Never give up -OR- the fab five
At the start, I had 40 students. A few weeks in, there were seven.
I was teaching "Construye tus Suenos” (“Build your Dreams”), a four-month course designed to teach youth how to create their own business plans and ultimately start their own businesses. With 70% youth unemployment in Paraguay and a serious lack of innovation to address needs in their communities, entrepreneurship is an incredible tool to empower kids to create their own employment and have a successful future.
I’d never worked harder in my life to succeed than when I taught this course.
I met with various heads of the school and with a local government institution to certify its value. I spent days preparing for each class. I memorized Spanish business terms, created interactive and dynamic PowerPoints, looked all over the internet for inspirational speeches from the world’s best entrepreneurs, called friends and discussed certain terms I didn't fully understand so that I knew them cold. Before class each week, I did run-throughs in my house.
But as often happens in Paraguay, classes were constantly cancelled. After living in Paraguay for two years, I know that this is just how things are here: If someone doesn’t want to do something and can think up an excuse not to come, they won’t. And it’s very common for a class that starts with 100 students, or 70, or 40, or 10, to halve after the third or fourth class.
I knew these things, and I tried not to take it personally, but it still hurt. It hurt to be knocking myself out with “you can follow your dreams” speeches while over 75% of my class was completely apathetic. It hurt to spend hours planning activities and exercises only to have four students show up. There were so many times that I asked myself over and over again, “why am I doing this if no one cares?”
But after the first half of the course was complete, I noticed that the same seven people were showing up to class every week.
One student, Edgar, started coming to my house for help with his business plan. He grows organic tomatoes and needed capital to purchase supplies to create a greenhouse, which would triple his production. Although he was shy and nervous and spoke more Guarani than Spanish, I could hear the passion and ambition in his voice.
Then there was Giovani, a 21-year-old powerhouse that had written his thesis on tomato production and felt strongly that he could bring the best tomato to th market, especially since all tomatoes here come from other areas in Paraguay. His five-year vision was to expand all the way to Asuncion, the capitol of Paraguay.
Of the five people that finished the course, these were the two selected to attend a national business plan competition.
We practiced their presentations; I critiqued their PowerPoints and business plans to make them as competitive as possible. They were nervous and excited to attend the competition, especially because they both needed money to launch their ventures in their hometown.
About 400 people took the “Construye tus Suenos” course in Paraguay this year. Out of 400 people, about 40 were selected to go to the national business plan competition, a rigorous three-day event full with judges and industry professionals from all over the country.
The outcome of the event was unprecedented. Out of 400 kids, Edgar and Giovani both won first place. They each won 2.5 millon Guaranies to launch their businesses. Giovani won an award for best presentation.
The level of prestige for them is unrivaled. From two shy campo kids coming from small rural towns, they now know that they will succeed. They have access to mentors and have recognition from national institutions like AJE Paraguay and Cooperativa Universitaria, and they’re now connected to resources for other potential sources of capital, including even larger business plan competitions.
But most importantly, they now know that their hard work, dedication and motivation have been worth it. This has been an incredible life lesson for me. It’s easy to feel cynical about how much of a difference you are making. But the ultimate lesson for me is to keep being inspired, to believe that there are people out there — like Edgar and Giovani — who have the courage to follow their dreams. And to believe that all those hours I spent preparing for classes and teaching them — hours that at times I thought were worthless — ended up actually being some of the most worthwhile time I spent in Paraguay.
Congratulations, Edgar and Giovani. Go out there and shake up your community, and then Paraguay, and then the world.