Project Pyramid is a course that finds its foundations in conceptualizing global poverty and developing solutions to eradicate it by partnering with businesses and organizations around the world. As a result of the pandemic and its associated travel restrictions, students were forced to innovate new solutions to bridging connection and partnerships with the organizations they worked alongside this year. Utilizing technology and video meetings proved to not only be an effective way to communicate with our organizational partners, but in turn optimized conversational abilities with them. Students were afforded the chance to progress their projects through continual conversations over the course of both modules, as opposed to previous course structure that placed higher emphasis on in-country experiences during the spring break travel portion. Through the use of video conferences, some students were even able to leverage virtual in-country experiences, and a few teams supplemented their global experiences by connecting with local Nashville communities and organizations of similar nature.
While we look forward with hope of reintegrating global travel into the curriculum for our Spring 2022 course, the lessons learned from the remote structure of this year’s course will continue to enhance learning for students moving forward!
Katherine Gaede (MBA), Kai Gardner (M.Ed.), Marian Knotts (M.Ed.), Ani Sanchez (MBA), Megan Skaggs (M.Ed./ M.A.)
Despite the fact that our team was unable to travel to Mexico City to meet our partner, La Cana, in person, we gained substantial insight into the organization and its mission in this virtual context. La Cana is a social enterprise with a mission to support social reintegration for women in prisons in Mexico through personal and professional skills development. If you look them up online, you’re likely to see several brightly colored stuffed animals designed and created by the women of La Cana. (Check them out here if you’re looking for a fun gift!)
Our team was comprised of five Vanderbilt students from two different graduate programs: Katherine Gaede (MBA), Kai Gardner (M.Ed.), Marian Knotts (M.Ed.), Ani Sanchez (MBA), and Megan Skaggs (M.Ed./M.A.). Early on, we established the roles that we each would play in our work based on our unique perspectives and experiences. We relied on two of our team members, who speak Spanish, to bridge the cultural and linguistic divide with La Cana when possible. The most enjoyable aspect of this project has been the team building and collaboration we have established in our group. We have connected as friends and colleagues in the contexts of our work and outside of it and have learned a substantial amount from one another. The trust and mutual respect we built have allowed us to approach logistical and communication challenges with ease.
In our biweekly meetings and correspondence with La Cana since March, we discovered that they were facing operations and marketing challenges that put a strain on their financial capacity. These financial constraints were further exacerbated by an overwhelmed operations and manufacturing system, changes in management, and the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. Over the semester, we worked with La Cana to develop deliverables that fit their most immediate needs and aligned with our capabilities and timeline. Our final work plan is three-fold and consists of creating a forecast model to use for future peak season planning, a year-long marketing plan for manufacturing and promotion, and compiling resources to evaluate their organizational chart and structure for more effective success. We plan to present our deliverables to the La Cana team at the beginning of May. We are looking forward to their feedback and insights!
While the time we spent engaging with La Cana was different than it would have been in any other year, we as a team feel honored to have been a part of enacting their mission and expanding their work to a broader audience. For those considering the Project Pyramid course, we would highlight that the collaboration with your fellow colleagues is by far the most valuable experience. Learning from such a varying group while gaining insights from experiences and building upon each other’s strengths is something that no other class at Vanderbilt affords. It’s the people that make any experience, and, surrounded by people who care deeply about the world around them, there couldn’t be a more inspirational experience.
Natalie DuBoise (MBA), Taryn McCoy (MSN/MTS), Franklin Popek (MBA)
Soles4Souls is a non-profit organization with its headquarters right here in Nashville, Tennessee. Soles4Souls works through multiple modes to alleviate poverty around the United States and the world. By providing relief to children and adults who have minimal access to shoes and clothing, they meet the needs of many through free distribution in times of crisis or disaster. Further, they create opportunity through the use of micro-enterprise models, which provide meaningful employment and entrepreneurial skill sets to those in impoverished settings. By the incorporation of both these models, Soles 4 Souls has managed to distribute over 56 million shoes around the US and the world, making profound impact in the lives of many.
As Soles 4 Souls continues to seek new ways to meet the challenges of poverty, they have begun planning stages for a chain of thrift stores in the country of Honduras. Through a partnership with a local entrepreneur, Raul, Soles4Souls is aiming to not only provide goods at an affordable price to provide relief to this region, but also develop meaningful employment opportunities for the local community. Vanderbilt’s Project Pyramid team was engaged in this project by conducting primary and consumer-based research into retail market trends in the Latin American region. Owen Graduate School’s robust library database helped propel forward the research and allowed our Project Pyramid team to deliver a comprehensive analysis. This integral work will assist Soles4Souls in identifying suppliers, optimizing logistics and producing highly marketable clothing for the lowest possible cost to consumers. All of this has been completed in order to enhance the success of the in-country entrepreneur, Raul, in his efforts to serve his local community and work towards alleviation of poverty in Honduras.
In an effort to provide the most accurate data, we sought to supplement our initial research by eliciting the voice of the consumer. As our team was unfortunately not able to travel to Honduras due to the pandemic, we conducted this market research within the local Latin American community in here in Nashville! By conducting interviews with local immigrant communities who have relocated to the United States, we were able to identify retail trends, brand preferences, and product purchase indicators. This additional consumer voice affirmed our initial research, and allowed us to confidently deliver a report to Soles 4 Souls that encompassed not only evidence-based statistics, but also consumer-backed data. We also got the chance to explore the local Nolensville Pike area, affording us new insights and experiences with the Latin American community right here in Nashville! Our group had a terrific time learning from these individuals, and we are all looking forward to more outings in this thriving community!
