I cannot believe we have already returned from our in-country experience. Our trip to Cochabamba was filled with amazing memories with our amigos from CEOLI and Amizade. Through our experience within the culture we were able to learn more about Bolivia, business, and ourselves.
Cultural and Ethical Norms
Being in-country we faced many cultural and ethical norms different from our own standards in the United States. While some we anticipated through our in-country preparation, we could never fully prepare for how to manage these norms. We experienced many differences in values such as difference in the eating culture, time, and greetings. The following views are just a few that stood out to me while in-country.
Views on Disabilities
I did not get to fully see the importance of CEOLI until being in-country. Compared to the United States children and adults with disabilities are seen as more of a burden in Bolivia. We heard many personal stories about the students, and learned how important it is for these children to have the opportunity to learn to sustain themselves. In the United States if your child has a disability there are many different resources you can leverage. There is also a whole career dedicated to helping special needs children and adults. In Bolivia, if you cannot afford to send your child to CEOLI, or CEOLI cannot afford to expand its student capacity, there are not many accommodating options. Children are placed in a public school where they will receive no special help or attending to. This cultural norm was extremely shocking to me. I felt as though the best way to manage this cultural norm was to let it drive the rest of the trip. Whenever we faced challenges or setbacks in-country, such as finding out the water purification system was being sold on our first day, we refocused on why we were on the trip and the importance of helping the children of CEOLI.
Emphasis on Relationships
We talked about the importance of relationships in the Bolivian culture a little bit prior to being in-country, but I did not realize the extent of how much we would observe this. Relationships are woven into almost every aspect of the Bolivian culture. To start, the majority of what we did at CEOLI was creating relationships. Socializing with the children of CEOLI, getting to know the interns and teachers, along with the artists, was emphasize much more than I thought it would be. Another way we observed the importance of relationships is the Sunday we got there Adri and Naty explained to us that all of the businesses were closed because Sundays are typically spend relaxing with family and friends. This is very different from what we are used to in the States. The majority of business are open on Sundays, and our society rarely takes a whole day to relax. Finally, we observed the emphasis of relationships when we visited the grocery store in downtown Cochabamba. Arielle explained to us that the most varying difference between grocery shopping in Bolivian in comparison to the United States is that you have a relationship with your grocery provider. Shopping for groceries is not just for getting your food that you need, it is time used to catch up on things such as family. Again, this shows how much more relationships are stressed in the Bolivian culture in comparison to the United States.
Dealing with Different Culture Norms
The two examples above are just a few of the different norms observed in Bolivia. No matter what culture norms we were faced with exercising our flexibility and openness was key. As talked about in my previous blog, service learning develops transferable skills. We got to see this really play out in Bolivia when our team needed to be flexible and pivot. Personally my day to day life in the United States does not require me to utilize flexibility. At the university my life is scheduled, and there is not much variation from week to week that I need to be flexible around. In-country I found myself at first always looking over the itinerary, checking the time, and asking when we were doing the next thing and where. Towards the end of the week I found myself more used to just “going with the flow” for the day, and used to breaks in our schedule.
Additionally, openness was extremely important when dealing with cultural differences. In our articles on service learning we addressed the idea that service learning is a two way relationship. Learning in this kind of experience is reciprocated – meaning we learned just as much (if not more) from the people we interacted with in Bolivia. This would have never of happened if our group went in with a close-minded attitude and were not willing to fully engage and be open to the different aspects and perspectives the Bolivian culture has to offer.
Global Business in Bolivia
This trip has provided us with the opportunity to observe the business norms of Bolivia across three different companies: CEOLI, Carla Quiroga (CQ), and Parque de las Aves Agroflori. We also had a very eye opening presentation from Dr. Vivian Schwarz. Each presentation brought their own unique aspect to business, and also allowed us to cross-reference the presentations to see how business is done in Bolivia as a whole. While we became acquainted the most with CEOLI, the other presentations provided great insights on starting a business, another nonprofit, and the Bolivian government.
