The gymnasium of Mercedes Mondragón High School hummed with nervous activity.
Only two of the 10 groups would move on to the national round of the Peace Corps’ Creative Business competition.
Three judges huddled, tallying up scorecards while anxious clusters of students in blue-and-white uniforms milled about.
Finally, to cheers and groans, the winners were announced.
The event, in which teams of students presented their ideas for a micro-enterprise to a panel of judges, is part of an entrepreneurial education program run by the U.S. Peace Corps, the international service arm of the U.S. government.
“We take the kids through the entire process,” said Nick Edwardson, who with his wife, Toni, has been teaching the Creative Business course to 600 students in four of Granada’s public schools for the past 15 months.
“We teach them how to come up with a business plan, how to market their idea, and how to determine their initial capital,” he said.
Ultimately, the students hit the street with their wares. Some of the more successful groups have even managed to turn a profit, as much as several hundred dollars.
Still, despite such successes, financial difficulties are paramount for most teams.
“One of the biggest challenges is raising the initial capital,”Nick Edwardson said.“No one has personal savings here and most people rely on high-interest small loans to get started, basically from loansharks.”
Such loans, often unregulated, can come with crippling interest rates. The Peace Corps does not provide any funding for the students’ businesses, and discourages the risky loans. Instead, the volunteers try to introduce new financing concepts.
“We taught the kids about selling shares to raise money,”Nick Edwardson said. “It was a totally unheard of idea, but it actually works.”
The focus of the program, as its name suggests, is on encouraging students to come up with novel business concepts and strategies.
New ideas, Nick Edwardson noted, are often in short supply in the Nicaraguan marketplace.
“You walk through the market and you pass maybe 30 people selling the exact same thing,” he said. “We try to teach the students to think outside of the box, to come up with something else that will set them apart.”
“Coming up with an original, creative product is very important,” Toni Edwardson said. “They need something different and new.”
At Mercedes Mondragón, the students showed off their new ideas. Spread across the display tables were elaborate birdcages of salvaged wood, jewelry made from dried seeds, and painted decorative mirrors.
“We were looking for a way to make our product different from everyone else’s,” said Dulce Martínez, whose group added embroidered designs to regular dish towels.
“We really learned how to work together as a team, to bring all of our strengths together.”
Martínez, who said that her group has sold nearly 50 of the towels, would like to raise money to open a small shop of her own after she graduates, all the better to sell her group’s distinctive products.
“We emphasize the creative,” said Eric Castillo, the business project specialist who oversees the national Creative Business program for the Peace Corps. “It’s not about making money. It’s about coming up with new ideas.”
Castillo said that the program is currently operating in 47 schools throughout Nicaragua, though there are plans to double its size this year.
“With the new cycle of volunteers, we’re going to be able to bring the program to 76 schools,” Castillo said. “The ultimate goal is to implement the class in every school in Nicaragua.”
Such a challenging task cannot rely on volunteers alone. The program also works with local teachers, training them how to continue the course once the Peace Corps volunteers have moved on.
“We have about 10 schools that have already completed the cycle,” Castillo said.
“They are teaching the course on their own, without Peace Corps assistance.”
In fact, Castillo proudly noted, one of those schools won the national competition last year, besting many Peace Corps-taught teams. The winner of the national competition receives start-up money to get their business rolling in the real world.
Even the groups that did not manage to move on to the next level of the competition have developed a valuable set of skills.
Carol Barrick is the acting Nicaragua country director of the Peace Corps. She emphasizes the independence that the program engenders.
“The Peace Corps developmental philosophy is about capacity building and sustainable development,” she said. “All [Peace Corps] volunteers work with community groups, particularly with youth groups outside of the schools. We encourage building local leadership and encouraging the utilization of local resources.”
The program likely will make a difference. Barrick noted that among the schools that are now running the program independently, “13 businesses have continued after the students graduated.”
The program creates options where there often are none.
“None of these kids are going to go to university,” said Adelina Rocha, the principal of Mercedes Mondragón. “Speaking as a mother myself, I can’t afford to send my kids to college.”
Rocha hopes that the Peace Corps program will give her students a much needed boost.
“These skills will provide them with another option, another way of life,” she said.