MBA Students Examine Solar Panel Feasibility in Dominican Republic Schools

From Inside USD -- Sustainability and international opportunities were two areas of interest when Mario Orozco was considering enrollment in an MBA program a few years ago. Once Orozco chose the University of San Diego’s Evening MBA program in spring 2013, he was eager for the opportunity to validate his decision. It happened in January.

Orozco was one of three USD MBA students who traveled to the Dominican Republic for an international business practicum. Along with classmates Daniel Healy and Sabrina Baby, their 10-day course with USD Economics Professor Stephen Conroy, PhD, was one of several practicums available to MBA students who participate in the Ahlers Center’s International Business Practicum courses in which students tackle real consulting projects for various international companies.

But while others spent their time Shanghai, Rio de Janeiro or Buenos Aires, the Dominican Republic group investigated the feasibility of installing solar panels on the roofs of small Christian schools. Many of these schools, with enrollments ranging from 100 to 1,000, consist of children from poor families and much of their struggles with education come from having limited or insufficient resources available.

“Given that electricity is very intermittent and expensive, the Dominican Republic is an excellent place for this type of project,” Conroy said. “Some schools lose power at 8:30 a.m. and don’t get it back until 5 p.m. It depends on where they are in the city, the quality of the electrical grid and hookups where they might not be set up for 24-hour electricity.”

In addition to the project’s obvious sustainability aspect, Orozco said, “there was a human component to this practicum.”

The project was made possible by a generous donation from Chris Crane, CEO of Edify, Inc. His involvement enabled USD’s Center for Peace and Commerce, which is directed by Conroy, to give the students on-the-ground work and present their findings — that it is feasible for medium and high-end electricity users to afford loans for solar panel installation at competitive microfinance interest rates — to Edify clients, Aspire and Esperanza. They’ll also present their work to Crane later this month.

The trip was a whirlwind of activity for the students: They built a survey instrument, traveled to school sites, interviewed 12 school principals in three days, met with a solar panel installer who’d successfully put them in other schools there, gathered the data, made conclusions and gave the client presentations.

While the learning was nonstop Orozco said one important lesson was how the students approached the school clients. “We knew the client was interested in us and the solar panels. That part was easy to see, but we needed to talk to the clients (principals) about it. Is it a need? Is it a priority? This part really sank in for me. It was interesting to talk to them because sometimes you might come into a situation and you think you already know what they might need, but then it’s not. It was very important to listen to what they had to say.”

Orozco said 90 percent of the school principals they interviewed were women. He came away impressed by the drive of all school leaders to do what’s best for their school. “I don’t think they see it as a business. They look at it as ‘there is a need and I want to help this community.’ Some are in the red (financially). Many of the principals we talked to weren’t taking a salary.”

Communication, especially with a tight deadline, was key. All three USD students were fluent in Spanish — Healy is from Mexico, Baby from Brazil and Orozco, though born in the U.S., grew up in Costa Rica — and that made a difference.

“When we were talking to them, we were asking for sensitive information,” Orozco said. “Perhaps in another setting, we may have not been able to do it. They were willing to give us receipts, helped us collect data and let us take pictures. We were very professional and sensitive to their concerns.”

Rachel Christensen, an Edify representative who worked closely with the USD group, was impressed with and thankful for the students’ work.

“The students are bright, insightful and passionate people and it was easy to take them to the schools with which we work because I trusted their judgment, professionalism and skill,” she said. “Our microfinance partners were very impressed with the final presentation they gave and the associated report. We hope it’s a basis for us to offer loans to schools so they can have solar panels. It’s very exciting to me to fill a very important gap in the electricity provision in the Dominican Republic.”

Finding a solution is always rewarding, but the experience of the journey has also been rewarding to Orozco.

“It is important that people come to business school with different goals. This kind of project and our exposure to it was an important reminder that we, as future business leaders, have a responsibility to society. It’s not all about making money for the company or organization. We need to make sure we’re using our resources to train and educate these small businesses that are trying to make a difference. If you can make a difference here, you’ll make a difference out there.”

— Ryan T. Blystone


Nadia Auch
(619) 260-4857