Growing Capital: Risk vs. Reward

Growing Capital co-founders meeting with a local farmer in Nicaragua.

07/21/14 – This guest blog is written by Leana Schwartz. She is part of the Growing Capital team, and is spending her summer doing research in Nicaragua.

We came into this summer assuming that rural farmers in Nicaragua lacked access to financial services; however what we have found is quite a different story.  After five weeks of interviews in the field, collecting information we would never have access to from afar, we’ve found that it’s not lack of access to finance that is the biggest problem, but rather lack of access to affordable finance.

We’ve spent the past month talking to farmers and farmer cooperatives, each time surprised by the faultiness of our assumptions made before coming.  To our surprise, many farmers listed the different lending opportunities they have, but because of the uncertainties they face when taking out loans, many decide not to pursue them.  They, more than anyone, understand the risks they take each season when all of their savings from the past year are used to buy seeds, prepare the land and subsist until the rains bring what they hope to be a healthy harvest.  What if the rains don’t come?  This summer, we’ve witnessed one of the latest wet seasons Nicaragua has seen in years.  Not only that, but the north has been dramatically devastated by the roja or rust fungus which has killed acres of coffee plantations. Farmers understand what relying on the natural environment means for their livelihood and are skeptical to take out loans because of the consequences they’ll face in the case of default.

The loan opportunities available to farmers all require collateralization.  However, most rural farmers do not have many assets to collateralize.  Some of the farmers we talked to don’t have formal land titles, so they aren’t able to collateralize their land, and all that’s left is their house.  One farmer, Santiago from the Cordasol Community on Isla de Ometepe, told us, “I would love to have a loan, but $1,000 is not worth losing my home.”  In 1998, Hurricane Mitch devastated Nicaragua, destroying hundreds of thousands of homes, and ruining agricultural lands across the country.  For farmers with loans, this meant going into debt, or even worse, losing their land and/or home.  In addition to collateral, high interest rates are charged for loans because reaching rural populations is challenging.  Farmers like Santiago have access to financing, and understand that paying interest is necessary, but in its current state, it’s just not affordable.  Rather than banks thinking farmer are too risky, we’ve found that farmers find loans to be too risky, and hesitate to get them, despite their level of interest.

While proving ourselves wrong may not have been our intention, we’re excited about what we’ve found, and find it to be an opportunity for Growing Capital.  Because our focus is rural finance, our goal is to cater to farmers like Santiago and provide affordable finance.  By providing proven assets such as irrigation to farmers in Nicaragua, on an affordable lease-to-purchase agreement, we will reduce risk by using the assets, rather than their farm or home, as collateral, purchasing insurance plans, and reducing costs by working through farmer cooperatives and using harvest-based payments.  This summer has proven the importance of getting out into the field and testing our assumptions, and we’re excited to have two more weeks to continue learning how Growing Capital can best serve farmers like our friend Santiago.

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H2.0: The Silver Lining

07/16/14 – This guest blog is written by Eric Byington. He is part of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA, is a co-founder of H2.0, and is spending his summer doing research in Kenya.

H2.0 founders in front of some H2.0

H2.0 founders in front of some H2.0

We always knew this was going to be difficult. In fact, many well-intentioned and well-informed individuals often told us that investing in WASH (water, sanitation & hygiene) sector projects in Kenya would be nearly impossible. The profit margins are too small; the infrastructure costs too high. Even if we could find a business model that was spot on or a technology that was the best thing since sliced bread, issues of access, corruption, local know-how, and general supply chain hurdles would only serve to derail us.

The truth is, all of these challenges are very real. The profit margins in water are tiny at best. The cost of installing pipes, filters, kiosks, and treatment facilities are huge. In rural hardship areas, water is nearly inaccessible due to a lack of surface water and deep lying aquifers. In high density slums, competition from informal taps, water “mafia” groups, theft, and lack of provision from the local municipality leaves the running of water businesses to only the strong, brave, and bull-headed. In sanitation, pit latrines spoil the rural water tables and “flying-toilets” dominate the high density areas with bags filled with human feces falling wherever human effort and gravity may take them.

