Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Empowering women in rural Thailand--and seeking your vote

Nicola Hil studied at SAIS Europe in 2013-14. Like most students, she spent the summer between her first and second year of studies working an internship.

Nicola worked for a social enterprise and helped design a project to empower women artisans in rural Thailand. The project has been selected as one of the 10 finalists and will be competing for a grant application to Project Inspire.

To learn more about the project and to vote online click here.

In graduate school, students both welcome the institution of summer vacation and agonize over the terror of finding that elusive summer internship. I was seeking a summer position that would challenge me, allow me to think creatively, and meld my interests in international trade with my passion for community development and female empowerment.

I had the fantastic idea to contact my old friends Mark and Alana, co-founders of the social venture Trade Monkey. When I asked them for internship ideas in South East Asia, Mark said, “Well why don’t you come work for us?”
Nicola (left) and her colleague Alana releasing a lantern to channel good luck at the beginning of her internship

It was such an obvious good fit. But, while I knew Trade Monkey would be an interesting and fun place to work before I arrived, I had no idea how completely I would embrace their business model and how deeply I would love the work. What most appeals to me about Trade Monkey is how it embodies the best of the private and the nonprofit sectors, falling somewhere in between the two in this new space we call “social enterprise.”

Trade Monkey creates opportunity for meaningful change by connecting consumers to amazing products while supporting stable incomes and sustainable growth in local communities. We firmly believe this is the way business should and will be run in the future, and it is exciting to be a part of it as Trade Monkey grows.

I’ve spent the summer helping Trade Monkey design their social impact program with the goal of directly reinvesting into our producer communities. It is challenging me in a good way and allowing me to flex my creative muscles as I think up ways to generate and measure social impact. 

One of my favorite assignments was spending a few days up in rural Phrao District with our Chief Product Officer Alexa visiting our partner Warm Heart, a nonprofit that supports the local community with schooling for children, medical services, and micro enterprise programs. 
Nicola and her colleague Alexa visiting artisans at Warm Heart
I spent three days in beautiful scenery, breathing fresh air, and talking with local women in the community about the handicraft work they do. I learned about the significant challenges local female artisans face, the struggle to secure jobs during the dry season, and the back-breaking agricultural work of the rainy season. 

My courses in international human rights and economics were particularly useful during my internship and as I was preparing the Project Inspire grant application. 

Prior to the summer I co-wrote a policy paper on Thailand for International Trade Theory, which focused on Thailand's trade policies and economy. Though somewhat dependent on capital equipment like sewing machines, Trade Monkey's artisans depend most on their own labor and need business skills training to expand their businesses. Understanding the distinction between capital and labor intensive goods helped me in determining how best to support our artisans in scaling up. 

Overall, my courses at SAIS have improved my ability to reason through complex problems and develop coherent, persuasive arguments. That power of persuasion was crucial when preparing our grant application.

Nicola Hil (BC14/DC15)

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