Deep friendships and social innovation: Recapping the Colombia international experience

A group of Colombian Universidad EAN students working toward a certificate in social innovation from Portland State University joined PSU students in September 2019 for the MBA social innovation in Colombia international experience. The opportunity to explore Colombia with the Universidad EAN students was a highlight of the trip, giving the PSU students a chance to more deeply understand Colombian history, culture and business. Instead of a group of U.S. students wandering through Medellín and Bogotá, we got to enjoy Colombia as Colombians know it—at the best museums, hole-in-the-wall restaurants, shops and clubs. 

We formed deep friendships with them and heard their stories of the struggles La Violencia has brought to their families over the past six decades. Our journey was intensified by their perspectives: we took a graffiti tour of Comuna 13, one of the areas of most extreme violence in Medellín in the late 1990s and 2000s. The Colombian students grew up with constant news of  the violence of Comuna 13. When they mentioned touring Comuna 13 to their families, they were implored to stay away, even now, more than a decade after the extreme violence. While we heard this apprehension from the Colombian students only after the tour, it helped the PSU students comprehend the sustained hurt and anxiety the people of Colombia still feel.

We were provided with opportunities to explore socially innovative businesses and non-profits throughout Medellín and Bogotá. We met with Jean Paul Hernández at Ruta N, a government-funded private company, that is tasked with connecting innovations in Medellín into a central strategy. We toured the coffee cooperative, Café Retiro, to learn how small farms are taking part in the social revolution and how ecotourism is helping them become financially sustainable. We also spent three days helping high-school students in the small village of Paraiso to develop their own social innovation businesses.

Our international experience culminated months after we returned to the U.S. when the Colombian students visited PSU. This visit allowed the students to present their final social innovation projects to complete their certificates and also attend the Elevating Impact Summit. Seeing our friends in the U.S. and reciprocating their hospitality was a final highlight of our illuminating experience .

PSU graduate business students with Colombian Universidad EAN students at Elevating Impact.

At the end of the experience, we were asked to reflect on what working abroad would look like for our careers and families. This exercise gave us the space to explore putting ourselves in the shoes of ex-patriate life, to think about the potential benefits and challenges of working abroad for ourselves and families, and to dream about what international jobs might suit us. Before the Colombia experience and this reflection, I had never considered working abroad, but this allowed me to think about the possibilities, which turned out to be really exciting to consider.

In light of the coronavirus pandemic, I have also been able to think about what global business will look like in an age of physical distancing. Reducing travel time and expenses in exchange for more productive work time is attractive for managers and has the potential to speed up the pace that business is conducted. This change can also improve the quality of life for those with families that travel frequently. But as I learned from my experience in Colombia, there is no substitute for engaging with different people and cultures face-to-face.

Kristen Currens is a senior environmental scientist at MacKay Sposito. She earned her MBA from PSU in 2020.

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