BANGKOK, July 12 – Narissa has only a fourth-grade education, but in the five years she’s been in business here, she’s learned enough to support herself and her two children with the proceeds from one of the area’s busiest coffee stands.
Narissa is one of five small-business owners we talked to yesterday to better understand the people for whom we’re designing our Barefoot MBA curriculum. The idea to do market research came from our meeting on Wednesday with Khun Mechai, who suggested we talk to small business owners in Bangkok and in Lamplaimat, the rural area where we’ll be next week. Armed with a list of questions and an appetite for stories, we walked the streets with Anita, PDA’s corporate social responsibility officer, who served as our translator.
The entrepreneurs’ businesses varied, from fruit stands to lottery sales to hair salons. Their delight in their success, though, rarely did – a function in part of Thai culture but mostly of genuine yet humble pride.
For example, when we asked Pan how much profit he earns from the hair salon he’s run for 17 years, he eagerly pulled out a booklet of colorful charts and graphs to show not only how much he earned last year (4.5 million baht, or about US$140,000) but also his monthly earnings over the last several years. He spoke of his love for his job, the importance of good staffing and the value of sharing resources with others.
Pan also emphasized the sine qua non of starting a business: will and knowledge.
As we’ve learned anecdotally and seen since we’ve arrived, the poor here generally have the will to start businesses, but they frequently lack what Khun Mechai consistently cites as the two keys to success: capital and knowledge. PDA takes care of the first, by running several programs that provide micro-loans.
By Pan’s account and Khun Mechai’s, that leaves knowledge as the major barrier to business success. We hope our Barefoot MBA curriculum begins to close the knowledge gap.
We hope to take care of the second, by providing educational lessons that contain business skills necessary for each of these businesspeople to further grow their businesses. The result, we hope, is that they will pull themselves out of poverty, inspire their neighbors and friends and provide better opportunities to their children and better care for their aging parents.
Though the lessons we’re teaching are ones that frequently are taught only to those who already have basic education, their fundamental messages are simple enough to teach anyone.
“Why does MBA have to be at the end of the learning curve?” Khun Mechai asked on Wednesday. “It should be at the beginning.”