Kerri-Ann Anderson (PhD), Mario Arjona (MBA), Caroline Erickson (MD/MBA), Jack Hill (MPP), Jeff Pritchett (MBA)
The MassChallenge group has been working with MassChallenge Mexico to help support their expansion into additional countries in Latin America. The interdisciplinary group is comprised of Kerri-Ann Anderson (PhD), Mario Arjona (MBA), Caroline Erickson (MD/MBA), Jack Hill (MPP) and Jeff Pritchett (MBA). We have been working with MassChallenge staff in Guatemala to create support materials that can be provided to startups in the region to provide guidance on any potential organization gaps and general guidance on core business topics.
In order to better understand the startup ecosystem as well as the needs of startups across the region, the Project Pyramid team conducted interviews with six Latin American startups as well as MassChallenge staff. The team spoke to startups in Guatemala, Mexico and Costa Rica. Through these conversations, the Project Pyramid team learned more about the challenges facing business in the region. We were struck by the wide range of issues that the startups are facing. We heard startups talk about issues surrounding political navigation, impact assessment, marketing and mentoring. After consultation with MassChallenge, we moved forward with creating a dashboard that could provide startups insight on potential gaps and solutions on one key content area. We are excited to be creating a product that will be used by MassChallenge and startups across the region.
Coffee Equity Lab
Alan D’Adamo (MBA), Abby Peterson (MPH), Sehee Jeon (M.Ed.)
Our team had a great opportunity to work with the Coffee Equity Lab during this virtual semester. Housed at Wond’ry, a Vanderbilt’s Innovation Center, the Lab envisions a global coffee sector where justice, inclusion, equity, and sustainability are paramount, and aims to become a leading organization that facilitates collective actions among various industry stakeholders to foster equitable and sustainable business practices. Since it is quite a new lab established Fall 2020, our project scope was to help strengthen the Lab’s organizational structure so that its daily operation becomes smoother and our founder of the Lab can devote more time and effort to develop sound partnerships with outside coffee industries and organizations. Our team’s work consists of three main parts — developing 1) user-friendly finance tracker through all sorts of Lab’s income and expenditures can be efficiently managed; 2) develop student fellowship job description, application, and fellowship exit survey to help recruit student fellows and promote the Lab’s work to Vanderbilt students; and 3) develop the current and potential partnerships list with descriptions on current projects which help the Lab effectively manage and further develop partnerships. Learn more about the Coffee Equity Lab here!
One of the biggest challenges we faced working on the Coffee Equity Lab project was properly scoping the work at the start of the project. Given that there is only so much time in the course of the Mod to complete the project it is important to properly identify the deliverable and tasks the team is going to tackle. After reviewing the full list of items requested from the client, we collaborated with the Coffee Equity Lab to narrow in on the top three most impactful items. This ensured we were working on the highest priority items which would deliver the most value to the Coffee Equity Lab. Another challenge we faced was ensuring the delivered products were useful and had the necessary functionality that the Coffee Equity Lab needed. We were able to overcome this by having strong communication with our client, and ensuring we had dialogue regarding needs and wants of the finished tools as we were building them. This allowed for us to get feedback from the client as we went instead of waiting until the end to pass on deliverables the client hadn’t yet seen or been spoken to about.
The Coffee Equity Lab project group started out as 5 people but quickly became a solid group of 3. Having a small group made it easy to learn more about each other and schedule regular meetings as well as divide up work evenly. After doing the GlobeSmart assessment, we found out our work styles were actually really similar to each other (see picture after this paragraph). This was certainly helpful when doing a semester-long project together! In addition to working well together and being organized with our schedule, we also were fortunate enough to meet with our client many times over the course of the project and get real-time feedback as well as ask clarifying questions. This ties into some words of wisdom; meeting early and often is a great way to feel comfortable with your partners and client. We realize not everyone can have a stellar group with hardworking and kind classmates- we were very lucky to have had such a great team to navigate this virtual project with!
Lin Ammar (MPH), Laura Brown (EMBA), Ethan Dastugue (M.Ed), Vedanti Shah (MBA)
Our partner organization is Carbonbase, an organization that aims to reduce carbon emissions and works in the sustainability and green future space. Carbonbase lets people calculate their carbon footprint and then pay small, incremental prices to offset their footprint, which goes towards funding green energy projects around the world. Some examples are clean water in Uganda, rainforest protection in Brazil, and solar cooking stoves in Uganda. Our team was challenged with ideating a business model for Carbonbase to work with higher education institutions.
The biggest challenge we faced as a team was dealing with the broad changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic, both in how we worked together as students and in how business has been forced to adjust. We learned quite a lot on how to navigate the digital world and how Vanderbilt works as an institution.
We also learned more about the growing carbon offset industry around the world and the benefits and potential pitfalls of offsetting emissions. We talked to some of the leading green energy scholars around Vanderbilt’s campus to make sure our recommendations provide the most benefit to Carbonbase as a company, as well as productively helping fix the climate change crisis.
Project Pyramid is a great class for students who have a heart for using business to solve some of the world’s biggest challenges, such as poverty and climate change. It gave us a channel to learn a variety of perspectives on creating more sustainable businesses in the 21st century.