With the exception of some presentations made at one of my schools a few weeks ago, today was the first day of High School Entrepreneurship Competition Season, 2015. This week the students at my largest high school will be presenting in class so that their teacher and I can select which teams compete at the school-wide competition.
I want to blog about these competitions and share my thoughts, but posting regular updates would just be inundating. I also thought that I could have one post that I keep updating, but that sort of defeats the purpose of having a blog, which is a website which has neat and clearly defined continuous updates. Instead, what I am going to do is write this one blog post continuously, like a diary, but not post it until the end of competition season.
UPDATE, October 9: In an effort to keep the length of this article short and the suspense strong, I am going to break it up into three articles. One on the lead-up to the Municipal Competition in León, one on the lead-up to the Departmental Competition, and one that closes things out with the National Competition.
…so read ahead for continuous updates on the competitions as well as musings on tourism, effective communication, Stark Trek, and more.
September 29, 2015
My alarm was set for 7:45 today so that I could get to school around 8:45. I heard a text come in sometime before 7:45, but I ignored it and kept sleeping. At 7:45 when I got out of bed I read it:
“Eric at 7:45 Section D is going to present. Are you going to come?”
No, I am not going to come! Just two nights prior I had told him that I was willing to help out all week with whatever he needed, he just needed to let me know ahead of time. 35 minutes of prior notice does not constitute ahead of time.
I responded that I could not make it at that time since I had just woken up, and I got myself ready, ate breakfast, and headed down to the school at around 8:45, just as I had planned on when I set my alarm the night before. At around 8:30 my counterpart texted me again, saying it was no problem that I wasn’t going to make 7:45 – the kids had not prepared anything anyway. Color me shocked!
When I got to school I found my counterpart and we sat down to talk. The next class wasn’t until 10:15, so we had time. Literally none of the student groups had brought anything to present. Very disappointing. He told them that they had to present and that we would do it during recess (8:30 to 8:45, plentyatime) the next day.
While we were sitting around and planning a student that I did not recognize walked over and handed in his business plan. I was pleased that finally a student had handed in a final draft of their business plan. I had been banging my head against chalkboards for months trying to get the students to work on their business plans. We started going through it, and I realized that although he had put in effort to complete all of the sections of the plan, he truly had no understanding of the concepts and everything was incorrect or way way way off base. His teacher and I began working with him to correct it, but his teacher was answering some phone calls and having a rather heated argument with a math teacher in a Bob Marley shirt, so I was left to help him.
I truly had no desire to re-teach to this kid a year’s worth of material, so after a few minutes I excused myself to go visit some Peace Corps Trainees working with English teachers at the other end of the school and left the kid with his teacher. When I got back about 10 minutes later the kid was gone. I commented to my counterpart that the plan was terrible. My counterpart (I avoid using names because these posts do go on Facebook and I am friends with counterparts and many other Nicaraguans, some of whom speak English) then proceeded to explain to me why I did not recognize this kid.
A few weeks ago the teachers had to hand in grades for the third quarter. This students had literally not come to school since April, so my counterpart sent in no grade for him. Sounds reasonable, right? Wrong! Grades here are a sensitive subject. Basically, teachers can’t fail anyone and are pressured to give all students ludicrously good grades to make the school look good. I usually am willing to show a lot of cultural deference when evaluating aspects of the education system, but the evaluation system here is not something I can not turn a blind eye too. It is done poorly, could be improved, and is nearly worthless as is.
Anyway, the Assistant Principal and my counterpart have butted heads in the past because my counterpart has tried to fail students (the horror!), so this time my teacher got called right in to the Principal’s Office to explain himself. And he explained very clearly that he thought the kid had dropped out. Of course he had put no grade. After that the kid’s father got involved, so he is going to continue in school and graduate (and he is now attending). I told my counterpart that I really was not willing/able to put in the effort to reteach everything to to this kid, who was working alone without a group. My counterpart said it didn’t matter; this student was going to participate and pass anyway because the Assistant Principal wants the kid to graduate. This led to an all time favorite quote of mine:
“Eric, here, if you dress up a pig in a cap and gown, even the pig will graduate!”
It is sad but true. No one fails. Everyone graduates. Even kids who do not come to class for a single day in months. And it really dis-animates the teachers. I see them as zombies in straight jackets. They really can’t do anything, can’t discipline, and are not allowed any initiative. They are now just trying to get through every day without getting fired so they can get their paycheck and one day hopefully make it to retirement without going crazy.
So anyway, the bell rings, we forget about the kid who with the nonsensical business plan, and we go to Section A to see their presentations. Section A is one of my least favorite of the five in that school. And they were on their best worst behavior this morning. Since there were going to be presentation I asked some of the kids in the front row to move back. Two girls who have always been unpleasant and sniveling sneered at me and told me that they didn’t want to. I simply grabbed one of the girl’s desks and yanked it back. I made my point.