It does not take a savvy investor to have one look at the WASH space and quickly turn away, realizing an investment in this space would be akin to buying equity in a bathing suit manufacturer headquartered in Antarctica.  

Now, I realize that this depiction paints a bleak horizon. I, however, do not think the horizon of the WASH sector could be more beautiful. Here’s why:


The technology, know-how, expertise and ability to provide access to clean water and appropriate sanitation exists, and there is so much happening here in Kenya at the moment. We met Isaac who is installing rain water catchment systems in rural schools that is providing tens of thousands of liters of water to these hardship areas. Sanergy is a company that is quickly nailing down a model that provides clean toilets to high density slum dwellers, turning human waste into valuable fertilizer while employing hundreds of local entrepreneurs. Mika and his organization has a product that creates enough chlorine, from just 500 milliliters of water and a few table spoons of salt, to treat hundreds of liters of contaminated water. An international non-profit is working with large, multi-national corporations to fund the building of water kiosk networks that strategically supply water access points to slum areas throughout Kenya. A business man in Nairobi is supplementing his other revenue streams through clean and efficient pay-to-use, city toilets that are turning a nice profit. We have the technology, we know how to do it, and people are already doing it.


In every site visit we’ve made, every coffee house meeting we’ve had and every office we’ve had the privilege to experience, there’s a real buzz that is reverberating throughout all of the WASH sector. A group of women of the Gatina slum in Nairobi are passionately pursuing their kiosk business. Isaac, a self-proclaimed “hustler”, pounds the pavement (or dirt, depending upon where he is) every day, installing his effective systems and training local leaders who are deeply interested in his work. Head teachers and community leaders are clamoring to introduce appropriate technologies in their small communities, and they are willing to get creative and entrepreneurial in their approach. There is a palpable energy in the WASH sector, it only needs to be harnessed properly.


This phrase, or some iteration of it, is often used – water is the provider of life and sanitation is the provider of dignity. Clean water and proper sanitation are not only essential to human existence, they are the building blocks of human rights, and this ideology is seeping into our collective consciousness. Throughout Kenya we have heard this belief reiterated in many ways. We have spoken with women filling their 20 liter jerry cans at the kiosks who know that the bacteria free water they’re collecting will lead to improved health for them and their families. We have met with an assortment of community leaders who have a deep seeded desire to eradicate the spread of deadly viruses through the spread of fecal matter. People are paying for access to clean water and sanitation; often, they’re demanding it. This is not to say the demand is perfect, but it is there and it is growing.

I can’t help but look at this space and think that it is just screaming out for market based solutions. It’s there, it’s time, and we can do it. But, we must still overcome the challenges that have plagued us from the very beginning.

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The Importance of Knowing What You Don’t Know

07/14/14 – This guest blog is written by Alistair Cook. He is part of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA and spent part of his summer working with Second Chance Vietnam.

Alistair with Second Chance Vietnam founders- Kirk Reimann, Quynh Anh and Ruth Kariuki.

Alistair with Second Chance Vietnam founders- Kirk Reimann, Quynh Anh and Ruth Kariuki.

“I am sick to death of cleverness. Everybody is clever nowadays.”- Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest

Your awareness of what you don’t know grows with time and experience, after graduation most people feel confident about themselves as they’ve been a success within the small, safe communities and context they’ve grown up in, or explored at university.  Then suddenly, the whole world opens before you and you begin to realize your gaps in knowledge and experience. I am constantly aware of my lack of knowledge around things like finance, languages, world religion, and Facebook.  This summer I’ve become aware of yet another gap around political and social systems which aren’t based on democracy or tribal systems.

Our team is in Vietnam, exploring the possibility of using the recent upsurge of Vietnamese interest in buying and selling second hand goods, to create a consignment store.  This consignment store will have two purposes: (1) to make a profit (to fund a training program) and (2) act as a vocational training center.  In Vietnam, there are a few organizations using businesses alongside classroom teaching to give vocational training, and another chance in life to homeless individuals and at-risk youth. Our plan is to follow this path, using the retail environment as our vocational context.

Despite the fact that our team includes a Vietnamese student who can provide local knowledge and context, we’ve really struggled to work out what we don’t know and what we need to know.

So, a couple of weeks in, what do we now think we are dealing with?

