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Cornell's SMART Program offers real-world client experience: Fellow Rebecca Darling '12 Recounts Belize Project

Saturday, October 1, 2011
Rebecca Darling

At Saturday market in San Ignacio, Pratima Arapakota (r) conducts market research for her client's cut flower business.

In early January 2011, eight teams of Cornell students and faculty advisors travelled across the globe to work as short-term consultants with social entrepreneurs, small business owners, and non-profit organizations in six developing countries: China, Indonesia, South Africa, Belize, Ghana and Malawi. A member of the Belize team, I joined my peers in a unique exercise in experiential learning: the Student Multidisciplinary Applied Research Teams (SMART) program.

An initiative of the Cornell International Institute for Food, Agriculture and Development (CIIFAD), the SMART program connects students with promising small enterprises in the developing world. While helping students transfer classroom knowledge into practical skills in the business world, the program also supports social entrepreneurs as they face challenges on the path to success. At least one CIPA Fellow could be found on each SMART team — no surprise, given CIPA’s diverse and talented student body. Doing group work
with colleagues representing disciplines other than our own was a key component of the experience. We learned to respect the expertise our coworkers brought to the table, while developing the skills needed to work across disciplinary lines. My colleagues on the Belize team included Megan Kaminska, senior in Applied Economics and Management; Tesfai Kendrick-Kande, junior in Applied Economics and Management; Pratima Arapakota, CIPA Fellow; Jennifer Nelson, CIIFAD staff and CIPA Fellow; and Chris Wein, Professor of Horticulture. Originally, our team was assigned to
work with a small cut flower business — conducting market research, supply chain analysis and business development strategies. Our project was expanded, however, when the dynamic young woman starting the cut flower business, Inaldi Cardona, convinced the SMART leadership to undertake an additional project for a local domestic violence shelter.

Located in the city of San Ignacio, Mary Open Doors (MOD) is the only domestic violence shelter in the region and only the second in the country. It was established in 2008 and has accomplished a great deal with minimal resources. Its future was in jeopardy, however, due to organizational weaknesses and dwindling resources. Inaldi’s vision includes having her flower business provide employment opportunities to MOD’s clients; this would help provide them with the financial resources needed to escape from their abusive situations.

Two of our SMART teammates — Pratima and Tesfai — set out to help Inaldi assess the local market for cut flowers, including the flower preferences of Belizean customers. They assisted with logo and brand development for Inaldi’s business (including the storefront presentation), and setting up procedures for navigating the local private sector environment. With Professor Wein’s guidance, they also analyzed the logistics of working with horticultural products; for example, how does the florist transport a rose from green house to wedding chapel while maintaining freshness and aesthetic beauty?

Meanwhile, Megan and I were charged with helping Mary Open Doors (MOD) identify and improve some of their organizational weaknesses in order to better serve the women and children of the Cayo District. We worked closely with the Executive Director, Anna Silva, a survivor of domestic violence herself. We also interacted heavily with Anna’s Executive Assistant, Stacy Rodriguez. Both were able to clearly articulate the tremendous challenges facing MOD. They needed help in identifying practical solutions, followed by strategies for implementing those solutions.

We worked with them to develop simple administrative systems and methods of communication that would save time, improve efficiency, and alleviate confusion between MOD staff and board members. In the end we presented our analysis and recommendations to Anna and the board at a dinner reception generously hosted by Ka’Ana, a locally operated boutique resort. The Deputy Chief of Mission for the US Embassy, Jack Diffily, attended the event as well. This event served to re-energize the MOD Board, which had been languishing in recent months. We left feeling optimistic about MOD’s future.

In the months since we left Belize, Anna has implemented three of our top five recommendations, and MOD secured funding to host a summer camp for the children in the area. We continue to stay in touch and offer advice when asked. You can learn more about Mary Open Doors on their Facebook page. The Belize trip was a prime demonstration of what the SMART program hopes to achieve: bringing together teams of students and faculty from diverse disciplines pairing them with firms, organizations, or community groups located in developing countries to overcome hurdles to sustainability and success. Our team had several pre-departure meetings, allowing us to become acquainted with each other and to establish general group-protocol for the trip. This led to the cohesion of the group while in Belize. Each team member also completed a pre-departure research assignment on our clients that collectively resulted in a comprehensive body of information, which we all drew upon during our in-country experience. It was also an invaluable resource when it came time to writing up our case studies on returning to Cornell. Everyone on our team proved flexible and willing to try new things, from unfamiliar foods to new approaches to collaborative work. In a developing country, this flexibility is critical, and especially so given the dynamics of the fast-paced SMART project.

Key to our overall success was the atmosphere of mutual support that existed between everyone on the team. I highly recommend the SMART program for CIPA Fellows — and not just for those who are focused on international development. Working with a real client in a real-world context is a tremendously valuable experience for those of us planning to work in any area of the public affairs profession. Recruitment for the SMART program begins during fall semester. For more information, please check the CIIFAD website: http://ciifad.cornell.edu/engagement.cfm.

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