Friday, July 9, 2010

Social Innovations

Here is a story that I wrote this week. I especially enjoy interviewing people for these stories. I like learning about what they are doing and how it changes lives for those they assist and themselves.

Creating opportunities for students to make social change has become the focus for the newly named Melvin J. Ballard Center for Economic Self-Reliance.

As part of the BYU Marriott School of Management, the Ballard Center has established partnerships with nonprofit organizations that have unique abilities to create social change. Graduate students have traveled to various areas throughout the world, applying and implementing strategic business plans for these organizations.

“We are interested in social innovation to help others,” said Brad Hales, assistant to the director of the Ballard Center. “We systematically and strategically work on sustainable projects.”

Recently, BYU graduate students have returned from projects being conducted in Ghana, Paraguay, Nicaragua and Honduras.

After students are accepted into the program, they learn about the organization, the country and its culture. Their goals are to apply business principles to real-life situations. Before most graduate students begin their summer internships, there is a three-week window of opportunity in which they interact directly with these organizations.

“They get their best plan in place before they go there,” Hales said. “Oft times they have to change their plans and work on something completely different than what they expected, depending on what the organization needs at the time.”

This was the case with Andrea Cordani and Jeff Baxter, who interned in Paraguay for Fundacion Paraguaya. They expected to arrive at an agribusiness school that was supposedly self-sustaining. The school, located in the middle of the jungle, was not as self-reliant as expected.

“There were definitely several areas of improvement,” Cordani said in his project report. “Their production was meager and not sufficient to generate high returns. Before ramping their production up with products they couldn’t sell, we had to do something with their sales system.”

The result was constructing three carts to hold dairy products in order to sell the products door to door in neighboring towns. Additionally, Cordani and Baxter concluded the profit margins were greater for yogurt and cheese products. By changing the layout of their farmer’s market booth, the students were able to sell more products with greater profitability, creating more self-reliance and self-sustainability.

Another project BYU has partnered with is The Burro Project in Ghana. Some residents in Ghana and other third-world countries use batteries as their main source of energy. Families may spend up to one dollar per day for this resource. The Burro Project’s involvement for social change is addressing the cost and hazards of battery disposal by offering a rechargeable battery alternative.

Graduate students Tara Hair, majoring in human resources, and Jennia Parkin, majoring in marketing, had put together research models for the project. They were told English was the official language in Ghana, but when they arrived, they found only half of the people spoke English, and those who did often attached different meanings to certain words and phrases. As a result of the language and culture barriers, Hair and Parkin ended up using pictures drawn on pieces of paper as a way to communicate.

“People thought it was a game, and it was fun,” Hair said. “Because it was a game, more people wanted to participate and we were able to reach more people.”

The students discovered that being able to adapt quickly is vital when traveling internationally. Hair added that understanding the mindset and values of citizens in a particular country is critical for effective communication.

The primary assignment for MBA and MPA students was to help these organizations become more efficient and effective. However, graduate students come back with experiences that confirm their roles in the world by creating social change and long-term sustainability.

“I realize that there [will] always be the need of feeding people,” Cordani said. “I just know that if not carefully done, it may actually hinder people’s progress.”

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