  • Inherent corruption, from simple cases of overcharging and bribery to rampant nepotism and cronyism which seems to seep into everything mixed in with some very opaque financial practices (resulting in Vietnam placing 116th out of 177 countries on Transparency International’s index).
  •  A political and business system which historically was designed to repel foreign involvement and which is still very much in the process of being re-formed. 
  • Legislation which does not allow for the business model we hoped to employ and an NGO sector which is over stretched and in-cohesive. 
  •  Problems which in one early meeting led an NGO director to confide to us that if we didn’t have lots and lots of capital and very good political connections in Vietnam, it would be fool-hardy to even try.

However, our most pressing issue is one that we observed almost immediately after arrival.  The streets of Hanoi are remarkably clean, and compared to other urban centers in similar countries, even Ho Chi Minh City in the south of Vietnam, empty of anyone living on the streets.  Vietnam (and Hanoi in particular) has a policy of rounding up and detaining anyone found on the streets at two ‘rehabilitation centers’ with suspect reputations (see “Children of the dust” a Human Rights Watch report into this issue for more details).  As this has driven the problem underground (and officially, doesn’t exist) working with this population is much more complex, both in terms of building trust with individuals and for NGO’s, for working on a problem the government formally, doesn’t acknowledge.  Given the reputations of the ‘rehabilitation centers at Dong Dau and Ba Vi and the stories NGO’s working in this space tell of  the police’s approach to homeless people, working with the authorities appears to be an ethical nightmare.

Clashes of different cultures ethics and operating practices are fairly normal when working in cultures and contexts that you aren’t familiar with.  The question of what you as an individual need to stand up  for, and what you can assimilate from the local cultural norms is more tricky, but is a constant challenge entrepreneurs face across the world.   Given the change that entrepreneurs can begin, it can often be a very tough choice between your own ethics and how rigid they are, and the potential impact your venture could create.  

“The corruption of the best things gives rise to the worst.”-David Hume

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Field Work Above and Beyond Coursework

7/11/14 – This guest blog is part 2 written by Joe Ewing, co-founder of Kapok Connect.  He is currently in Ethiopia conducting field work as part of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA. Read part 1 here.

The last few weeks in the field have been exciting, challenging, and uncertain.  We have found this relative uncertainty to be a foundation for creativity and out-of-the-box thinking that we could never have presumed before entering the field.  Classes and business plan preparations have prepared us to endure mental and intellectual hardships on a more hypothetical level.  But in just two weeks in Ethiopia, new and exciting ideas have arisen from challenges that we couldn’t have foreseen through coursework.

Ethiopian artisans weaving textiles

Ethiopian artisans weaving textiles.

Our business is highly dependent on the relationships we are building in our summer practicum work.  Our goal at the end of the summer is to have a strong base of suppliers and established processes that will allow us to maintain operations through our final semester in the fall.  Additionally, we are building a business that works to partner with and empower aspiring small-scale entrepreneurs.  We understand that cooperation an mutual benefit will spark creative new approaches and help us to determine the best possible way to operate our business.

We operate as a for-profit social business venture primarily because we have made it our mission to alleviate global poverty.  We believe we can make the greatest social impact as a financially self-sustaining business, and by giving ourselves the freedom and flexibility to be creative and to innovate practical solutions.  Sustainable growth will come through empowerment of our partners and suppliers through collaboration and mutual financial benefit.  This will help us to become an exemplary company open to innovation and creativity, and one that can prove that social welfare and capitalism, in fact, are not mutually exclusive.

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Liv+: A Well-Rounded Journey for a Healthcare Solution in Brazil

This Blog post was written by Liv+, a team of MBA students (Mariana Negrao, Marite Perez, and Daniel Walker-Murray) in the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State University, who are working on their summer practicum in Brazil.

“The problem is to understand the real problems of the public healthcare sector”, said Rey Buckman, Masters of Science at Fundação Getulio Vargas, who has been researching the healthcare environment in Brazil for over a year. This quote reinforces one of our team’s main goals in Brazil: to understand the real problem and the current solutions in the public healthcare sector.

GSSE MBA student Daniel Walker-Murray getting to know the customer.

