substantive project I've ever been part of."