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In the "Cult of Escapism": Seminaring

Sunday, July 22, 2012


“And a $5.00 price minus $3.00 in costs means you have...?”
“A $2.00 profit.”
And then I threw candy at a full grown man and he scrambled to pick it up off the floor after it bounced off his chest. This is what I've been doing for the past two weeks.

I spent much of the second half of June traversing Panama with my Co-Business Plan Coordinator, Dave. Using our experiences from our communities and some already well developed Peace Corps material, we've created a two day, basics of business seminar that includes: Planning, Marketing, Calculating Unit Cost, Determining Price, and Calculating Profit. I'm not sure why I just capitalized all those words, but I felt like I should. Anyway, the seminar has given us a general view of the type of basic skills that rural entrepreneurs lack across the country and exposed us to a wide range of education levels and capabilities.

High End
In the agriculture-rich highlands of western Panama, we taught business planning (rather than just basic business) skills to entrepreneurs that are already mostly successful. Several were college graduates and almost all were already running profitable businesses in tourism or sustainable agriculture. Two of the participants were indigenous men who worked as banana pickers on a plantation for about 20 years before they banded together with the other pickers and bought the company. They now form the board of directors and ship nationally and internationally. How cool is that? Talk about rags to riches. And they weren't even the most successful entrepreneurs there. We conducted the seminar in a modern building, with a projector and PowerPoint; the hosts who requested the seminar served us three meals a day, plus strawberries and cream as snacks. Strawberries and cream!

Mid End

In a community in one of the central provinces, we placed a desk on its side on top of another desk and taped up pieces of paper to drew our visual aides. Most of the participants already had functioning groups, but not a huge amount of revenue and were looking to expand their markets and tighten up their operations. However, there was also one guy who wanted to be a vendor but confessed that every time he purchased something and resold it, he lost money. Price higher than the cost, brother. The hosts provided coffee and fresh squeezed milk from their cows and were generally pretty on top of it.

Low End
On the far eastern side of Panama, near the Colombian border, we only ended up using two pieces of paper for visual aides, because we only covered about 1/10th of our material, which had already been stripped down from thirteen pages to six. Almost every participant was illiterate and one business owner ended up realizing that he loses 16 cents for every bag of sugar he sells. Which is the exact equivalent of handing someone a bag of sugar, not accepting any payment and handing them 16 cents. Like 12 times a day. The hosts did not provide food.

I feel like every seminar has basically been a home run, except that last one I just mentioned, which was more like an intentional walk. This success has reassured me that we've developed a set of lessons that challenge participants but are also within their capabilities to master. I strongly believe in the importance of teaching basic business skills to the poor and uneducated, because even if they have a solid business idea and a strong work ethic, they'll likely fail if they can't manage it. Small business development employs and empowers people and I hate to see people failing out of ignorance, rather than laziness.

I've still got a few seminars left in my last three months, but unfortunately Dave is leaving me to go to law school. Which is sort of discouraging – after spending a lot of time together, Dave decides that torturing himself learning about the law for three years is a better use of his time. Maybe my breath smells. In any case, I'll be throwing candy at people alone, which probably won't be quite as effective and definitely won't be as fun. But maybe I'll get more strawberries and cream out of it.
Two man wolf pack


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