Ever year, mid-way through the entrepreneurship curriculum, my classes have what is known as Prototype Day. It is when the students come to class with the prototypes of the products they are commercializing and present it to the teachers and their classmates. It is always an interesting day, and reminds me of the reality TV show Shark Tank, where entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to billionaires in the hopes of raising capital to grow their businesses.
The kids aren’t the only ones sweating the Prototype Day shark tank. Lots of the products involve food, and they always offer me a taste. The products range from the absolutely delicious (got a big cup full of dulce de leche with cashews today) to downright putrid (gelatinous milky flan-like strawberry something). I carry Imodium pills for the just-in-case scenario.
But most of all, Prototype Day is important because it lets the teachers and I see how creative the students are. At the beginning of the school year we invest a lot of time in emphasizing the importance of coming up with creative, innovative products. Currently, Nicaragua has a bleak economic picture. Unemployment is high and opportunity is lacking. And there are a lot of young people who will needs jobs in the future. And the economy lacks large innovative industries. The majority of employment is based in micro-enterprises. And often, these are just street vendors or people who have copied the ideas of other people. In the three little blocks around my house there are numerous little convenience stores in the front rooms of people’s houses, not to mention the street vendors that peddle fruits, vegetables, tortillas, snacks, and drinks all day and night (I am not a fan of the 6 AM nacatamale girl). This type of work is not very profitable because the margins are very tight, the hours are poor, and there is very little room for growth. We want to break these patterns by cultivating better business acumen in the youth of Nicaragua. But that is easier said than done.
Every kid in Nicaraguan schools wear the same exact uniform. For the boys, a white collared shirt, tucked into navy blue pants, with black shoes and white socks. For the girls, a white blouse tucked into a pleated navy blue skirt with knee-high white socks and black flats. And they don’t always go by their names. When it comes to grades and the teachers assigning points to their work they go by their classroom number. It is in this stifling environment that they ask us to come in and foster creativity in these kids. And I certainly believe that to some extent creativity cannot be taught – it is innate. Some people are more creative than others. But I also believe that with some good lessons everyone can be at least a little bit creative and break out of the box that ironically, the very system that wants them to be creative, has put them into.
One of the first problems that we encounter is the kids think that creativity, in an entrepreneurial sense, means taking something that already exists and making it with different ingredients. This usually manifests itself in products made from recycled goods or things that the kids call 100% natural. For example, today I saw furniture made from cardboard, and I’ve seen a litany of “all natural” gels for hair, soaps, shampoos, moisturizers, sunblocks, glues, and food products. One girl brought in “all natural” shampoo. Unfortunately, it was a bit brown and malodorous, so one of the boys in the class called in champu–poo. This isn’t really what we’re going for. Unless there is a compelling reason to avoid the products already available, and my kids re-engineered products are actually of high quality or have a compellingly low price, they’re not going to sell much. I think that their propensity for thinking that entrepreneurial creativity is the same as re-engineering comes from years of science class where they learn about methods of recycling and making products out of everyday goods and natural processes. In fact, I think that many of the “natural” products that they bring in they’ve previously made during science classes. And I keep putting natural in quotation marks because a lot of times they are not even natural. Anyone who knows the process to make Vaseline, which is a base in a lot of the cosmetics I see, will tell you that it is anything but natural. And the kids have a propensity to add sodium benzoate in their “100% natural” food products. I never trust anything approved by the FDA.
Sometimes, in the weeks leading up to Prototype Day, we are able to steer the kids away from these re-engineered products. But sometimes they hit a wall. I try to get them to go back to their lessons on types of businesses, idea generation, and creativity, but they just get paralyzed. Overcome by demoralization they subconsciously refuse to re-strike that creative match I know is tucked away somewhere in their minds and try to come up with a genuinely creative product. And that is such a shame because Nicaragua is a very bountiful country where amazing primary goods – tropical fruits, high quality woods, minerals, and more, can all be acquired very cheaply. Unfortunately so much goes to waste. Next time you buy a crappy Haas avocado from the supermarket for $2 I want you to cry, because the avocados here are so much better and incredibly cheap (I’ve gotten little ones for as little as 20 cents), but so many of them rot on the ground because the people with trees on their property can’t get their act together to sell them. And there is an enormous export opportunity for Nicaragua with the United States so close, and emerging markets like China demanding more and more products every day. But Nicaragua can’t even fill its quota for a product as easy to make as cheese (and Nicaragua is known for raising cattle, both for meat and dairy!).
I was going to continue on here about the need for Nicaraguan to produce value added products, but in the end I felt it was a bit tangential and straying too far from the theme of this blog post. Just know that I’ve got some ideas to work with my counterpart teachers and students about food processing and the value added chain. Hopefully they will all learn to innovate creative Nicaraguan products that the Sharks will approve of.