by David Chapman
Many college students and 20-somethings believe they have the next “big idea” when it comes to starting their own business and becoming wealthy in the U.S., and some succeed.
But in other parts of the world, the entrepreneurial dream of many dies before it even has the chance to get off the ground.
One such place is Zambia, located in Southern Africa. However, two University of North Florida students, a graduate and a professor recently made a trip to the country to assist with computer literacy and entrepreneurship programs to help potential businesses have a chance to succeed.
UNF professor Fred Pragasm, students Alex Chavez and Taylor Steinmann and graduate Ross Fredenhagen made the trip in December as part of the University of North Florida Students in Free Enterprise program for part of the two-part learning program.
Entrepeneurship programs were taught by Chavez and Fredenhagen at the University of Zambia over three days, with attendance reaching 60 to 70 participants each day. What they saw when they arrived there, though, surprised them.
“We thought we were going to go in there and tell them the basics of entrepreneurship, what it was and a simple course,” said Chavez. “We walked in and they all had their business plans ready to go.”
So instead of Entrepreneur 101, they quickly changed curriculum and answered numerous questions about the business plans and how to take the next step.
For many of the potential business persons, that next step is the most difficult. Securing the capital needed to launch such projects is tough to come by, and the UNF group can only offer so much. Instead, education is the key.
“To paraphrase, our goal is to teach them to fish instead of simply giving them the fish,” said Steinmann.
The students do that in numerous ways. Computers and print materials were left behind so that the Zambians had sources of information long after the group returned to Jacksonville.
“Here, we have so many how-to and business books just laying around,” said Chavez. “But they don’t have the same luxuries there and they were very, very appreciative of the materials.”
Even today the students still correspond with the Zambian students on a daily basis through e-mail.
“It’s not as quick as you’d like, especially with their hardware restraints and time differences, but we help them format business proposals, refer them to Web sites and counsel them,” said Chavez.
Computer literacy was another area of focus for the group during their trip. Between 12-20 students a session learned the computing basics on donated laptops.
For a couple of the students, though, it was their second trip to the country as part of the UNFSIFE program.
“It was a good experience, but the most recent trip was much better,” said Fredenhagen, who along with Steinmann made the journey in 2005. “We accomplished more this time because we had been there before, were able to plan more and because Fred was there. It was great to have a professor.”
For the most recent trip, the travelers spent 11 days in the country and said the experience was memorable. Each could recall moments that would leave an impact. For Steinmann, it was seeing familiar faces.
“I would have to say the best thing was seeing three of the entrepreneurs come back (from her first trip in 2005),” she said. “We didn’t realize how much of an impact we had the first time around...We found out that with the inspiration of our program, they started their own business and it was running strong for two years.”
For Chavez, it was the tangible results she saw. After stopping by a small village and meeting a young man who had started a group artisan project, the students later returned and brought supplies.
“Seeing the result was incredibly rewarding,” she said. “That didn’t take months of work and the little effort meant so much to them.”
Fredenhagen said he is attempting to save money and move to Zambia to continue helping in the areas he can. He said he is going to try to help the business people with their most difficult hurdle of capital by looking into microloan programs.
“You don’t get a lot of recognition,” he said, “but they inspired me and it felt like it was a good thing to do. I’m glad I did it, and I’m going to keep doing it.”
Now, the students and Dr. Pragasm are preparing for a regional competition in Orlando against other collegiate programs. All of the programs’ projects will be pooled together and presented to CEO’s. If they win, they move on to nationals.
The program has won regionals for the past eight years and has placed in the top 13 nationally the past three years. The National competition generally has around 950 competing, said Chavez.
“We’re confident in the program and we’re getting ready for April,” said Pragasm, who has been involved with the program for 8 years. “We’ll be ready.”
The competition doesn’t mean the end of the program’s foreign travels, though, as Pragasm said he hopes to take more students next year.
“I think the future looks good and we’ve had a lot of positive feedback,” he said. “For the foreign study, I believe it’s almost an obligation on our part to do something to make a difference in their lives.”