Proven young leaders from Latin America come to Georgetown with enthusiasm and drive.
They leave with skills and focus to raise the economic prospects of their home countries.

When World Bank Managing Director Juan Jose Daboub spoke at Georgetown University’s McDonough School of Business earlier this year about Latin America’s future prospects, he outlined a long list of daunting challenges, including a growing gang presence in some countries and diminishing tax bases in others, as well as civil unrest and unacceptably high poverty throughout the region.

Daboub also left students with encouraging, practical advice about how they could help. “Grassroots support,” he said, “is very important.”

The message resonated with the audience, which included several young Latin American students who had recently arrived at the school for intensive study in the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program. Hailing from Brazil, Peru, Chile, and other Latin American countries, many of these young leaders had already worked in grassroots organizations aimed at improving political, educational, or other social systems in their countries. They understood they could be far more effective if they collaborated with other countries in the region.

“The concept of global competitiveness is a real challenge,” Emygdio Carvalho of Brazil explains. “Years ago, we thought in terms of winners and losers. But we need to think about how we can compete to better serve the people and the planet.”

Judging success by the number of people who benefit is a popular idea among the new generation of leaders studying at Georgetown. The students say it applies both to their own countries and the region as a whole. Many identify a persistent gap between the haves and the have-nots in their home countries and say this inequality has held Latin America back in terms of economic health and competitiveness.

It may sound simplistic to discuss a region as vast and diverse as Latin America in such terms. But Ricardo Ernst, deputy dean of Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business and coordinator of the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program, argues that political unrest, a lack of accountability, inefficient government, and a regionally focused view of the world are common themes that have made it difficult for the area to compete in a global economy. “Latin America is falling way behind,” he says. In an effort to foster a regional network addressing these long-standing challenges, the Georgetown University Latin American Board launched the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program in 2007 for some of the most promising young leaders from Latin America, as well as Spain and Portugal.

Each winter, about 30 of these young leaders spend 12 weeks at Georgetown, where they collaborate on solutions to challenges in their own countries while pursuing a program of academic courses and field trips tailor-made to address the challenges Latin America faces today. Visits to Congress, foreign embassies, influential think tanks, and many of the other political and thought centers of Washington, D.C., are designed to give students a broader perspective on effective leadership. At the same time, the bonds they form with young leaders from neighboring countries help them adopt a more integrated view of the region and consider strategies that could put it on a more competitive path.

Think Regionally, Act Locally
For José Miguel Ossa of Santiago, Chile, the leadership program in 2009 was an appropriate next step in a short career that had taken him from a master’s program in economics to a job in an investment bank, and then through a period of soul-searching that led him to work on education policy in local government. Eventually, Ossa launched the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Crea Mas (Create More) in Chile to build a volunteer network supporting teachers and parents in educating their children.

Ossa had ideas about how to resolve the shortcomings of Chile’s educational system, which he tried to address through Crea Mas. Recognizing that overworked teachers had little time to prepare lessons, he designed a system of “unpack and implement” lesson plans that let teachers make the most of their time in the classroom and parents easily follow along at home.

Before attending Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business, Ossa had built Crea Mas into a network of 250 volunteers who interacted with about 2,000 students, providing tutoring and organizing extracurricular activities. He says the 12 weeks he spent at Georgetown helped convince him that expansion across borders was possible. Working with two classmates from the leadership program, he has helped expand the NGO into Brazil and Peru.

“It’s not easy to do in another country something you are currently doing in yours,” Ossa says. “But with Roberta [Machado, from Brazil] and Luis Miguel [Starke, from Peru], this has been so easy. We understand one another and most of all, we trust in one another.” Together, the three have organized an additional 50 volunteers throughout Chile, Peru, and Brazil. “We hope we are going to change the lives of thousands and then millions of people, letting them develop according to their will and not their reality.”

From Ossa’s perspective, education is at the core of so many of the region’s struggles, particularly as the world’s more developed countries start producing more high-quality, complex products. He also believes a grassroots volunteer effort can have a big impact. “There is a noticeable inequality in Latin American societies between socioeconomic levels,” he says, adding that his time at Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business helped him understand this vast inequality as a broad regional problem.

“We cannot be a strong country if we don’t act as a region,” explains current program participant Tamara Lopez, echoing this common sentiment. Lopez had been working on a political campaign in her native Chile when she learned of the McDonough School of Business program and was invited to apply. Although Chile is one of the wealthier countries in Latin America, Lopez says she is nonetheless dismayed by the great disparities between rich and poor.

Lopez expresses a strong interest in improving individual lives, and her coursework at Georgetown focuses on practical solutions that will advance the region’s global competitiveness even as they address individual poverty. The syllabus for the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program reads a lot like that of an MBA program, with courses including Globalization and Challenges for Emerging Economies, International Marketing Management, and Corporate Social Responsibility. However, as other class titles, such as Corruption in Developing Countries, indicate, the program was designed with the challenges of Latin America in mind. Georgetown McDonough School of Business Professor Paul Almeida teaches the group a class on global strategy, where he says he tries to emphasize acting strategically to make whatever is happening in the world work for an individual country or region. Rather than seeing China’s success as Brazil’s loss, for example, it is possible to see other countries’ successes as potentially helpful because they expand major world markets. “We shouldn’t view everything as a zero-sum game,” he explains.