The first group to present has one of my favorite students: Kenon. Kenon is from Pear Lagoon, a small town on the Caribbean Coast. It is very different, and very far from León. His mother sent him to school in León to learn Spanish. He lives with his sister, who is a dentistry student at the university. His family in Pearl Lagoon works with the Volunteers out there, and Kenon introduced himself to me, first thing on the first day of school.
Kenon’s group prototype presentation a few months ago disappointed. It was pretty much a frappucino. I recommended that instead of selling the drink they should sell a drink mix. And they actually took my advice and changed their product into a frapuccino drink mix! Usually students here do the opposite of what I recommend. They avoid my recommendations like a mosquito carrying malaria. But nope, this group actually did it. Unfortunately they did not have a sample of the finished product, just the powder, and their presentation as well as their packaging needs a lot of work, but it was my first bit of good news since 7:45 AM, so I was happy!
Group two included our friends Sniveling and Unpleasant. Their group had a Hawaiian Pineapple Marmalade. You see, it turns out there are actually different varieties of pineapple. Here, Hawaiian, or “golden” pineapple is known as the sweetest. Anyway, it tasted good but was a bit fibrous (they insisted that’s how it was supposed to be because it is a marmalade, not a jelly). And that was pretty much the only redeeming quality of their product and presentation. I don’t see a future for this group in the competitions.
Third up was “Avocream.” This groups is comprised of the school’s most pretentious students. The core is a groups of kids that speak English well because they attend Embassy sponsored English school a few times a week (not gonna hate on them for that). They are joined by the insolent daughter of the school secretary. The teachers let her get away with anything she wants because they don’t want to get in trouble with the Principal’s Office. I also think her choice of lipstick is terrible.
Anyway, I have been telling them not to use English in the name of their product all year, but they, like clockwork, did not take my advice. And the product is blah. It is a face/anti-stretch marks cream made out of avocados. It looks like guacamole, complete with the weird brown discolorations that guacamole gets when it sits for a day. Very appetizing, I know. Wouldn’t you love to slather that on your face and torso? The group had a menial understanding of their business basics (finances, market, etc.), but they did better than the Pineapple Marmalade group.
With both the Pineapple Marmalade and Avocream I found myself arguing with the groups as to whether their products are natural or not. Both seemed to think so. The Pineapple Marmalade has the pinkish color because they add an extremely popular sickeningly sweet pink food dye called frambuesa which is surely devoid of anything remotely natural. Avocream has a Vaseline base. They argued with me though, saying that the other products on the market are all chemicals. We settled on their product being less unnatural than the competition.
Last up was the Zipper Bag. I love the idea, but not the group (a running theme, I know). These girls presented the product earlier on in the school year, and then did not produce a single piece of written work all year long. Every time we spoke to them it was excuse after excuse after lame excuse. I was legitimately surprised that they even had something to present today, although just like every group except the frapuccino powder, they had no written business plan (which is a requirement to participate in the Municipal Competition, which is scheduled for October 9).
It is difficult to explain the idea of the bag, other than to say that it is one bag made out of a really long zipper. I did take a video of the bag though:
This group too had an extremely poor presentation, which does not surprise me in the least because they have not really put in any effort all year long. However, I like their product just enough to intentionally send them to a competition so that they are embarrassed in front of the judges by their lack of preparedness.
By the end of the Section A massacre of September 29, 2015, their teacher and I had decided to postpone the school-wide competition until the beginning of next week so that the groups have more time to prepare. We can’t push it back any further though because the Municipal Competition is next Friday and they need to have chosen two teams to compete, complete with business plan, product, and PowerPoint presentation. I’m been swearing to all of my teachers for weeks that no group without a written business plan can participate in the Municipal Competition. As things are shaping up right now, if they call my bluff I am going to actually have to cancel the competition.
Tomorrow my counterpart has planned for all of the four other sections to present from 8:30 until 11:45. I don’t know how we are going to fit in four sections, but he seems to think it is possible. Section E was going to present today, but of course, the group that has promised me their business plan ‘tomorrow’ every day since June, is going to bring it in tomorrow. Forgive me if I’m skeptical. Anyway, we’ll see what tomorrow brings. Maybe I won’t be feeling as sardonic.
September 30, 2015:
7:30 AM – Alarm
7:35 AM – Text from Counterpart (same guy as yesterday):
“Eric don’t come the Seniors are all going to an activity at The UCC. We will do the presentations tomorrow.”
If yesterday we hadn’t postponed the school-wide competition I would be freaking out, but there is nothing I can do, and as long as they all actually present tomorrow, they will be fine. It just leaves one less day for the best teams to prepare. I think that today is a debate at The UCC. But only two or four students are participating from this particular school. All the rest are just observing. They would probably be better off just staying in school and sending a small group of supporters with the participants. Plus the school should tell the teachers ahead of time when there are these sorts of activities.
