Microfinance in Action
A laptop, several mannequins and the know-how of 11 visiting Smith School students
were all it took to help Roxana, a small entrepreneur in Nicaragua, expand her in-home
The students accomplished this feat on their study abroad trip to Nicaragua in
January 2012, helping Roxana and several other local entrepreneurs get a financial
leg up. Even before they left America, students worked to raise money to help fix
up a clothing business, regulate a small microfinance company, improve a taxi business
and expand a grocery store.
“The study abroad trip to Nicaragua was probably the most exhilarating 10 days
I’ve ever had,” said Dipti Badrinath ’12, a finance and supply chain major in the
Social Innovation Fellows program. “From learning about microfinance to zip lining
though the largest canopy in Central America to volunteering with Nicaraguan families;
it was a great trip.”
Designed to help students learn how microfinancing works in the environment of
a developing economy, the course was planned and developed by Sue White, Distinguished
Tyser Teaching Fellow; Lily Griner, the university’s business librarian; and Pat
Herron, the university’s librarian for Spanish, Latin American and Latino/a Studies.
Business librarian Zaida Diaz assisted with the course implementation
“The course planning, development and implementation was successful due in large
part to Jane Mirandette, the in-country facilitator and founder of the first lending
library in Nicaragua and Biblioteca Movil (book mobile),” White said.
Students split into groups and were assigned a specific entrepreneur to assist.
Students from the business school at the Universidad Americana worked side-by-side
with Smith students and helped with any language barriers.
“The students were making a difference in someone’s life, a family’s life,” White
said. “They gained real-life understanding of microfinance — how a small amount
of money made a deep impact on people. Several of the entrepreneurs very emotionally
told the students that this experience changed their lives and made their dreams
One of those families was Roxana’s. She bought clothes from the capital city
and sold them door-to-door in her neighborhood, while also working full-time at
a hotel. She wanted her customers to come to her instead of offering an on-the-go
experience. The problem was, she wasn’t sure where to begin and didn’t have the
money to create a shop.
Badrinath and her team of students were assigned to help Roxana. They raised
money before they even left the U.S. by organizing a book drive at McKeldin Library
and soliciting donations from friends and family. They even received free laptops
to give the entrepreneurs.
With the money they raised, the students bought mannequins for Roxana’s store.
Then they created a business plan for her and set up the store in her home—all over
the course of the 11-day trip.
The other students had similar stories: One entrepreneur was looking to build
a website for his taxicab service and learn general computer skills. Another started
a small microfinance company but was having a hard time running it on his own. A
third wanted to expand his grocery store but didn’t have the manpower to do it.
Smith students wrote business plans to help the entrepreneurs solve their unique
problems and taught them the skills they would need to improve their businesses.
The students also acted as consultants for Opportunity International, a nonprofit
organization that provides small business loans and other similar services to people
living in poverty in the developing world.
They connected with their Nicaraguan counterparts before the trip using Skype
and e-mail. “We’re still in touch with a few of the other students. It was great
having them there as translators,” Badrinath said. “They were also business school
students, but they had a more realistic expectation of how it was in Nicaragua.”
The study abroad trip was selected as a finalist for the New Study Abroad Program
Innovation Award from GoAbroad.com, an online resource committed to providing databases
for international education and alternative travel.
Those same aspects are what interested Badrinath in the study abroad trip to
Nicaragua in the first place: “I’d been to Dubai but I wanted to do something more
hands-on. I’d also never been to Central America and am really interested in social
entrepreneurship — it was an easy sell.”
The trip wasn’t all work — the group visited a volcano, toured several cities,
went zip lining, visited the beaches, experienced the nightlife, ate a lot of new
foods, and met the people of Nicaragua. In fact, that was Badrinath’s favorite part
of the trip.
“We got to really experience Nicaragua as a country, instead of being a tourist
and visiting the popular spots. Because of that, we got to interact with the people.
And they were the friendliest people. The kids were adorable,” she said. "We had
the opportunity to go to schools with the Biblioteca Movil and lend out books to
the students. It was a one-in-a-lifetime experience.”
The most important thing she learned in Central America: “People are the same
everywhere. It was great working with entrepreneurs in Nicaragua because they wanted
the same things as entrepreneurs in America. Everything is exactly the same no matter
how well off they are of how well they are doing – the goals are the same.”