Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hands-on learning in the Marshall Islands


Emory Zink learns to make a flower petal
from women whose handiwork is sold
in the Marshall Islands.

Fourth in a series of posts from Kelley MBA students working in the Marshall Islands on a project with the South Pacific Business Development Foundation, a microfinance institution that enhances opportunity in underdeveloped Pacific countries by supporting women entrepreneurs.

By Emory Zink
Second-Year MBA


We’ve interviewed more than 20 people in the Majuro community during the last seven days. It has been intense, but revealing. 

This may be hard to believe, but in the classroom, even with a prepared business case, everything appears so simple. You have limited information and you make a decision with that information. 

Here in the Marshall Islands, as we gather information on behalf of SPBD, we’re faced with the challenge of never-ending perspectives. It is simultaneously frustrating and exhilarating to have meetings with three individuals in an afternoon, and while all three are respected and integral to the local financial industry, each approaches the Marshall Islands with a different agenda and an independent viewpoint. 

While this project appears superficially simple – whether the Republic of the Marshall Islands is an attractive or unattractive microfinance market – making a recommendation, knowing as much as we have gathered in the past week, is far more complicated. 

Of course, this is business in the real world, and to be honest, far more interesting than anything we could discuss in a classroom.

For example, we’ve explored the quality and types of educational opportunities available on the Islands. Obviously, this is an important factor feeding the likelihood of successful future female entrepreneurs, and rather than just talk about the programs, we visited schools. In particular, we paid a visit to the NGO Juren Ae, which is running a handicrafts training program in a facility funded through the government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs. 

This initiative seeks to give young women, ages 16 to 24, who have been pushed-out of the more traditional educational system, an opportunity to learn how to make traditional handicrafts for a living. There is a similar program for young men, who learn to make traditional Marshallese outrigger canoes. 

The fingers of the young women in their school workshop were moving frantically and producing beautiful woven arts. I tried my hand at a flower petal, and, well, thank goodness that I have other skills! The patterns can be quite elaborate, and the young women who were working the most intensely appeared to be in zen-like trances. 

The whole experience meant so much more than merely being told that this type of program exists. Seeing it in action and asking the participants their opinions makes gathering the information richer and more relevant to our eventual regional economic assessment.

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