By Tom Marshall
In too many Mexican communities, the drug trade is one of few entrepreneurial avenues open to those who want to escape poverty. And when residents do start businesses, 80 percent of them fail within the first five years, according to some estimates.
In an attempt to spread the benefits of Guadalajara’s growing tech sector to a wider mix of its citizens, one of Mexico´s top private universities has created three “social incubators” designed to promote education and business-savvy among society´s least well off.
Head of the project is Jaime Reyes, who worked for Hewlett Packard for 22 years before becoming Executive Director of Sustainable Social Development at Guadalajara’s Tec De Monterrey.
“We started the social incubator back in 2007,” said Reyes. “The idea is to bring education and knowledge to different parts of the population.”
Four years down the line, the incubators are educating 2,000 people a year aged 16 and up from a wide cross-section of Guadalajara society. “We offer computing, English and courses about small business start-ups, finance, marketing and more,” said Adriana Lazo, Director of Sustainable Development at the “Tec.”
Professors and students from Tec de Monterrey give up their time to teach at the three education centers, with courses designed for people who haven´t had the opportunity to study at a high level before.
“I´m studying level one computing,” said 30-year-old policeman Pedro Navarro. “I decided to take the course because nowadays everything is computerized.”
Like many of the students, Navarro sees the courses as a means to advance themselves at a cost that is affordable to those in the working class neighborhoods where the incubators are located. The costs (19-55USD$) for a three month course are in the reach of the vast majority of the population, and a diploma at the end of the course from the prestigious institution can help in the search for work or a promotion.
“I´ve always wanted to continue studying,” explained English student Alma. “The costs are very low and the level is magnificent.”
Since opening the first center, there have been a number of success stories, especially in terms of helping small businesses grow.
“Here in Mexico we have a very high rate of start-ups failing,” said Alondra Huezo, coordinator of the three social incubators. “What we look to do is strengthen the businesses so they can move forward.”
One example is a family that sold orthopedic products in a really small shop that “had a lot of drive to get the business to grow,” said Huezo. “They knew a lot about the product but didn´t have a clue about how to structure the business and who to sell it to.
So we studied it and realized they had to focus on another niche part of the market and not to sell straight to the consumer but to bigger companies that would buy in bulk.”
The result was exponential growth, a doubling of revenue and the need for added workers.
Tec de Monterrey economics professor Andrea Hernandez believes success stories like these are the start of getting people off the bottom rung of the economic ladder.
“It is very important because it is a great opportunity to generate new jobs or at least help enterprises maintain themselves,” said Hernandez, who also teaches business classes at the social incubator. “I think it´s a great opportunity to help people.”
Tec de Monterrey students come to teach the classes alongside professors from the university. “If I talk about the experience, I´d describe it as gratifying,” said Roberto Roa, a 22-year-old Tec student already running a consultancy business. “You are helping someone who really needs it and didn´t have the opportunity to study at a huge university.”