GSSE MBA student Daniel Walker-Murray getting to know the customer.

Upon our arrival in the field, we have been identifying approaches to solving access to public healthcare issues. Liv+ is relying on the use of Human Centered Design tools, introduced during our Sustainable Marketing class at Colorado State University. We have been volunteering for a local community association in a favela through their daycare center; working with the women and children to understand the decision-making processes surrounding their health care needs.

The Liv+ team integrated into the community to better understand the problem before trying to solve it.

The Liv+ team integrated into the community to better understand the problem before trying to solve it.

In addition to further understanding challenges locals have accessing healthcare, our team has been meeting with local entrepreneurs striving towards providing quicker and more affordable care. A networking event organized by MakeSense provided us with various contacts of organizations working in this area of Brazil. With a better understanding of what solutions exist and their impact, the Liv+ team is working to identify gaps in their solutions and to collaborate towards identifying other methods in meeting the current issues in this area.

This has been a journey of self-discovery and team development challenges. Our team dynamics coursework has prepared us to manage our summer practicum. Working and living together has created new situations within the team that we did not experience while living in Colorado. We have learned a lot about ourselves and each other while applying conflict management, motivation, and communication strategies presented in class to help resolve these issues.

So what comes next? We are working towards validating our secondary research, regarding the critical decisions between health and finances.  As we further our research this summer, we are creating stronger ties with the community, local doctors, and social entrepreneurs.  We plan to cultivate relationships to expand our understanding of the problems in the Brazilian healthcare environment, and ultimately hone in on an appropriate, sustainable, human-centered, long term solution.

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A Venture Profile: Kapok Connect

Joe Ewing - Global, Social, and Sustainable Enterprise MBA Candidate

Joe Ewing

6/24/14 – This guest blog is written by Joe Ewing, co-founder of Kapok Connect.  He is currently in Ethiopia conducting field work as part of the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA.

The entrepreneurial process is incredibly exciting, arguably rooted in its inherent uncertainty and necessity to “roll with the punches.” It can be impactful and progressive.  The main lessons and principles learned in the GSSE MBA course work have taught us that social betterment and capitalism do not have to remain mutually exclusive concepts. This realization has solidified as we have immersed ourselves in summer practicum work. Ethiopia, one of our pilot sites, is a country saturated with governmental organizations, NGOs and other non-profits whose approaches to development are limited by bureaucracy and entirely dependent on external funding.  Despite massive efforts by these organizations, we have witnessed firsthand the rampant poverty, homelessness, sanitation, and public health issues that are being mitigated altogether too slowly.  Unsatisfied with the speed of development, Kapok Connect will leverage the ever growing and diversifying international tourism industry, and bring supplementary income to millions of impoverished people around the world. We are a social enterprise that connects travelers with a sense of adventure and social consciousness to authentic, local experiences offered by local suppliers and aspiring “micro-entrepreneurs”. Our business is Internet based and operates in the “sharing economy,” alongside massively successful players such as Airbnb and Über, but has a key differentiator.

Boat tour on a lake in Ethiopia

Boat tour on a lake in Ethiopia

Our business model is unique because we integrate a dimension of social welfare: generating income for people who wouldn’t otherwise benefit from tourism. We offer our customers, the travelers, access to unique experiences through our web platform and mobile application. The site and app are populated with experiences such as tours, activities, meals, and homestays offered directly from individually vetted service providers. Customers can choose and reserve a place and pay in advance for the experience.  Kapok charges a service and processing fee, which covers our administrative operations expenses, but the majority of the money (80-85%) goes directly to the locals providing the service.

Follow along as we continue to share our experiences in the sharing economy in Ethiopia and Mexico, on our Facebook page, and on this blog.

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A Venture Profile: Supporting Urban Farmers in Brazil with Fresco de Dentro

5/29/14 – This guest blog is written by Nick McCulloch, co-founder along with Cameron Marlin and Rachel Ostwald of Fresco de Dentro. All three co-founders are currently in Brazil conducting market research and testing their business model as part of their summer practicum for the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program at Colorado State University.