10:30 AM – I get a text from a different Counterpart who had scheduled his school-wide competition for tomorrow and I had gone through the trouble of getting my friend to help judge. He has a “problem” and needs to postpone until Monday. There is a slight chance this may conflict with another school’s competition, but I don’t mention that.
1:30 PM – I head up to one of my other schools to speak with the students. Their teacher has been having health problems and is out for a few days this week. I wanted to give them some guidance since the competition is next week. Of course, none of the groups had a business plan! They all want to know which groups are the best and will compete at the municipal level, but I repeated that I was not able to make a choice without seeing the business plans.
2:30 – I headed to yet another of my schools for their school-wide competition. I was the only judge, and I am fairly impressed with the work that the students have done. All of the groups handed in business plans, and many had PowerPoints as well. Here’s the rundown of the products presented:
- Coffee made from toasted soy beans
- Liquid hand soap
- Flour to make crepes, pancakes, and manuelitas
- Face cleanser
- “Natural” insecticide
- Pink sauce
- Anemia and kidney health supplement
This is my strongest school with a very dedicated teacher. It is a large class (they push 60), but relatively well behaved, and she has them motivated. The pros outweighed the cons. The cupcakes tasted good, but that was there only strength. The hand soap also had a very poor business plan. The other products and plans were all very strong and competitive. It took me an hour of reading over the plans and my notes from the presentations to make my final decision of the two best teams who will advance to the Municipal Competition on Friday, October 9.
The teams still had their weaknesses. I had the familiar “less un-natural does not make it 100% natural” argument, and the teams lacked an understanding of market. In this context, market is the potential clients: the sector of the general population that may be inclined to buy the product, or to whom the business will direct the product. The kids are inclined to sell to everyone in the world, which is very frustrating and not the recipe for a winning team or product. I had spent a lot of time with this class in particular going over market, so it was disappointing to see that they still didn’t understand that basic concept.
In the end, the ready-mix flour and the pink sauce advanced. I really liked the soy coffee, but the flour was a bit more prepared and got the second slot. The flour group worked very hard to improve their product, and they even have a cool process through which they dehydrate eggs and incorporate them as a powder in their product. The pink sauce I find putrid (mayonnaise is one of the holy trinity of my most hated foods), but everyone else loves it, and they are a very motivated group with a good written business plan.
On my way home it was getting dark and there were storm clouds forming in the sky. And it reminded me of this time of year last year in León. It was the first time I’ve felt reminiscent since arriving here last May. I’ve seen events more than once, but those feeling were simply comparative, comparing one year with the other. This was a profound feeling of likeness, and reminded me of high school in New York, and the seasonal feelings throughout the year – sitting on the steps in the front of the high school in the fall as it is getting colder, late nights on the debate bus, ski practice, and antics around town in the spring. For the first time, León felt like home.
When I got to my house at 6:00 I had another text from the Counterpart who had moved his competition early that day from Thursday to Monday. He wanted to make it Tuesday now. This was likely to conflict with another one of my school’s competitions, and I was simply not willing to get in the middle and try to find an agreeable date and time for both schools, so I insisted that he call the other teacher and work it out. Otherwise it would have been a nightmare for me mediating between the two of them and playing endless telephone tag. Plus, this way I am not the bad guy when they realize their own planning follies and have to make some sacrifices or hard decisions.
October 1, 2015
The first day of October in León is a day of rejoice, at least for the Volunteers among us. September is filled with national and religious holidays. The 14th and 15th are independence day celebrations, the 24th is the day of the patron saint of León (The Virgin of Mercy, as distinct from all of the other incarnations of Mary, I suppose), and Tuesday and Wednesday were San Gerónimo celebrations. Independence Day celebrations are a huge nuisance while working in the schools, because classes are continuously interrupted for weeks ahead of time for marching band practice and other activities. The 24th is another lost school day, and the San Gerónimo celebrations are unfortunately known for stabbings and excessive alcohol consumption. To top it all off, every day of the month the churches set off loud firecrackers between 4:00 AM and 5:00 AM.
So my alarm went off at 7:15 today as planned, and no unexpected texts came in throwing a wrench in the day’s plans. I thought that just maybe we had turned a new leaf and things would go better as we cruised towards the competitions.
I was mistaken.
I got to school at 8:30 as scheduled for the presentations of the day. We had to get through four sections of students, so I didn’t want to waste any time. Unfortunately, the Principal had called a teacher meeting that started at 8:30. It went until 9:45. There was nothing that my Counterpart or I could do. He sat there and listened/zoned out, and I edited some business plans that he had received that morning. Unfortunately, these sorts of meetings and lost class time are all too common here. It just goes to show that “class” and “learning” are just political theater, the screen on which the party projects its vote-winning strategies. Education is not an end, it is a means.
