Written by: Ermelinda Carvajal
Before arriving in Lima, I attended a meeting with Luis, the director of the Strengthening Women Entrepreneurship in Peru Project, during which he asked my teammate, Melissa Lemus, and I what we knew about Peru. I thought back to my college courses and threw out some words that quickly came to mind: Machu Picchu, Sendero Luminoso, Fujimori, Quechua, Mario Vargas Llosa. But in the end, I said, these are just words learned from a textbook or a professor. I may have traveled and lived in Latin America but I could not tell Luis what Peru really is – nor the essence of who Peruvians are – since I had never been to the country. We have to remember that “Los latinos somos todos diferentes.” I saw my participation in this TEM-Lab as an opportunity to learn first hand what Peru is all about. It was with this mind set that I arrived in Lima on March 20th to try to make a difference and add value to a project that was created to help thousands of Peruvian women become successful businesswomen. We had a work plan detailing our objectives and the strategy to achieve them. However, what I soon realized was that our project on paper did not necessarily equal our project in reality.
Our ability to hit the ground running was slowed a bit by timing and protocol, which is not a surprise when working in Latin America. Plus, based on my past experiences, large financial companies tend to follow protocol to protect the confidentiality of their clients and their employees’ time. We were hoping to shadow loan officers on their client visits but because we arrived at the end of the month (the busiest time for loan officers), these visits might have had to wait until our third week of the project. However, due to the support from Mibanco staff, we were able to shadow loan officers during our second week. Our main objective was to observe the process and relationship between the loan officers and their clients. The loan officers were our connectors to the clients – without their introduction, we would not be able to meet any clients. During some visits, we were allowed to conduct mini-interviews with clients but on most visits, we observed and asked questions of the loan officers afterwards. These visits have proven invaluable to our understanding of the mentoring that women micro-entrepreneurs may need from a mentoring program. We were also able to identify a few women entrepreneurs to interview individually, and spoke to loan officers and branch managers about focus groups with clients. We were also interested in conducting focus groups with loan officers, mainly to validate and confirm the answers we would get from the entrepreneurs. We had two branch managers ready to set up client focus groups and possible individual interviewees; however, because all activities involving the bank’s name required management approval, we would have to submit an official request to the appropriate office. We submitted our request and after waiting only a few days were told that approval was granted. We met with Maritza, another colleague at the Strengthening Women Entrepreneurship in Peru project, to discuss focus group details. Management had approved for us to hold four focus groups with clients and one focus group with loan officers during our fourth week of the project. Maritza suggested that we personally visit each branch to speak with the manager, which allowed us to confirm the events within minutes. Without Luis and Maritza’s help, we probably would not have been able to secure approval from management nor confirmation from branch managers so quickly.
As we enter our second to last week, as any other consultant would do, I have begun to wonder how we will be able to meet the initial objectives detailed in the work plan. A question I have asked for a while now is: Because of the constraints (especially time limitations!) we have faced, what will our results and recommendations end up being? Luis once described our team as “scouts” instead of the implementers of the project. Our job was two-fold: 1) to ask intelligent questions and 2) to try to come up with intelligent answers for those questions. I hope that by accomplishing both, we will be providing value to not only the project but also, and more importantly, the loan officers and their clients.