For the second time in two years, the Human Impacts Institute (HII) was selected to participate in the State Department’s Professional Fellows Economic Empowerment Program. Coordinated by the University of Connecticut’s Global Training and Development Institute, the program is set up as a two-way exchange in which a Latin American professional and a US professional counterpart spend time in both the United States and Central America collaborating on a new project, job-shadowing, and engaging in professional development activities. With an emphasis on social entrepreneurship, the program allows both fellows to explore the idea of economic growth with added social benefits.
In October 2013, HII had the opportunity to meet and work with Panamanian small business owner and entrepreneur Alexandra Chen, the founder and creative Director of CRUSH. Alexandra designs bathing suits, iPad cases, and other accessories using hand-crafted molas, a traditional art form of Panamanian indigenous groups known for their colorful patterns. Deeply committed to socially conscious, sustainable business models, Alex works with local artists to cut and craft unique bikini tops, bandeaus, and accessories of which no two are exactly alike.
During her time in the States, Alex paired up with HII Development Manager Tess Clark to explore the connections between innovation in the social sector as well as the private sector. Focusing on core questions like "how do we inspire action?", both fellows were able to think critically and creatively about the goals of their respective groups.
While the Human Impacts Institute and Alexandra's CRUSH provide fundamentally different products, both are working with similar problems in different fields. As an entrepreneur, Alex has struggled to find a supportive, forward-thinking environment that welcomes new businesses and fosters start up ideas. While Panama City has a thriving economy replete with multinationals, financial institutions, and tech start-ups, Alexandra has noticed that many young Panamanians don’t take the initial steps to participate in the local economy as entrepreneurs. Consequently, she wants to address this need by providing free community "cooking ideas" meetings, in which young people share their ideas for start-ups while sharing a meal. This model is intended to create an intimate and culturally relevant support system for other Panamanians trying to start a business.
Despite her good intentions, Alex has encountered a particular "mind-set" challenge-- one that the Human Impacts Institute also faces. The challenge involves individual action: how does one person make a difference? At HII, we constantly hear that environmental problems are too big for individuals to make a difference-- whether we're talking about climate change, development, resource depletion, and many others.
Alex sees similar thinking in her community, especially in other young people. The individual action needed involves starting a business, nonprofit, or community initiative, but Alex sees little evidence that young people in Panama City believe these opportunities are feasible options.
Both Tess and Alex work with stakeholders that are in need of inspiration and engagement in the relevant issue, be it business or climate. And both are faced with the challenge of creating ways to get those stakeholders inspired, whether it's through art, education, or in Alex's case, cooking food and sharing a meal.
In March of 2014, the second cohort of the exchange took place as U.S. Fellows traveled to Latin America to continue the work begun in October. Through the job shadowing process, it was clear that there is a need in Panama for a truly community based initiative on economic empowerment. Together, Alex and Tess visited coworking spaces, met other hopeful entrepreneurs, and carried out the day-to-day activities at CRUSH.
As an environmentalist and community advocate, Tess felt that the rationale for Alexandra's unique project was reinforced again and again. In the future, Tess hopes to continue working with Alex on her “Cooking Ideas” program and learning from the unique built and living environment in Panama.