All week long my Counterpart has been frantically trying to motivate the kids through threats and motivational speeches. So when we finally left the teacher meeting some of the kids swarmed us. Every group that had something to present, or just had a questions, wanted our attention ya! I got really frustrated because their teacher is the kind of guy who would give everyone the attention that they want. One group that has been making lame excuses literally all year (the zipper bag) about why they haven’t done any work shoved an extremely poorly done business plan in front of him, and he was trying to walk and read and correct it all at the same time. He was slowly walking despite the hour of class that we had just lost, plus bumping into people and things along the way. I had to take the plan away from him, tell the group to do it properly like they know they are supposed to, and come back another time (believe me, it is not lost on me why the kids in this particular school hate me. I don’t care one bit. I’m almost like the Hulk. The more you don’t like me the more fun it gets for me!).
Through all the chaos two groups managed to present. Poor and poorer. One group, who have not done anything all year (at one point one of the group members literally told me that he wasn’t going to do anything) had melty ice cream. They knew absolutely nothing about the business though. It was as if they thought this was a cooking class (which they still would have failed). The other group had won the science fair with their caramelized fruit, and they were using it for their business as well, which is fine. To me, the pineapple that they presented just tastes like the pineapple from pineapple upside down cake, but I didn’t judge their category in the science fair (I judged the industry category if I remember correctly), so I can’t say why they won. If the groups use their science fair project they still need to adapt it into a business. This group, not the least to my surprise, did none of that. They just tried to present their science fair presentation again. When I asked about their finances, marketing, and market study that had absolutely no answers for me. It reminded me of my Counterpart’s quote from yesterday,
“Eric, here, if you dress up a pig in a cap and gown, even the pig will graduate!”
There were other groups in other sections with products, but there was no time to hear their presentations. I am literally out of time. I don’t have more time to dedicate the circus that that school has become. My counterpart just wants to cancel the school-wide competition and send his two favorite groups to the Municipal Competition, but I’m trying to advise him to keep letting groups present so that they all get a fair chance. As things stand now, if he calls off the rest of the presentations, there will be a few (semi-)motivated groups that won’t get a chance. We’ll see what he decides to do, but just like last night with the rescheduling of the school competitions, I had to extricate myself. In the end, this is their competition, not mine, and they need to take responsibility and make decisions.
This week I decided that next year (I will only be in Nicaragua for half of the school year) I am not going to attend classes at that school. I will co-plan with the teacher and go to classes if he asks me to and has a specific role for me, but I do not want to be a “teacher” in that school.
Since the competition that was supposed to be this afternoon was postponed until next week (I still have not heard back on the final date and time yet), there are no more competitions or presentation today. Tomorrow I am not in the schools, so I will be taking a break from competition season until Monday. Good riddance.
Later that afternoon…
I went to another one of my schools for their regular class period. This group is extremely far behind, simply because since July there have been tons of cancellations. There was nothing that the teacher or I could really do about it. The teacher, who works at two different schools on weekdays and another school on Saturdays (read: overworked), has also not done a great job planning classes ahead of time lately, although that is partially my fault because we intend to co-plan together. Nevertheless, they are far far behind, and the kids have fallen to the wayside and lost any motivation that they once had. We’re two months away from graduation after all, don’t forget.
The kids were supposed to hand in their final market studies, but none of the groups were ready. Plus, the teacher did not have a class planned (even though we had talked about it earlier in the week). The entire episode capped off the week and exemplified a lot of what frustrates me about working in Nicaragua. I have learned that when you expect something, be it something from an adult or homework from a student, you need to give crystal-clear-100%-no-doubt-not-a-cloud-in-the-sky-repeated-three-million-times directions. In an intellectual culture with less critical thinking and problem solving, this is imperative, or nothing gets done.
However, there are always unforeseen obstacles. And when the students hit these obstacles they shut down, completely and totally. Then a week or two passes, you ask for their work, and all they can produce is a lame excuse. “Fernanda couldn’t meet.” “We lost our book.” “I was sick.” “I didn’t understand.” But what frustrates me the most is that no matter how many times I give them my contact information and tell them that I am here and willing to help – indeed I came from the United States with that very goal – they never contact me ahead of time to resolve their issues. Nor do they contact their teachers for that matter. So weeks and weeks go by with no progress.
And this is not just endemic to the students. Adults exhibit the same tendencies, in my observations. I have offered multiple times to help plan classes, judge competitions, and revise business plans with my teacher training teachers. Some of them have even told me that they are going to call me. Not a single one has ever called me asking for assistance. In the United States we communicate via text, phone calls, e-mails, and face-to-face. Plus there is Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp, to name a few other media. But here, some people still don’t even have cell phones. People who have e-mail rarely check it. Communication is sometimes only effective when done face-to-face, which is very burdensome.
