Online Delivery: Technology Connects Central American Women to Business SkillsPublished: August 31, 2010
When University Tecnologico de Monterrey in Mexico and the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Women business education program decided to partner on a regional outreach effort, the institutions faced a formidable challenge: how to efficiently reach time-pressed women business owners located across the vast expanse of Central America.
Their solution, using the Internet to connect with outlying entrepreneurs, may end up doing more than just expanding the scope of the entrepreneurial effort. The first-ever exclusively online 10,000 Women program could become the template for other efforts. "When we officially launch in October, the 100 women business entrepreneurs selected for the program will be able to access the online courses at a time and location that's convenient for them," says Mariana Perales, a foreign policy professor at the university who is also liaison with the 10,000 Women program.
"During the summer we accepted applications and evaluated them," she notes. "Then the applicants will get a secure online password and fill out more forms that will allow us to diagnose the areas in which they and their businesses need improvement."
Across Central America
The University Tecnologico de Monterrey is uniquely suited to launch a web-based program like this, since it has a proven track record in online education. "We already have a complete master's program online," Perales says, adding that the interactive nature of the web lets online student-entrepreneurs relate to their professors as easily as their classroom-bound counterparts. "We've currently got students enrolled across Central America."
In August, Perales and the Goldman Sachs team started interviewing the 10,000 Women program applicants, who must have at least a high school education and must possess basic computer skills.
Once the enrollees are selected, they will be matched with a business mentor who has training in skills like management, finance, marketing, personal skills and planning. "The mentor-coaches -- pools of experts from the university -- will assist the entrepreneurs in developing a vision of how to best run their businesses," Perales says. "During the seven-month program, they'll work on theoretical development, on concepts, training, and on implementation. They'll develop a formal business plan that will call for specific actions to be taken by the entrepreneur to improve her business."
Instructors include Judith Luna Arroyo, a marketing consultant at Emprendetec, the university's "virtual" business incubator. "I have already worked with women entrepreneurs on some projects," she says. "In my field, the biggest challenge is a misconception about the early stages of a business idea. I tell the women that they need to visualize a project and I try to create a natural bond with the entrepreneur."
Arroyo says that women entrepreneurs tend to be "more open and receptive to communicating ideas, questions and opinions," and they appear to be better able to manage their time, compared to male counterparts.
Meeting Economic and Family Needs
Even as the university lines up experts like Arroyo, it is also getting the word out about the program through a series of informal alliances with a variety of private organizations, including women's groups and government agencies. "We're also holding informational seminars across the region," Perales says.
An online program makes sense for the women business owners, she adds, noting that "they're very busy running their companies, and don't have the time to travel to a classroom. Also, the online program gives them the flexibility they need to log onto classes at a time that's good for them."
To accomplish this, the program will not be run on a real-time basis. Instead, Perales says, the format will be similar to a discussion board or other online forum where questions and answers are posted and considered. The online initiative will also use e-mail to facilitate discussion between participants and instructors.
Perales sees the GS-University Tecnologico de Monterrey collaboration as vitally important. "Central American culture presents some unique challenges for women entrepreneurs," Perales says. "Many times, these small businesses were started in order to meet two needs: economic and family."
Some segments of Central American society frown on the notion of women entrepreneurs, arguing they should instead be home taking care of household needs.
But many of these pioneering women say they had to launch a business to supplement their husband's income or because the women themselves were the sole breadwinners. At the same time, however, they wanted some control over their working hours to better care for children or other loved ones. "Some of these women-owned ventures faltered to some degree because the entrepreneurs lacked formal business and finance training, especially at the post-high school level," Perales notes. "Schooling can be very expensive and out of their reach, so programs like the GS-University Tecnologico de Monterrey one may be the only way they can gain access to professional business training. We're very excited about this and we believe it will make a big difference in the lives of many women."