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Berea students create business opportunities abroad

Berea College students traveled to South America and Central Asia this past Short Term to help local entrepreneurs start and improve their own businesses.

Glimpses of what Berea students did in Bolivia and Kyrgyzstan.

The students are members of the Berea chapter of Students in Free Enterprise (SIFE). SIFE is an international nonprofit organization that works with leaders in business and higher education to mobilize university students to make a difference in their communities while developing the skills to become socially responsible business leaders.

SIFE Berea project leaders Hong Zhang-Durandal and Lorena Luna traveled to Bolivia, where they partnered with an organization that helps local businesses. Hong and Lorena identified eight entrepreneurs who needed guidance to turn their fledgling businesses into profitable enterprises.

Among the eight people was Jorge Vargas, a carpenter who had moved his family across the country from capital La Paz to Santa Cruz in search of a market for his patented door design and other wood innovations.

But for someone with little experience, starting a business in a new city can be a daunting task. Jorge needed help.

Hong and Lorena worked with Vargas one-on-one, helping him draft a clear business strategy.

“We removed the puzzling nature of business planning with clear and concise instructions on what he should do. Basically, we turned a craftsman into a startup entrepreneur with a strategy,” Hong explained.

Jorge is now searching for talented people to join his new venture. He is working with Expo-Forest, a Santa Cruz-based international fair of innovations in wood products, and approaching potential venture capitalists to help fund his company.

“Our work with Jorge was so successful that he even offered to hire me as the managing director of his startup,” Hong reminisced.

But Hong, a junior Business Administration major, had one more year of school ahead of him in Berea.

During their time in Bolivia, Hong and Lorena helped people as diverse café owners, local crafts sellers and philanthropists helping women with AIDS. In the end, their experience was not only fulfilling but also eye-opening.

“I did not realize there were so many opportunities in my country when I left there, and now I am excited to go back and work,” remarked Hong who grew up in Bolivia before coming to Berea for college in 2007.

Meanwhile, on other side of the globe, junior Business Administration major Sasha Solomatova of Kyrgyzstan was helping her country’s rising business leaders understand the market environment and start competitive, socially conscious businesses.

Kyrgyzstan is a country of six million people where the free market is beginning to take shape after the country’s independence from the Soviet Union.

Sasha partnered with Merim Matkulova, ’09, and Bolotbek Esenov, ’08 – both former SIFE Berea members – to organize a business workshop for 70 MBA students.

Sasha and her team invited a panel of successful Kyrgyz entrepreneurs who explained the challenges and opportunities facing startups in Kyrgyzstan. A business lawyer coached the workshop participants on the legal side of opening and operating a business in Kyrgyzstan.

Equipped with new knowledge and insight, workshop participants then identified 20 business opportunities with high social impact.

These opportunities included the improvement of Kyrgyzstan’s service industry, expanding access to high-speed internet, and using the region’s high-quality cotton to create luxury pillows.

Sasha, Lorena, Hong and the rest of the SIFE Berea team will present their projects at the SIFE regional competitions in Cincinnati, Ohio later in March.

In 2009 Berea became regional champions and advanced to the nationals, where they won first runner up in the first round. This was a significant advance from the team’s first appearance where they won second runner up and rookie of the year in the 2008 regionals.

Berea students have achieved these successes through diligent work. Each SIFE Berea member has to work at least 10 hours a week in addition to taking a full academic course load.

With these international experiences and accomplishments, SIFE Berea hopes to achieve even more as they head into regional competitions this year.

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