Part of the problem is how the national telecommunication networks are set up. There is Claro and Movistar. That’s it – two companies. And very few people have plans. They just buy minutes. Plus, calling from one network to the other is super expensive, so people avoid it. Some people even have two phones – one for each network. That is hugely inefficient. Furthermore, if you don’t have a plan your phone number is not guaranteed. So if your phone is lost or stolen or a litany of other things happen to you, you need to buy a new SIM card and just like that overnight you have a new phone number and nobody who had your old number is aware that it has changed. All of these institutional barriers really make communication difficult in Nicaragua, and I think it is a major developmental issue.
That was a large tangent, but I think it goes to show how deeply frustrating this entire competition season is becoming. These students still don’t have market studies or business plans, and the competition is next week.
There is one bright light of success this week: my teachers worked out the Monday/Tuesday competition conflict. República de Cuba High School will be holding their competition on Monday, and John F. Kennedy High School on Tuesday. Yes, those are really the names of the high schools. If only the real Kennedy and Cuba could have resolved their differences this easily 50+ years ago.
Saturday, October 3
I caught wind tonight that another Volunteer from my group quit the Peace Corps. He lived in another town in my department, La Paz Centro. Apparently he felt unproductive and just wanted to go home. Out of the original 17, we are now down to 10. Plus, I have no idea what sort of groundwork has already been laid for his town’s local competitions, so now I have to add to my to-do list figuring out what is going on in his town. My goal still remains for the winners from his town to participate in the departmental competition later in October.
This afternoon was the República de Cuba school-wide competition. My friend Megan came as a guest judge. I hope that she liked the experience. She judged alongside the Principal and another teacher from the school.
Unfortunately, only five groups presented:
- Fried beef wontons (they call them “Torritos”)
- Carrot milk bar candy
- Body discoloration remover
- Toasted corn drink enriched with jicaro and soy beans (yes, another enriched toasted corn drink)
- Chicken chalupas
The wonton group and the corn drink mix group stood out, and the judges selected them to advance. I like the girls in the carrot milk bar (it’s a popular type of candy here). They have worked hard despite having pregnancies in the group. But they had some shortcomings today that we just couldn’t overlook. I do think that it was an overall positive experience for them though. These carrot milk bars (they are naturally bright orange, which is cool) have always been a crowd favorite so they sold a lot of their product today and they earned money. I always tell my teachers that sales and profits are an essential part of this course because it reinforces the lesson that entrepreneurship can be used to make a living.
The other two groups were sub-par, especially the chicken chalupas. They had been underwhelming since the prototype presentations earlier in the year when I described their product as soggy nachos. This time around they were not soggy, but the product is just a food. They have no packaging or sales plan. I really discourage this type of product, and the three judges completely agreed with my assessment.
After Cuba I headed up to La Villa (a nearby neighborhood) to check up on my class in another school. As I feared, STILL NO BUSINESS PLANS! I have no time left to work with those students. The teacher is not capable of evaluating and correcting the business plans on his own, we haven’t even selected the winning teams yet (although it is pretty clear in my mind, but we are trying to wait to see the plans first), and the winning teams still need to make a PowerPoint for Friday! If I had hair I would have pulled it out. Instead their teacher asked me to come in tomorrow morning for an hour, which I think I can just pull. It will be free time in the school’s computer lab (all new and air conditioned) and I will be there to help any groups working on their plans.
It’s a real shame how poorly things have gone at that particular school because at least three groups had viable ideas:
- Nice smelling perfume that was cheap to produce
- Coffee yogurt
- Diabetic yogurt
The coffee yogurt group worked hard to improve their product and I was very happy to see that what started as a soupy beverage turned into a great yogurt product. This group highly benefited from the individual consultations that the university students gave to each of my classes. The perfume is made by a group of some of the most pleasant and intelligent students that I have in all of León. But after their initial presentation I didn’t see much improvement in their product, despite me trying to advise them on how they could overcome some of its weaknesses. Just today the leader of the group told me that they didn’t think they would present, but I told her that whatever they had would be fine if they could just complete there GD business plan.
It just seems that over time all of the groups have lost interest and motivation. I’ve realized that one of the drawbacks of a large site is the lack of attention I can dedicate to individual groups and students. This class requires lots of revision. A teacher needs to sit down with his or her students and help them think through their options. I just don’t have the time for that in my schedule though. Plus, the kids all live spread out and getting them together outside of class time is tricky. Last year I had a few “office hours” and I was lucky if one group came at all, even though the teacher was highly encouraging certain groups to go. And there’s no lunch breaks, free periods, or study halls built into students’ schedules. Except for a 15 minute recess all they see are back-to-back classes.
