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January 26, 2009

The Only Limits Are in Your Mind

Kevin Rehak ’10
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Above: Kevin Rehak ’10; Hernando Forero ’09; Maria, Fundacion Juan Felipe Gomez Escobar; Sylvia Perez, Give to Colombia; Sachit Shah ’10; Omari Jinaki ’10.

This is part of a series of posts from the International Development Club.

Handmade lingerie wasn’t at the top of my mind when I came to b-school.

Nevertheless, that’s one of the myriad surprises I encountered on my Pangea Advisors trip (formerly International Development Club Projects). Our client, Give to Colombia, an umbrella organization that liaises between U.S. donors and Colombian NGOs, wanted a monitoring and evaluation system to track the efficacy of the NGOs. We worked with the NGOs to expand their budgetary reports (e.g. how the donors’ money was spent) to include impact (e.g. how many lives were affected and by how much). Based on these case studies, we extrapolated a model of how to change the reporting criteria for all of their NGOs.

When my team (Chad Di Stefano ’10, Hernando Forero ’09, Omari Jinaki ’10 and Sachit Shah ’10) and I traveled to Colombia to meet the NGOs, we met Jorge Porras Suarez, an entrepreneur who hires women from sweatshops to make high-quality intimate apparel in better working conditions for better wages. Meeting Jorge recalibrated my notion of what industries an emerging market entrepreneur can target — and on what scale. If he can enter the luxury lingerie market and make deals with buyers in New York — keep your eyes peeled for the Black and White collection by Vanity Colors — why can’t someone else start farming sugarcane to supply an ethanol plant? Jorge reminded me that there aren’t any limits to entrepreneurship. If an idea is good enough, and the work ethic tough enough, the entrepreneur will succeed, regardless of frigid credit markets, living in a slum, or being told he can’t do it.

We also met a foundation that gives pregnant teens pre- and post-natal support, thereby cutting infant mortality in the catchment area from 5% to 1%. And another that builds bathrooms and sinks for the poorest schools in the area. It was humbling to work with people who will succeed no matter what; if we weren’t helping them them, they were focused enough to seek assistance elsewhere.

Being deeply involved in IDC brought my first semester to life. It’s been more than just the project: it’s been getting to know my peers outside of cluster F ’10 (no disrespect intended), meeting students from other schools at Net Impact and forgetting about my next Corp Fin valuation when I listen to a speaker at a conference. The most rewarding part has been speaking with prospective students who are where I was a year ago.

All of this reminds me why I came to Columbia Business School: for the entire experience, the practicum, the people and to gain the technical skills that will help developing world entrepreneurs seize their own opportunities.

I’m grateful that I had the chance to seize mine.

I’m not the only one jazzed about Pangea Advisors. Just last Thursday, more than 50 students and alumni gathered at a cocktail reception to formally kick off this outstanding student-run initiative. Feel free to contact any of us at IDC to learn more.

Photo credit: Chad Di Stefano ’10