I just returned from Haiti, where I was fortunate to live for two months and consult with the Economic Growth Initiative - Haiti (EGI). EGI has a grassroots approach to economic development by educating and training entrepreneurs who are building or growing small- and medium- enterprises in Haiti through a business plan bootcamp. By fostering an entrepreneurial movement and making the right connections to potential investors, EGI is building the local markets necessary for Haiti to become self-sustainable and not rely on international development aid.
Fresh out of MBA school and eager to learn about Haiti's unique and complex business environment, my plan was to work with EGI and then take this experience to a large international development firm - yet my enthusiasm for international development projects slowed once I arrived. I was quickly introduced to a couple first-hand international development programs with great intentions but poor execution, stemming from rushed projects that relied on large amounts of money, influence, and a mindset that Haiti can be “fixed” with solutions that worked in other countries. During a memorable meeting with an EGI Board member, I learned about the second earthquake in 2010. Everyone knows about the 7.0 earthquake that struck Haiti on January 12, 2010. Although destructive, it created an opportunity for Haiti - to rebuild and recover its economy. But instead of rebuilding, the local markets were crushed because they couldn't compete with free donated foods and clothing brought in by the international aid community. The second earthquake that year was the crumble of the already distressed local Haitian businesses.
One of the reasons for EGI’s successes is the heavy reliance on its Haitian Board. It makes sense that a Haitian economic initiative is governed by a Haitian Board - who better to know the local market, unique business complexities, cultural context, societal norms, or relevant business contacts? Yet these important considerations are sometimes overlooked in larger international relief and development programs that have no local expertise.
Working with bright and driven entrepreneurs who are fighting for their businesses through the difficult economic environment in Haiti is inspiring. The different types of businesses in the bootcamp range every year - from a travel booking mobile app to local egg production to online marketing for cars and real estate. It was fascinating to hear how real problems and opportunities for business solutions were identified - and how each entrepreneur is uniquely qualified to build and the run the business. EGI is careful about which entrepreneurs are selected to be part of the bootcamp program. While providing this opportunity to as many entrepreneurs as possible may seem like the right goal for EGI, it’s not. EGI carefully selects which entrepreneurs can be part of this bootcamp. First of all, it’s free, and EGI wants to make sure that it provides training services to those who will take advantage of the mentorship and coaching. Additionally, it’s a small cohort (ranging from 8-15 participants each year) purposely to create a close-knit, trusting environment. Sharing innovative ideas, business models, and finances is very personal, and requires proper relationships and a supportive environment to work. This bootstraps approach to economic impact is helping a small but powerful group of entrepreneurs develop great ideas into businesses, and grow their customer base each year.
Don’t get me wrong - I am optimistic for future international economic development projects in Haiti and elsewhere. As long as the right local leadership and intelligence are at the core of the project, an international development initiative can succeed. EGI taught me that supporting local initiatives which understand the context and unique business environment in Haiti is necessary for thoughtful, impactful ways to see economic change. I am glad that Haiti’s community of entrepreneurs and future business leaders are in good hands with EGI.