I would love more time to sit down with groups and talk to them about the concepts we are learning and how it affects their small businesses. I’m a bit of a romantic and I imagine myself getting the chance to do this with my groups, but it almost never pans out. Plus, feedback from teachers to students is poor. Teacher teaches. Student learns. Student hands in work. Teacher assigns grade. That’s the sequence of things here, and it leaves no space for reflection or improvement. I think in smaller sites Volunteers get a chance to engage with their students more. I envy that aspect of their service.
With just days to go before the competition things remain bleak in León. In the morning I was with a few groups in their school computer lab, finally seeing some business plans from them. They have an uphill battle for Friday, but at least they have some semblance of motivation and are working on it now. Plus their teacher is healthier and seems happy. The new computer lab is also very nice and a great resource for the school. I hope they take advantage of it and learn how to incorporate it into their teaching and curriculum. Many teachers have a now that there is technology I can finally be a good teacher mentality. It couldn’t be farther from the truth.
In the afternoon was the school competition at John F. Kennedy. But my counterpart in the morning filled me in on some gossip about my counterpart at JFK. About two months he was stabbed late at night. Luckily, he was fine, has recovered and is back at school. I consider him a great teacher. It turns out that he has gone public and claimed that one of our students is the perpetrator! Even worse, that student is already in jail, being implicated in the murder of a university student that travels down from Jinotega. Nevertheless, the student’s father claims that my counterpart was inviting his son out to drink, out that they were out together the night of the attack. From the sound of things, I think my Counterpart has acknowledged that he was out with the student. This is grounds for him to be fired, which I truly hope does not happen.
So with that bleak backdrop I headed over with my site-mate Robert for the school-wide competition:
- Coconut scented candles
- Potato wedges covered in mayonnaise
- Mixed fruit marmalade
- Seasoned and cooked chopped-meat fish
- Natural breadcrumbs made out of plantains
- Enriched toasted corn drink mix
- Machine to cut Styrofoam
- Hibiscus jelly
The fried potato wedges were so disgusting they could have been in a modern art museum. The group was comprised of two kids that hadn’t done any work all year. Throughout their whole presentation all I could do was stare at the mayonnaise, drizzled on top of the potatoes. The gelatinous sludge was just suspended there. It looked as if it had always been there and will always be there, come hell or high water.
The other products were far superior. The coconut candles were the standout first place group. The candles looked excellent, smelled excellent, and were packaged elegantly. All of the other products were strong, but the fish product stood out, despite its obvious flaw of durability. I also love the Styrofoam cutting machine, but they had some business plan and packaging shortcomings that we couldn’t overlook.
We evaluate groups over six categories:
- Oral and visual presentation
- Market study
- Written business plan
Often times a team seems very strong, with a cool product or a strong presentation, but if they reveal a shallow understanding of the important and underlying business concepts, they will not advance. Some of these groups did not even have a written business plan, which is pretty much an automatic disqualifier. But given what my counterpart in this school went through this year, I am proud of what was accomplished. He is a motivated man and a good teacher. For those reasons I would see it as a tragic shame to lose him.
After JFK I headed back over to Cuba for a final consultation with the winning groups over there. The toasted-corn beverage group continued to impress me with a strong work ethic and very astute team members but the Torritos wontons were in disarray. They said the work was too much for them and they didn’t have the money to make more product in time for the competition (since they ate all of the product from earlier in the week without selling it). They were going through the motions of writing the business plan on the computer, but I could see that none of them were taking initiative at all. Their teacher was fighting with them, playing the game at their immature level, to try to get them to participate, but I saw the writing clear above his head on the wall. If this team went to the Municipal Competition on Friday they would embarrass themselves, or they may just be no-shows. I had a quick meeting with the Principal and the teacher, and we decided to dump Torritos and just bring one team from Cuba. It was dissapointing, but we have to keep in mind that this teacher has never taught the class before and due to many cancellations was far behind in the curriculum. He had already achieved a lot with one motivated team.
And on top of all of these professional problems, my local friend’s brother died over the weekend, which has me upset (you may remember him as one of my friends the dancers). His brother, who was around 30, fell ill at the beginning of this year when my cousin died. I spent a lot of time with my friend when that happened because we were both going through difficult times. He didn’t go into details on his brother’s condition, other than that it was a very serious liver ailment, but I had a feeling that he was staring down the barrel of his brother dying. And it came to pass over the weekend. My friend is devastated, and he did absolutely everything he could to try to save his brother. This must be must worse for him than how I felt back in February, and there is nothing that I can do to help him other than offer him my condolences and continue being a good friend.
