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School of Business Students Change Lives in Jamaica

June 12, 2008
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"My expectations were blown away,” said University of Miami School of Business junior Aubrey Swanson of her experiences in Jamaica. “It was such a rewarding project, even more than we expected.”

Swanson did not spend her first weeks after finals on the beach. The accounting and international finance and marketing major spent 13 days in and around Kingston and Ocho Rios as part of a team working on a new project to teach entrepreneurship skills to 40 Jamaican business women. The project involved providing training and technical assistance to the women to enhance their capacity to become more competitive and self-reliant in the small Caribbean nation.

Project Jamaica was undertaken by the Hyperion Council of the University of Miami under the leadership of Ellen Marie McPhillip, assistant dean of undergraduate business programs. The Council worked in collaboration with the Scotia Bank Foundation, The MSME Alliance and the University of Technology, Jamaica.

Swanson, along with five other UM students started the project in January 2008 hoping to teach a few classes. Instead, they worked throughout the term, 10-15 additional hours per week to do research, create the lessons in PowerPoint, and videotape presentations. The trip to Jamaica put the students on the ground, living and breathing the day-to-day challenges that these small business people face. Meeting the women face-to-face and then working with them for such a sustained period of time was a rewarding experience.

Swanson said, “We had such an impact on their lives and actually changed the way that they think and run their businesses.”

jamaica project 2School of Business student traveled throughout Jamaica to support project participants.

The project actually began in South Florida with a similar program on a much smaller scale for about six to eight women in Little Haiti, Miami. The exercises were developed to help the business owners identify strengths, weaknesses, address deficient accounting practices and develop preliminary marketing plans to grow their businesses. The Little Haiti portion of the program has already been recognized with the Louise P. Mills Award for making an outstanding contribution to the enhancement of women by the Women’s Commission of UM.

For the much larger Jamaica Project, students conducted pre- and post test evaluations. They built on their experience and created a series of lessons that were more sophisticated and addressed the specific problems of the Jamaican marketplace. The women in Jamaica were able to complete their course work before their student-teachers arrived.

Structured to meet the needs of rural women including agro processors, craftswomen and hairdressers, the goal of the project was for participants to immediately apply their learning to their own particular circumstances, to upgrade the capacity of their business associations to assist them in their business ventures, and to ensure sustainability. Many of the women traveled from the Jamaican countryside and mountains, some for several hours, to attend the courses offered by the UM students.

Upon arrival, lessons were scheduled in and outside the classroom. Students not only prepared four core lessons including financials, marketing, customer service and website development, they also spent much of their time traveling to each woman’s place of business to meet one-on-one and give specific advice and attention to each person. Students helped the women identify needs and then worked together on solutions.

For example, the business students quickly identified the hurdles for craftswomen who were selling many of the same products in market booths to the tourist trade. This prompted a crash course on pricing and value-added strategies.

Another woman selling a unique product, Jamaican rum balls, was having difficulty with packaging and marketing. Students began working with her on a design and continue to communicate with her now to fine tune her new label.

jamaica project 3
Student Itziar Diez-Canedo worked with the team to support agro-processors as part of the project.

The project was very labor intensive for the whole team, but Aubrey found it well worth her time. “Some days we worked from 7:00 a.m. until 10:00 p.m., but they were so enthusiastic and that drove us to keep going, traveling up to four hours to visit one woman because we were actually making a difference. When we visited we could see them already making changes, writing their mission and vision statements…thinking about how to grow their business. They were even completing financial reports. We saw that and it was really rewarding.”

Included on the team in addition to McPhillip and Swanson, were School of Business Undergraduate Academic Advisor Priscilla Rivera and students Brittany Birnbaum, Brett Brown, Itziar Diez-Canedo, Nicholas Gavronsky and Henry Holaday.

“If we can get funding, we’ll definitely keep the project going next year,” said Swanson of her plans. “There are so many things that we can’t change for these women, sales taxes and government problems, but we found things that we could change and they were so grateful for the help. That shows that we did our job.”

The women participated in a graduation ceremony for the Jamaica Project on July 7. There ceremony was featured in a newspaper article published in the Jamaica Gleaner.

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