Fresco de Dentro with Urban Farmers in Belo Horizonte

Fresco de Dentro with urban farmers in Belo Horizonte

Fresco de Dentro has a multi-sided business model: We seek to connect urban farmers, who lack access to the formal market, with consumers interested in buying high-quality, local, and sustainably-grown produce. This business idea was inspired by our observation of the growing strength of local foods systems in the United States. Desiring to see similar changes elsewhere, the Fresco team looked to Brazil as an ideal location for our business to succeed.

Recent years have seen the Brazilian government invest substantial resources in the development of a growing number of urban agriculture initiatives aimed at reducing food insecurity among urban populations. Though these programs have increased the overall production of locally-grown produce, the market structure has remained largely the same: An overwhelming majority of produce sold in urban markets originates in areas far away from the cities, leaving urban farmers with a very limited number of commercial outlets.  Their only access is small, niche organic fairs.

Fresco has a solution to this problem: A mobile market.

Traditional brick and mortar market in Belo Horizonte

Traditional brick and mortar market in Belo Horizonte

A mobile market is a business on wheels, or in our case, a produce stand on wheels. Rather than tying us down in one physical location like a brick and mortar store, we can adjust our location to best address the needs of our customers. A recent poll conducted by EMATER, a governmental department dedicated to agriculture, revealed that Brazilian consumers prioritize convenience above all else in their purchase of produce.  Unfortunately, our supplierslack access to a mode of transportation that would allow them to move large quantities of fruits and vegetables to the most convenient locations in order to satisfy their customers. This is where Fresco de Dentro provides value: The mobile market allows us to accommodate our suppliers’ limitations, allowing them to sell higher quantities at a time, reducing their spoilage, increasing their revenue stream and, ultimately, allowing them to grow their operations.

The mobile market isn’t just good for our customers, though; it’s also good for our business. By operating in a mobile manner, we not only increase the number of suppliers and buyers we can reach, but also increase our inventory turnover (reducing our holding time), allowing us to buy and sell large amounts of produce more frequently while reducing our costs, all without ever compromising on the freshness of our product.

The Fresco team is currently conducting market research in Brazil, interviewing local farmers, governmental officials, and business owners. You can follow the status of our trip at, or like us on Facebook, where we regularly post trip updates.

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Making the Most of a Crazy Supply Chain: Real World Learning via Real World Situations

5/15/14 – This guest post is written by Dr. Susan Golicic, Professor of Supply Chain Management in the College of Business at Colorado State University. She teaches in both the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program as well as the undergraduate program, and shares her experiences integrating the two. This is her second post on this blog – read her first post about mentoring GSSE teams here.

One of Luciernaga's distribution routes in Honduras

One of Luciernaga’s distribution routes in Honduras

GSSE ventures try to connect the base of the pyramid with the basic goods and services we take for granted every day.  Additionally these ventures are trying to keep their costs as low as possible in order for their offerings to be affordable.

Due to the markets in which these ventures operate, there are interesting distribution challenges to get to customers – from nomadic suppliers roaming across large geographical areas to washed-out dirt roads leading to rural villages.  There is often poor infrastructure into and within the target countries due to lack of resources, the terrain, governmental trade policies and potential political or military conflict.  All of this can equate to higher supply chain costs.

For the past several semesters, I have had my undergraduate logistics courses help some of these ventures by using their distribution issues for a live term project.  The project provides the undergrads with experience developing international solutions for real start-up companies and simultaneously gives the GSSE students recommendations for tackling their issues.  Past projects include determining:

  • If a centralized or decentralized distribution network is more effective for water filter production and distribution in India (AYZH – Cohort 2)
  • If a centralized or decentralized distribution network is more effective for water filter production and distribution in Kenya (Running Water – Cohort 2)
  • The most efficient distribution network to get cashmere from Mongolian goat herders to a textile plant in China (Noya Fibers – Cohort 5)
  • The most efficient logistical network to get solar lamps from China to consumers in rural Honduras and Nicaragua (Luciérnaga – Cohort 6)
  • The most efficient logistical network to connect urban garden suppliers to customers such as schools or restaurants in Brazil (Fresco de Dentro – Cohort 7)

Not only do the GSSE students find the recommendations helpful and some quite feasible, the logistics students have appreciated the experience and commented that they feel good about helping these social ventures get started.