This morning was the Municipal Competition of Mateare, a town on the highway between León and Managua. Dave (a man who is impressively in the Peace Corps for the second time) is from my group and the Business Volunteer in Mateare. He invited me to be a judge. And most unfortunately, he wasn’t able to make it to the competition, because he flew out to the US for a medical procedure yesterday. We expect him back though.
I got to the school in Mateare at five of eight, which was start time. We must have started at nine or 9:30 though. The competition went well though. There were only six teams and a very engaged teacher. It was excellently planned and executed, right down to lunch for the judges after the competition. I don’t even have folders or pens for my judges this year!
Here’s the rundown of the teams:
- Marango supplement
- Eco-shoes holder
- Yogurt with Splenda and fruit
- Painting service
- Natural soap made of honey and oats
Marango got first place and will advance to the Regional Competition. Marango is a tree that is purportedly super-nutritional. The girls did the usual song and dance about how it can cure everything, and they marketed it as a cure, not a supplement. That was my biggest complaint. They are not doctors. But they had a strong overall business, so they advanced.
The soap was not natural and the shoe holder was not eco-friendly (although when I asked the group about it they couldn’t decide if eco meant economical or eco-friendly). I really liked the product though. The diabetic yogurt was pineapple flavored, which is fine. But their label had strawberries on it and in the market study their clients indicated a preference for strawberries. That was enough of a nail in the coffin for the other judges and me. The eco-broom and the painting service were the runts of the group. Not great products and the groups were not well prepared at all.
I really enjoyed the Mateare Competition and I am glad that Dave entrusted his baby with me. I hope that the marango girls do well at the Regional Competition and I see them in Managua in November.
I took the opportunity of being in Mateare to visit one of the business owners from the Business Incubator back in June. Don Marco makes hammocks. But he is also a member of a fishing cooperative that wants to expand into tourism. And I think the cooperative has an attractive offer. Mateare itself is nothing to rave over, but it is on on Lake Managua and close to the natural attractions of the lake, including Apoyeque volcanic crater and Momotombito. Since they already have boats they want to start offering boat tours to Momotombito and smaller islands.
From experience I’ve found that it is extremely difficult for a tour operator to just set up shop and begin attracting tourists, especially if the operator is not established in León. So Dave and I came up with a plan to help this cooperative. Dave would help them get their ship in order and make an attractive offer to tour operators, and I would talk to the tour operators in León that I know to see if they are interested in working with the cooperative and offering a Momotombito tour. Currently, there are no tours to Momotombito.
Things have been going slowly, but yesterday we had a break through. The Director of Quetzaltrekkers, a non-profit tour operator in León joined me in the afternoon for a meeting with Don Marco and the cooperative. We had a productive meeting, and we decided that in the first week of November the cooperative will offer a pilot tour for tour directors and members of the news media. Hopefully the trip will be great and the tour operators I know in León will then offer trips to Momotombito and partner with the cooperative for the boat ride and local guides.
Throughout the day I was constantly on the phone and texting, working on planning my local competition as well as figuring out the La Paz Centro situation. My phone was dead by the time got on the bus back towards León. And on the bus an old feeling crept over me: I felt like I needed a personal assistant and a clone to coordinate everything and get everything done. That’s not how someone should feel in the Peace Corps. I work with counterparts and clients. I am most effective when I am directly working with people. Event planning, details, and logistics are not going to leave this country better off when I leave. I think that is one of the my main complaints about the whole idea and manifestation of the entrepreneurship competitions. I’m sure that by this end of this blog post I will write more about my overall feelings of this project. But for now, I am just going through the motions to get through the season.
Last night I was up pretty late (for the Peace Corps – I’m not comparing to EY) editing business plans that a few groups had sent me. Two were really poor. I was very upset. I don’t understand why these Seniors think that they can shirk on a final project. They were littered with spelling errors, poor grammar, non-formal speech, capitalization errors, and a general lack of effort, presentation, and polish. It was very frustrating to edit them, but I did promise any group that e-mailed me by last night would get edits back from me by today.
“Eric, here, if you dress up a pig in a cap and gown, even the pig will graduate!”
Another group was a lot more impressive. Over the past few weeks they have really emerged as the best from their school and seem extremely motivated. I’m eager to see what they can do tomorrow at the Municipal Competition. They have one of the toasted corm drink mixed enriched with healthy grains, and they package it pretty well. The leader of the group is very intelligent and has grasped concepts incredibly swiftly.
This morning I had two main tasks: dropping off some documents at the Ministry of Education for the competition tomorrow, and fundraising. One of the many frustrations this year is that fundraising is not going as well and as of this morning I have collected nothing. Not a single centavo (not including my Kickstarter – the extra funds from that I will put towards the competition).