Carla Quiroga (CQ)
Carla Quiroga started her own brand of contemporary clothing with traditional Bolivian textiles. Listening to Carla was a great way of learning what it is like to start your own company in Bolivia, and exemplified the challenges of being a woman in the business industry. Carla highlighted how hard it was for her to begin her career in fashion. At the time, being a designer was not an industry within Bolivia. Her family discouraged her to purse her dream of being a fashion designer, and wanted her to do something more practical such as architecture. In addition to the challenges presented to Carla as a woman in business, Carla touched upon the setbacks for startups caused by the Bolivian government. She addressed the fact that right now the government has policies that prevent startups from growing. Finally, a huge takeaway from our presentation with Carla is the lack of eCommerce in Bolivia. This is in contrast to the United States where retail is making strides towards shopping online over brick and mortar stores. According to Carla only approximately 40% of Bolivian’s have credit cards. This is challenging to Carla because for one market (Bolivians) she has to focus on her physical store locations, and how to optimize sales within the stores, and for the other market (people in the United States and other countries) she must grow her presence in online sales, and eCommerce. She also touched upon how expensive it is for her to ship her clothing to the States, which is a huge hurdle she has to combat. All three of these facets to CQ opened my eyes to the challenges people in Bolivia face when doing business in Bolivia. It was inspiring to see Carla’s rawness when addressing these challenges and how she works to overcome them.
Dr. Vivian Schwarz
The presentation by Dr. Vivian Schwarz was incredibly eye opening. She dug deep into the different aspects that make Bolivia unique, and her candidness allowed us to really get to know Bolivia. Dr. Schwarz touched upon the economic issues within Bolivia, which provided great insights on how Bolivia conducts business. First she addressed the dependency on raw materials such as oil and gas, and how these are not sustainable for their economy. While we touched upon this in our culture presentation, it was intriguing hearing Dr. Schwarz opinion on the subject matter. Dr. Schwarz touched upon the prevalence of the informal economy. The informal economy make up as much of the economy as the formal economy; she also said that she does not see this changing any time soon. We got to experience the presence of the informal economy and the avoidance of tax in Bolivia in La Cancha market. Everything was exchanged through Bolivianos. This ties back to what we learned from Carla about only 40% of Bolivians having credit cards.
Overall I found the aspect of global business very intriguing in Bolivia. When analyzing all of the different presentations we had, along with our interactions with CEOLI, there were some notable similarities. The largest one being the frustration with the government. Listening to all of them stress how the government limits the growth of businesses made me empathize with their frustration. Another observation is how relaxed business is conducted. Typically in the United States when one hears the word “presentation” it alludes to a sense of formality. You automatically think of speeches, PowerPoints, and very formal conversation. Anytime we had a presentation with a business whether it was with CEOLI or CQ it was a very casual atmosphere and more conversational. I thought engaging with multiple businesses was a great way to observe how business is conducted in Bolivia.
Learning and Growth
This experience honestly had such an impact on me. One of the ways I saw personal growth was challenging my thoughts and awareness. For example, right from the start I was more nervous about the Bolivian flights from Santa Cruz to Cochabamba, and from Cochabamba to La Paz because it was not with an airline I was familiar with. But, contrary to my preset thoughts, the flights within Bolivia were much smoother than the flights between Pittsburgh and Miami. Another example of acknowledging my thoughts and awareness (or lack of) is how often I said “American” when referring to the United States of America. Despite the fact that we addressed this prior to leaving for Cochabamba, I noticed myself slipping up constantly. It was extremely frustrating to me to be constantly be slipping up, but I think being aware is the first step to broadening your thoughts.
Another way I saw personal growth within myself and our group is our willingness to jump into unfamiliar things. For example, despite the fact that Rolando and I both struggled to communicate with each other, we did not hesitate to try. Again, this goes back to the idea of openness. I felt as though it was important to not limit my experience in Bolivia because of something such as a language barrier. Although it was difficult I was able to connect with Rolando, and get to know him and how amazing he is.
My international service experience, in terms of our project, was not what I was expecting going into the trip. From the start I saw how important communication is when conducting international service. We emphasized communication a lot in our in-country preparation, but it was still so prevalent when in Bolivia. The first meeting we had with Ronaldo we learned that the water purification system was being sold, which terminated that project right from day one. In addition, we found out that the pool facility was the largest potential revenue stream for CEOLI. These were two things that were not communicated to us prior to arriving in Bolivia. We also found out that the people of CEOLI did not receive any information on the outcome of last years’ project. This was extremely frustrating to me, but we could not let it set us back any further. Instead of looking at it in a negative light, our group managed to be flexible, regroup, and generate ways to ensure more efficient communication in the future.
I got out so much more from this trip than I was expecting. I cannot believe how incredibly connected I feel to Bolivia and the people I met from just a week with interacting with them. Leaving CEOLI was so hard after personally getting to know the children and the staff members; you want to stay and be as involved as you possibly can. You also do not want to return to the United States and settle back into old habits/mindsets. This trip was so incredible and helped me grow in so many ways. Bolivia will forever have a piece of my heart.