Peace Corps to Entrepreneurial Career: What’s the connection?
“Once you have hitchhiked across Africa with ten bucks in your pocket, starting a business doesn’t seem too intimidating.” So said Netflix founder and CEO Reed Hastings when asked about how his experience in the Peace Corps influenced his career.
Reed Hastings is just one example of the many Peace Corps volunteers who recall the experience as transformative in the way they think about business, the developing world, and themselves. Rob Orton, Micro-Enterprise Development alum turned Peace Corps Recruiter, writes the following reflection on how his business education set him up for success in Costa Rica and how he continues to use the lessons learned in the field.
“After graduating with a degree in Marketing Management, I was not ready to jump into a traditional business role, but still wanted to apply my degree to the first step in my career. The Peace Corps gave me an opportunity to use my marketing degree on a daily basis and develop additional skills in the areas of sustainable economic development, entrepreneurship, leadership and cultural fluency.
When I arrived in Costa Rica in July 2005, I immediately noticed a stark difference not only in climate, but in language and culture. Growing up in Maine, I had never seen a palm tree or spent significant time in a Spanish-speaking area. I had studied Spanish in high school and college, but never completely immersed myself in the language.In my first three months of service, I strove to learn the language and culture of Costa Rica as well as technical knowledge related to micro-enterprise development and the health, safety and security training necessary for a safe Peace Corps experience.
I partnered with a municipal office of women’s empowerment in the Costa Rican city of Siquirres to teach business skills to female entrepreneurs. The head of the office, Maritza, who had requested the help of a Peace Corps Volunteer to coach these women, supports victims of domestic violence along with their access to education programs, job training, and community development activities. By providing women with income-generating activities, I helped to alleviate numerous problems at the community level, especially the obvious lack of jobs in the community. In addition, I assisted in improving their self-esteem and sense of community and offered a positive social outing for these women.
On a weekly basis, I met with five different women’s groups and taught classes such as accounting, marketing, and business administration, team building exercises, self-esteem activities, and technology and English lessons. Out of all my students, I remember a group of women that had started their own business by making a muscle ointment out of locally sourced medicinal herbs. Given the area was heavily focused on agriculture – particularly pineapple and banana production – many of the local men suffered from general fatigue and sore muscles after working long days in the fields, The ointment helped to soothe these maladies. When I first met with the group, I was excited to sample their product and see if they had developed a strong local market. However, I soon became concerned with the instability of their business model, the informal nature of their business and the non-standard production of their product.
They would grow the necessary herbs, which they would then cut and harvest all at the same time, leaving them without the raw materials necessary to produce more of their product. They would also pack the product in whatever container they had on hand, from baby food jars to used pill bottles to plastic bags. They sold their product purely by word of mouth, letting friends and neighbors know that they had product on hand. When this group of women decided to advance their business, they asked if I could guide them along the way.
In working to formalize a business plan, we first created a schedule of planting herbs so the group would always have raw materials for production at their disposal. We then increased the quantity of herbs planted and staggered it in monthly batches so that the women could produce their product on a much more stable schedule. Next, I helped them shop for standard product packaging in San Jose, the country’s capital. Together, we designed a logo and label listing the product’s ingredients and directions for use and performed accounting activities, pricing schemes, marketing strategies and distribution plans. Finally, we tried to create a sales plan, but many of the women were nervous about pitching their product to local shop owners. As a solution, we created a group practice model that increased their confidence not only in their product and its use, but also in how to sell it to a skeptical shop owner. Still, in some cases, I would go with the women to provide moral support or receive the “no” answer from the shop owner. While some shops allowed us to sell on consignment, others invested their trust in the product and bought a dozen bottles to sell on their own.
While it was by no means a quick process to build on their informal business, it was a very valuable exercise for everyone. It was incredible to witness the growth of these women both on a personal level and as a support system. Throughout my service, I involved Maritza in the training so that she would feel comfortable replicating the process for other groups in the future. She quickly took to the training in accounting practices, marketing theory and business administration. Similar to most Peace Corps Volunteers, I will never forget my own personal growth in service. Now, through my role as a recruiter, I aim to help prospective Volunteers discover how their talents can be useful for Peace Corps service.”
Read more stories of volunteers who have connected their service with business innovation:
Babson grad launches business inspired by Togolese dog
Corps to Career: Connecting local entrepreneurs with global travelers
Peace Corps + Business School=Collaborating with companies to improve the world
Corps to Career: I started a goat grazing business
If Peace Corps isn’t right for you, check out other ways to work and volunteer abroad.