I woke up to a gift in my inbox – the local business university, who were big donors last years, are donating again this year! Apparently they were supposed to have contacted me earlier but no one had. This takes a lot of pressure off of me, and allowed me to make some important phone calls this morning instead of walking around to local businesses and asking them to donate again (I have dropped off letters at all the businesses that donated last year and asked them to contact me, but not a single one has called or e-mailed).
The phone calls did not go as well. I still do not have much information on the La Paz Centro competition, and I can’t get in touch with the teacher from Mina el Limón, which is a remote community in the department of León that participated in the competition last year. My most astute of readers may recall that La Mina had some violent protests earlier this year. Well they are roiling yet again, for about a week now. This time the American mining company fired three members of the miners’ union, sparking the protests. Unfortunately, a police officer was killed in the violence a few days ago. I can’t get in touch with the teacher (I will keep trying) and I doubt that her school will participate this year.
In the afternoon I made my final rounds to two different schools, working with the teachers and students to prepare them for tomorrow. Five schools will be participating, and all are prepared to vastly different degrees. My predictions (get to your bookies quick folks) are for a strong showing from Salomón de la Selva. Of the 11 teams I expect tomorrow, three will advance to the Departmental Competition. Salomón could nab two of those spots. Nipping at their heels will be John F. Kennedy and Instituto Nacional del Occidente. Their respective teachers always make strong last minute pushes. And unfortunately, my expectations are low for República de Cuba and Clarisa Cárdenas López. We’ll see how things turn out though. My expectations are so low and beaten down right now, I don’t wonder how under-prepared some of the groups will be. That’s a given. Some groups won’t have a business plan, their product, or a PowerPoint. What I wonder is what excuses they will have. “Cristian’s thumb drive got a virus?” “Katy was supposed to bring the product but she went to sign up for university instead.” “Woops, sorry, we e-mailed you the wrong version of our business plan.” Stay tuned to find out tomorrow.
I’ve been on a bit of a Star Trek kick lately. I’ve watched a few Next Generation and Deep Space 9 episodes mostly, but I’ve settled on the Original Series. To be honest, Star Trek is not that great. The acting and stories both leave me wanting more, and in the later series the techno-babble is nonsensical. But the Original Series offers a lot and is fascinating to watch. It trail-blazed a genre, established the importance of moral dilemma and modern parallels even while exploring the extremities of the universe, and is fascinating to watch as an examination of gender roles. Time to watch some Kirk and Spock action before I conk out before the big day tomorrow.
October 9 – The Day of the Municipal Competition
As I left my house this morning I had that feeling of ‘I am definitely forgetting something.’ Turned out it was my computer, which we needed to project the PowerPoint presentations. Luckily the school that we host the competition at is only five to ten minutes from my house on bike, so I quickly biked back home to scoop up my computer. I arrived to set everything up sweaty as high noon. Nothing new there.
Before I launch into my complaints and problems, let me just say that the event went well. Quite well actually. Everyone participated and I was largely impressed with the quality of the presentations and products. More so than I expected to be.
My complaints and problems:
- Everyone arrived late
- One group arrived over an hour late which forced us to rearrange some things on the program
- My counterpart at the Ministry of Education did not come
- The microphone’s had no batteries
- The electric went out (briefly, luckily)
- No one got beverages or snacks for the judges (I shelled out in the end and will reimburse myself from donations)
- The auditorium was hot but the fans were too loud without the microphone so we had to turn the fans off
- In addition to Torritos, two other schools only brought one team
That, ladies and gentlemen, is when something goes well down here! As for the students, there was an upset:
- First Place: Manuelitas flour, Salomón de la Selva
- Second Place: Carao Milk, Instituto Nacional del Occidente
- Third Place: Toasted corn drink mix, República de Cuba
Carao Milk surged ahead and Cuba was the dark horse, taking third, leaving JFK in the dust. Cuba’s feat is even more impressive when you take into account that it is small three person team, and one of the members has a nine-month old! This is probably the first time in years that JFK did not qualify for the Departmental Competition. I will have to deal with the aftermath of that next week. I won’t go into all of the teams, since I’ve written about pretty much all of them before. I was very disappointed with my largest school though; the one in which I had so many problems last week and most of the students did not get the opportunity to present and show their best work. In the end the teacher only brought one team. It seems unfair to all of his other students, and a waste considering that it is the largest school in León and one of the largest schools in the country and he could have brought another team.
So that’s a wrap. Looking ahead to next week, I need to keep my three teams that advanced on the path to success at the next level, and I need to keep planning the next event. I still don’t even have an approved date for the competition, which I certainly need in order to confirm an event location and my judges.
I was going to keep this post going all the way until the end of the National Competition, but that seems like it will be too long and cumbersome. I will post a follow-up on the 26th after the Departmental Competition, and a final Competition Season 2015 update on November 18th after the National Competition.