A Plan for Growth in Colombia

Through its Emerging Market Initiatives, Universidad Externado serves society—and its students—one small business at a time.
A Plan for Growth and Prosperity

WHEN PROFESSORS in the School of Management at Universidad Externado de Colombia in Bogotá wanted to find ways to make social responsibility a larger part of the core curriculum, they looked first to an existing program. Plan Padrinos, a program started in 1998, had enlisted faculty and students at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to help local entrepreneurs develop their business plans. By 2011, Plan Padrinos had impacted 990 local small and medium-sized businesses, of which 87 percent showed improvements in overall quality. Another 24 percent reported dramatic increases in revenue, according to university data.

Plan Padrinos targeted one of the most important segments of the Colombian economy—small and medium-sized enterprises, explains Gustavo Yepes, the school’s director of management and social responsibility. He points out that the approximately 90,000 SMEs in Colombia generate 80 percent of the country’s jobs, and yet they account for only 40 percent of its gross domestic product, according to data from the U.S. International Trade Administration.

Plan Padrinos’ success earned Universidad Externado an invitation to present its results at Harvard University, which gave the Colombian faculty an opportunity to showcase the program in front of an international audience. At the time, the program was set up to enroll only the school’s own students, so it could not accept outside students who expressed an interest. But after the presentation, says Yepes, “we were asking ourselves, ‘Why not?’ We came back and proposed the idea and designed the program to include international students.”

The revised program, Plan Padrinos International, accepted its first cohort in the summer of 2012, bringing 20 international students to Universidad Externado’s campus. In its current iteration, students work alongside entrepreneurs to examine the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats for the entrepreneurs’ businesses. The program also incorporates training workshops attended by both the entrepreneurs and their student consultants.

The typical project team includes one local student, two international students, one business owner, and one professor who acts as a consultant. This framework is flexible so that teams can be expanded for larger projects.

Each five-week run of the program begins with two weeks of virtual training, in which team members become better acquainted and engage in brainstorming sessions for their projects. That initial phase is followed by a two-week diagnostic segment in which local students and the professor visit companies to collect data. In the last week, international students arrive in Bogotá to join their cohort and work on the proposal. During this time, students visit their assigned businesses daily to see those operations firsthand. They present their final proposals to business owners and faculty at the end of week five.

In 2014, the school expanded the program with the launch of the “Base of Pyramid Markets: The Challenge,” in which students and faculty work with SMEs operating in low-income communities. In 2017, the school added a program related to corporate social responsibility, which helps SMEs improve their relationships with their stakeholders. With these expansions, the program directors opened a second annual student cohort in conjunction with universities in India, France, and Germany.

Most recently, the school rebranded all of these efforts into a larger program called Emerging Market Initiatives. As part of EMI, Plan Padrinos International has been rechristened “Transforming Small Business.” It focuses on teaching businessowners about social innovation and sustainable business models.

In general, the programs work primarily with small business owners in Bogotá, who own businesses across a range of sectors, to help them increase efficiency and grow their enterprises. For example, one group of students helped a hair salon owner streamline her marketing efforts and improve the management of her internal finances; with their help, she has been able to increase her revenue and is thinking of opening another salon. Another group worked with a machine parts maker to implement a better system of inventory control and market the business outside of Bogotá. Other teams have helped SMEs better comply with government regulations so that they can be eligible for small business development grants and low-interest loans.

International students primarily hear about the program via social media, as well as on the school’s webpage. In addition, José Mosquera, an EMI program coordinator, visits as many universities as possible to set up an information table to reach more international students and faculty. The school typically receives almost twice as many applications as it has spaces for students.

So far, the revamped program has helped more than 70 local businesses. A total of 160 students from 30 different countries and 44 different universities have participated in EMI.

“One fascinating aspect of this program, when it comes to international students, is that they bring insights from their respective countries, but at the same time, these students take what they’re learning here to their countries,” says Mosquera. “It’s a model that I think brings us closer not only as a society, but also as a global community.”

Javier Maymí-Pérez is the manager of membership, Latin America and the Caribbean, for AACSB International in Tampa, Florida.

Visit Universidad Externado’s website to learn more about its EMI programs.