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by Olga Khodosh ’07 and Madlen Massarlian ’08, Bottom Line.
This fall semester we had the opportunity to work on an International Development Club (IDC) pro bono project with Agora Partnerships. Agora was founded by alumnus Ben Powell ’05 with the dual vision to help develop the private sector in Nicaragua and to encourage foreign investment in the country. Ben partnered with Ricardo Teran, a member of a prominent Nicaraguan family, to search for entrepreneurs with good business ideas.
Our consulting team worked with two Nicaraguan entrepreneurs – Olga and Meylin – to start their baby food company called Aggu. Consulting for a start-up company operating in a developing country has different challenges to one located in the US. Our role was to was to examine issues related to setting up their business as well as determining its viability for investment purposes. During the fall semester we got to know our entrepreneurs’ personalities by phone, corresponded weekly by e-mail (which included dozens of smiley faces and holiday greetings) and exchanged information in preparation for our site visit.
After 3 months of working with Olga and Meylin, we, along with two other Columbia teams and several teams from other business schools, flew into Managua to meet our entrepreneurs and conduct more first-hand research. Travel for his project was supported by the Social Enterprise Program’s International Development Travel Fund. There is no substitute for talking with entrepreneurs face to face to really understand their business. During the first day in Nicaragua, we found a mistake in the assumptions of the sales projections – something we probably would not have caught over the phone or by e-mail. We also joined our entrepreneurs on a field visit to kindergartens in the area to learn about institutional demand for baby food and conduct a small pilot study offering the product to children.
During our time in Nicaragua we also got to learn a lot about Agora and the entrepreneurs which it works with. We visited Ola Verde, a restaurant started by another Agora entrepreneur to promote healthy eating in Nicaragua, and stayed at a hotel owned by another entrepreneur in Granada. Sitting in on investment presentations made by the entrepreneurs and other consultants helped us see the dedication of these entrepreneurs to their projects and Agora’s desire to help them find resources and focus to help their businesses succeed.
As for Nicaragua, it is a hidden Central American gem, surrounded by virgin beaches and spotted by active volcanoes. Here you can have “gallo pinto” (rice and beans) three times a day and sip rum and coke in a shady corner watching the sunset. Our trip included a few social events to introduce us to different aspects of Nicaraguan life. A trip to a deserted beach at San Juan del Sur, and a day on the lake island owned by Ricardo’s family, were some of the highlights of the trip. Some of Agora entrepreneurs are trying to develop tourism in Nicaragua by building hotels and starting travel websites, and we believe that one day Nicaragua will be a more prominent tourist destination.
Working with Agora has been a very rewarding learning experience and our trip to Nicaragua helped us learn more about the country’s political and economic environment. As some of the Fall 2006 Agora consultants gather in NYC, we continue to reminisce of the pleasant and fun times we shared together in Nicaragua and Agora. This has definitely been one of the highlights of our Columbia MBA experience and we recommend it to anyone who wants to make a difference in the developing world.