“Working on the Fresco de Dentro project was a great opportunity to get real world experience. It gave our group a chance to really understand the struggles a new venture has to go through when trying to bootstrap a business from the ground up. While working on this project it was difficult to provide Fresco de Dentro a feasible logistics network since there was so much ambiguity, which led to in depth research to achieve sound assumptions. This project was a great way to push ourselves and apply what we have been learning all semester directly into our recommendations.”

- Alexis Delima

“When working with the GSSE students I was forced to find real world solutions to my coursework. Rather than formulating solutions from concepts in a textbook, I was accountable for providing feasible information that was practical. This collaboration took my coursework from the classroom to the professional world.”

- Alexandra Fish

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Funding the Future: Getting Student Entrepreneurs into the Field

NOYA Fibers Mongolian Cashmere

What better way to build a business serving Mongolian goat herders than to literally go into the field in Mongolia?

In order to make a business work, it has to be tested. Entrepreneurs can’t expect to make a million dollars on their first try, and it’s often hardest to make the first sale. But getting to the point of the first sale can be a daunting task that itself requires significant capital. For social entrepreneurs who are working in resource-constrained environments, this can be particularly challenging.

This summer, 7 new social ventures in the Global Social and Sustainable Enterprise MBA program will be in the field for the first time, making their nascent ventures a reality. They all have plane tickets, but need more cash to cover additional expenses while abroad. In order to fundraise, nearly all of them are running a crowdfunding campaign – and they are following in the footsteps of a wildly successful Kickstarter campaign for their colleague’s venture monkii bars, which recently destroyed their $25k goal and raised over $110k.

monkii bars Kickstarter campaign

monkii bars Kickstarter campaign

So please check out these inspiring ventures, help get them into the field, and fund the future of social entrepreneurship:

H2.0 – investing in clean water and sanitation ventures around the world.

Kapok Connect – an app connecting tourists to authentic experiences in Mexico and Ethiopia.

JamiiFunding – the Kickstarter of Kenya.

Second Chance Vietnam – a boutique consignment store that trains and employs disadvantaged youth in Vietnam.

Fresco de Dentro – promoting urban farming and reducing waste in urban Brazil.


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Entrepreneurship Week in Nairobi: A Recap

Josh Kabuage

Josh Kabuage

4/23/14 – This recap was written by Josh Kabuage, an intern for the New Economy Venture Accelerator – Africa (NEVAA) at our partner university in Nairobi, United States International University (USIU). The plethora of activities that took place there not only represents the enthusiasm of our social entrepreneurs in the program, but also the energy of the entire entrepreneurial ecosystem in Nairobi.

At NEVAA, we managed to set up an entire week of various speakers from different industries to come in and talk to the students. The special bit about it is that it had never been attempted before within USIU. As the pioneers of the event at NEVAA, we do consider it a success that we shall see year in, year out, from here on.

Heshan de Silva and another panelist at USIU's Entrepreneurship Week 2014

Heshan de Silva and another panelist at USIU’s Entrepreneurship Week 2014

The different panels we hosted included:

  • Investor Panel
  • Incubator Panel
  • Digital Branding Panel
  • Agribusiness Panel
  • Photography Panel
  • Technology Panel
  • Fashion and Beauty Panel
  • Media panel
  • Social Entrepreneurship panel
  • Music and Entertainment Panel

Notable panelists from these sessions included:

  • Heshan De Silva – A 26 year old investor with a net worth valued at 10 million dollars.
  • Mark Kaigwa – A 25 year old CEO of a company known as Afrinnovate and named by Forbes as one of Africa’s successful entrepreneurs under 30.
  • Amanda Gicharu – Head of marketing at Google Kenya.

After four days full of informative panels, we brought the week to a close by hosting a networking event at the Sarova Stanley hotel that included guests from the county government. Professor Scott Bellows emceed interactive games that engaged attendees, and resulted in better understanding their business backgrounds. Overall, this week attracted a deserving crowd and encouraged our students to look at entrepreneurship as a career in itself, and not to feel coerced to conform to the invisible boundaries that influence us into thinking professional careers are the only way to become successful.

Entrepreneurship Week 2014 poster

Entrepreneurship Week 2014

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