St. Edward's University Magazine Winter 2014
In this issue of St. Edward’s University Magazine: We follow Samir Ashrawi ’77, MBA ’93 from Jerusalem to Austin and Assistant Professor of Management Gary Pletcher to Honduras. Students give us the best advice they’ve gotten from their professors. And we bring you a photo essay of the John Brooks Williams Natural Sciences Center–South.
op a flight from Houston to Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and you’ll be there in three hours and two minutes. Grab a handmade flauta or taco at the airport, and you’re ready to explore 43,000 square miles that include rainforests, tropical islands, barrier reefs, mangroves, Mayan ruins, 91 protected national parks and 630 kinds of orchids. All this, in a country about the size of Virginia or Ohio. “Honduras is the New Florida,” touts one tourism website. “A true five-star country,” boasts another. “Unpackaged. Unfiltered. Unspoiled,” proclaims a third. But here’s what those sites and books don’t tell you. Three-quarters of the country is mountainous, making infrastructure like electricity, running water and sewer systems hard to construct and even harder to maintain. Roads regularly wash out and hillsides slide away thanks to an often-torrential rainy season. Drug cartels and street gangs have earned the country the ominous distinction of the highest per capita murder rate in the world. And the average Honduran makes $2 a day. That’s why Gary Pletcher wants to go back. Pletcher, director of the Global Business Institute for Societal Responsibility at St. Edward’s University, first visited Honduras in the 1980s to scuba dive off the bay island of Guanaja. Last May, he returned to the country with Honduras Good Works (HGW), an Austinbased nonprofit whose mission is to offer healthcare, education, and economic and spiritual guidance to poverty-stricken Hondurans. HGW’s latest endeavor is microfinance — Pletcher’s specialty. Groundwork for the microfinance project began in July 2011, when HGW partnered with the Institute for Development in Honduras, a nonprofit lending institution based on Christian values, to finance fledgling entrepreneurs in Honduras’ poorest areas. A year later, Executive Director Jo Ann Swahn had secured HGW’s first grant to fund the loans. The following month, she traveled to Honduras to help start four “trust banks,” groups of entrepreneurs from the same village who agree to support each other’s businesses and share the responsibility of paying back their loans. “We saw the need right away for technical expertise,” says Swahn. “Whether it was a taco stand on the street or a group of women coming together to sell jewelry, we had to help them develop business plans, so they could have the chance to be successful in their microenterprises.” So she called Pletcher. Swahn and Pletcher had first connected in early 2011, when microfinance was a bullet point in HGW’s strategic plan. Now that the implementation was underway, she asked him to help her teach the Hondurans how to write viable business plans to improve their chances of receiving microloans and using the funds effectively. The project immediately ran into hurdles. Since the Honduran government stops providing free education after sixth grade, that’s as much schooling as most citizens can afford. Couple those rudimentary reading, writing and math skills with the language barrier, and Pletcher knew he needed a new approach. The complex way he teaches business plans to undergraduate and graduate business students wouldn’t work for this project. He whittled business-plan creation down to eight steps, from crafting a mission to drafting operations and marketing plans, and asked Assistant Professor of Spanish Cory Lyle to translate it. He had the steps printed on water- and tear-resistant index cards, which were laminated and bound together with a thick metal ring. He packed 20 copies and a week’s worth of clothes and flew to Tegucigalpa with Swahn on a grant she had secured through HGW. Their first stop was the lending organization in Tegucigalpa, where Pletcher presented his eight steps to the leadership team and loan officers. Then he, Swahn and institute employees traveled to the department of El Paraíso to help the would-be entrepreneurs refine their businesses and learn to support one another along the way. “There are tremendous similarities [among] people from around the world — Hondurans want a better life for themselves and their children.” –Gary Pletcher They spent three hours in a pickup truck traversing muddy, potholed, barely passable roads to meet with six groups in four villages. Instead of standing at the head of a classroom or a boardroom, Pletcher met with the entrepreneurs right in the village square because the small adobe huts with dirt floors could not accommodate everyone. The air was filled with plumes of smoke from farmers burning their lands nearby in preparation for planting. Curious chickens occasionally wandered by. Equally curious villagers stopped to listen as they brought buckets and bottles to the public faucets protruding from the ground every three blocks or so. Immediately, Pletcher connected with the Hondurans he met. “There are tremendous similarities [among] people from around the world — Hondurans want a better life for themselves and their children,” he says. “Without access to capital to implement their ideas about how to earn more money for their families, they can never break out of poverty. They never have a chance. But if they can develop a business plan and back it up in writing, someone will be compelled to loan them the $50, $75, $100 they need to get started.” 21