Coursework also includes a strong focus on developing personal, business, and political leadership skills to prepare students to create and lead initiatives that will overcome long-standing economic barriers and promote democratic rule of law, civic responsibility, and global competitiveness.

“The philosophical approach behind the program is that globalization is here to stay,” explains Ernst. “We want to move beyond saying that globalization is good, or that it is bad.That is completely irrelevant.”

The Global Competitiveness Leadership Program was designed to do more than pay lip service to the needs of the region. It has the ambitious goal of training leaders who will understand the political challenges that have long stood in the way of economic growth and be able to deliver the tough medicine needed.

Program participants are between 24 and 32 years old, have a college degree, and speak fluent English. They have demonstrated strong abilities as leaders as well as network builders, because a major goal of the program is to train leaders who can effect change throughout the region.

Students receive a $25,000 scholarship, which covers tuition, room and board, and incidentals, including travel. But when planning their trip, participants must book a round-trip ticket home; the scholarship requires that students agree to go back to their country for at least two years to work on a social, political, or entrepreneurial project that will boost the region’s competitiveness. Sometimes, students have conceived of these projects before they arrive on campus. Ernst hopes the network they build at Georgetown will give their work a “multiplying effect,” as it clearly did for Ossa.

Highly Motivated Individuals
Students who participate in the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program each year are highly motivated. “They are not just eager; they are thoughtful, well-informed, and intellectually astute,” observes Almeida. “This idea that they are going to be leaders — I think they totally embrace it.”

Other members of the 2010 program include Ana Collado of Spain, an attorney who is pursuing a Ph.D. in economics while working for the FAES Foundation for Analysis and Social Studies, a prominent Spanish think tank. Collado hopes to establish a network for young professors in Latin America and Spain.

Fellow 2010 participant Carvalho is a political consultant who led a massive social networking movement, Oasis Santa Catarina, which organized a rapid response to what he describes as “Brazil’s version of Hurricane Katrina.” When extreme flooding in 2008 killed more than 100 residents and forced tens of thousands from their homes, Oasis Santa Catarina organized 30,000 workers to help rebuild 12 communities in a matter of days, Carvalho says.

How do you top that? As Carvalho sees it, the humanitarian effort that brought desperately needed relief to a community in crisis is the same sort of focused energy that will ultimately help make Latin America competitive with world economies.
“Brazil today is doing great in so many ways. We are raising almost every social and economic indicator. But we have a huge disconnect between today’s politics and what we are really capable of doing,” he says, citing the widespread poverty that persists even as official economic indicators improve. When Carvalho returns to Brazil, he hopes to work on a project that will broaden the level of political participation. As he sees it, the more people are engaged in the government, the more they understand how it can affect their own lives.

These commonly cited aspirations to build consensus and establish political systems where all people have a voice fit well within the structure of the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program. Outside the classroom, students share meals and housing and spend an intense 12 weeks living and breathing the problems of and potential solutions for Latin America.

“The lessons were just for our group,” Ossa recalls of the tailor-made syllabus. Although he was initially concerned that such a structure would limit the connections he made on campus, he says he “realized it would be better that way. We would be focused just on our group, and the relationships we formed would be forever.”

Clearly, such an ambitious program will face its own learning curve as it develops the best practices for training leaders to elevate Latin America on the world economic scale. One challenge is participation. Although students from 13 countries — including Argentina, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia — have already participated in the program, other countries such as Paraguay and Uruguay have not yet been represented. To date, Nicaragua is the only Central American participant. Recruiting is done largely by Georgetown’s Latin American Board members, who reach out to their networks in the region and tend to be more established in more economically developed countries. Ernst says he hopes to broaden recruitment while expanding the program to include Guatemala.

Another challenge students face is identifying the best solutions. While all participants share a strong ambition to build projects that have a broad impact, some confess to being daunted by the magnitude of the problems facing Latin America, sometimes even more so after they dive into their intensive studies.

“It’s helping me to change my way of thinking about everything,” says Lopez. Although she came to Georgetown’s McDonough School of Business with a sense of a project she’d design to take back to Chile, after just a few weeks into the program, Lopez said, she was forced to think in broader terms and was reconsidering the direction of her work.

Many graduates return to the work they were doing before their studies at Georgetown, but they bring to it a new and much broader perspective of what they might accomplish. Madelene Lopez Ford attended the Global Competitiveness Leadership Program in 2009 and then returned to her former job as exhibitions and events director for the Chamber of Commerce of Panama. But she also worked with four other students from the program to launch a sort of alumni association — the Iberoamerican Competitiveness Leadership Association (iClass) — to ensure that the bonds created at Georgetown
are sustained and nourished long after. About 40 program graduates traveled to Panama last November for the first iClass annual meeting, where they discussed topics ranging from education to infrastructure.

Lopez and her colleagues agree on the power of individuals and countries to work together in an interconnected system for the greater good. She points to the earthquake that struck her home country of Chile on Feb. 27, and the responses that came after, as an example.

“Today, I see my country in ruins, still in fear that I felt that dreadful day when I almost lost my family, and I feel great sadness,” Lopez said not long after the earth- quake. “But I also feel a lot of hope because of what I see through instances like this program — it raises a generation of solidarity, generosity, and understanding that the differences do not separate us, but enrich us. And we can build bridges, to reach out in difficult times.”

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