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The Mercury News

Principles - and Principal - at Work

Students Go on a Real Field Trip

Mike Cassidy

Kyle Ozawa and Sam Baker are campus radicals.They're studying business at Santa Clara University - preparing to enter the savage world of mergers and acquisitions, of crushing the competition, of cutting corners and taking advantage whenever possible.

They know Silicon Valley's well-earned reputation as a place where good is defined by what's good for the bottom line and where the thinking goes, "Win first and ask questions later, if at all."

These two seniors are all about questions. Like, does it really have to be this way?

More than a year ago, Ozawa and Baker started planning a weeklong immersion trip to El Salvador - the first such intensive study trip designed specially for business students.

The idea was to learn firsthand about the struggles of a poor country defined by civil war, while taking the theory of micro-lending into the real world.

"There are so many things that you can do with business that relates to this idea of the common good," says Baker, 21, who graduates in June. "You don't have to get out of school and necessarily work for a tech company right away."

Yes, the common good.

Ozawa, a 22-year-old from Los Gatos, says he started thinking years ago about marrying his business education with the ideals that are the foundation of a Jesuit school like Santa Clara: social justice, lifting up the poor, compassion, conscience. The sorts of things you don't find in a typical business plan.

He talked with Baker, professors and other students and came upon the idea of traveling to El Salvador with a group of about a dozen students. It's a country with long ties to the university and one Ozawa had visited before on a non-business-oriented study trip. The students would spend a week talking to politicians, workers and non-profits.

And they would make a small no-interest loan - a micro-loan of $1,000 raised by the students - to an agricultural cooperative that currently relies on a primitive watering system. The cooperative is upgrading its irrigation system by adding a power pump to move water from a spring to farm fields and by enlarging the holding tank where the water is stored.


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The students left in March. One of their first stops was Santa Maria de la Esperanza, the village where the agricultural cooperative was expanding its operation. This was no standard due diligence visit. The students stayed with members of the cooperative.

"To actually live with these people, to eat with them, sleep at their houses. We celebrated Easter with them," Ozawa says. It was a way to understand the difference the loan could make.

The cooperative's challenges sound like something out of an economics text. The farmers grow crops on village hillsides. They carry their harvest down the hill to a spot where it is loaded onto a truck and driven once a week to a market in San Salvador.

Ozawa says that because the farmers can carry only so much fruit down the hill, some of it rots on the ground. A $400 donkey would mean the farmers could move a lot more fruit a lot faster. The cooperative can't afford a truck, so it rents one on market days - an inefficiency obvious to even a freshman business student.

Let's just say capital is restrained in Santa Maria de la Esperanza. But maybe not forever.

Ozawa doesn't see this year's trip as a one-shot deal. He's hoping other students will travel annually - adding new money to the repaid principal and making new loans.

The idea started as a way to change lives in El Salvador. But it is already changing lives in Santa Clara. Baker says he had a job at eBay lined up for after graduation. Now he's decided to hold off. Instead he wants to spend a few months traveling the world and studying the ways micro-loans work in developing countries.

"I want to do something that I don't think I'd be brave enough to do later," he says. Later as in when he has a family, a career - or maybe a business.

There will be time for that. And when it comes I'm betting it will be a business making a difference for the better.

© 2008 The Mercury News

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