If you could dedicate yourself to one cause what would it be? Where would you go and who would you serve if you had the opportunity?
When we were in our early twenties my wife and I talked about this often. Through a series of events over multiple years, we moved in September 2006 to Peru South America to spend the next four years there with a Christian development organization.
We lived in the Amazon city of Pucallpa, Peru for most of that time. Through the office of mostly Peruvian nationals, I started community-managed savings groups and taught business courses for people who earned between $2 – $5 per day. Battling the daily heat and dust, I traveled by motorcycle around the city to work with entrepreneurs who were creating businesses to support their families.
The savings groups worked. The first two formed closed, split and restarted. Within two years of the first group starting, we were up to 14. Average Pucallpinos had the opportunities to invest their money into their neighbor’s businesses and earn a profit at the same time. The rate at which they were able to borrow was 1/3 the rate charged by the moneylenders. They learned a new way of organizing themselves to improve their communities, strategies to market their products and ways of vetting new business ideas.
But I learned more.
Green and young, never having lived internationally and only knowing finance as it related to larger companies, I had no idea what to expect. I “drank out of a firehose” and learned the most from seasoned business owners about life, business and relationships in the jungle.
As my business celebrates reaches its first birthday, these are lessons I learned before I started my own business and some of my teachers.
1. Business is about life, not money
The vision to start a business, the drive to survive is primarily about the life you want. Deo, a forty-something polio survivor with an abusive and estranged husband, started her business selling lunch to students and teachers outside The Refuge of Hope, a school for mentally and physically challenged kids. She wanted to send her kids to school and needed the money for uniforms. The fact that she has more than three months’ of a teacher’s salary in a savings account is just a bonus that makes her smile.
2. Savings in the bank improves peoples’ lives
The insurance provided by cash available reduces the risk to the most vulnerable. Savings increases confidence, lowers stress and kick starts dreams. Patricia was the president of Banquito Emanuel. A mother of four boys she worked selling eggs in the market. The first year her payout from the savings group included a 50% return on investment giving her the equivalent of an extra month’s salary just in time for Christmas. “We had a Christmas like never before,” she said. Her husband encouraged her to, “Just keep doing whatever you are doing.”
3. Trust is the foundation of business
The businesses courses I taught were through the Chalmers Center for Economic Development and included a picture of a building with trust as the foundation. Fredy knew this concept well.
The man who started selling motorcycle parts to motocross riders built his business from scratch. A successful entrepreneur, Fredy’s shop was the unequaled store to purchase motorcycle supplies. He would tell people they didn’t need to purchase a more expensive product (with a higher commission) when the less expensive product was better. A counter cultural approach, his business thrived as people realized they could trust him.
4. Business allows generosity
Pastors Caleb and his wife Ivon knew their little church needed businesses to survive. During the first meeting with Caleb, he opened his journal showing his prayers for someone who would help their church develop businesses so his congregation could rise above the daily survival and learn to think longer term. They both recognized that business is a force to create surplus, which can be used to further mission and vision.
5. Being faithful with a little leads to more
After two months in a savings group, Gloria knew she had to do something to increase her income. She purchased a few pots and started preparing soup for lunch. The size of her stand in La Merced de Neshuya soon doubled and I was amazed at the number of clients at her new business. Great customer service and a good product kept customers coming back allowing her to grow her business.
6. Wealth is much greater than money
Sitting around a gathering hall preparing for a celebration was not uncommon in Peru. As the food was prepared and served members of the savings group in the community of Acho Mego, participants shared their experiences saving and investing with their neighbors through the process. “I’ve always been around my neighbors but I’ve never had friends. Now I have friends.” This comment, and many like it, demonstrated the change in circumstance one participant had experienced from her time saving alongside neighbors.
The demeanor of the savings group members had softened over the five months we met. The combination of the weekly meetings where members co-signed for each other, taught lessons on household and business finance and shared meals had all contributed to the community formed there. In this sense, the participants of the “Mujeres Triumfadores” (Triumphant Women) gained far more than money.
Wealth is bigger than zeros and commas.
It is bigger than income streams and possessions. True wealth considers the overall social, emotional and relational health of the person and that is much harder to quantify but you know it when you see it.
7. Corruption is a cancer that destroys the fabric of business
Thugs showing up at your business offering to “protect” you if anything were to happen to your store may have you second-guessing the value of your business. The government official pestering to see your financial statements month after month or the new layer of bureaucracy (and taxes) added after the last election, not to provide better services, but to reward political allies with government jobs chips away at the optimism of risk takers.
Corruption and injustice come in all shapes and sizes but it all works to destroy investment. Dissuading investors from digging in to hire, train, build, sow and reap leaves the community more transient, impacting the very fabric of the neighborhood.
8. I want to live in a society that values businesses, entrepreneurship and investors
Considering the challenges businesses face, it is easy to become overwhelmed. Often the near-term challenges of paperwork, government and competitor threats overshadow the benefits of running a company. After all, the funds provided for schools, teachers, public service workers, roads, hospitals and utilities are generated ultimately from investors and businesses. What happens when businesses don’t thrive?
I want entrepreneurship, risk and opportunity to be in the fabric of the culture of the society in which I live.
Business is a force for good providing opportunities for employees to reach their God-given potential by creating an outlet to use and develop their talents.
While the day to day tasks may be routine, the benefits to society are enormous.
These lessons learned shape my understanding of the purpose and mission of business. It is why I started an accounting firm, to continue supporting businesses so they can thrive and give back to the owners, families, employees and communities in which they live. I’m grateful to my teachers for helping me learn these lessons