Social Enterprise Perspectives: Summer in Honduras

Believe it or not, there are many exciting and challenging summer opportunities that you won’t find during Hell Week. Heidi Henson, who spent the summer working with Technoserve/USAID in Honduras, discusses her experiences and the value of the social enterprise summer fellowship program.

Harbus: Can you describe the project you worked on during your social enterprise summer fellowship?
Heidi Henson: Tourism is quickly emerging as a viable economic development vehicle for less developed countries. National economies that have historically been reliant on relatively static and in many cases declining agriculture revenues are now seeking to leverage their natural assets and often balmy climates in order to profit from a growing worldwide tourism industry. This trend is being propelled by affordable air travel and a rise in disposable income in more developed countries, where travelers are becoming more savvy and eager to explore foreign destinations. Such is the case with Honduras.

Facing faltering revenues from coffee and other agricultural products, Honduras is racing to embrace the growing worldwide tourism industry. Working alongside a tourism expert from Technoserve, a non-profit international development organization focused on entrepreneurship to spur economic growth, I helped assess the current state of tourism in Honduras and identified key dimensions where USAID investment could significantly advance the state of the industry and help grow Honduras’ GDP.

Taking a cue from its Central American neighbor, Costa Rica, the country is seeking to lure travelers with its wealth of natural and cultural assets: Caribbean beaches, Mayan ruins, world-renowned coral reefs, and indigenous Garifuna culture. But merely touting such assets is not enough. A robust tourism industry requires significant infrastructure, rigorous service and sanitation standards, and considerable private investment-none of which come easy in a developing nation. Government leaders now face difficult choices and tradeoffs: for instance, how to justify investing in a sanitation system on the Bay Islands to support cruise tourists, rather than using the funds to strengthen a feeble education system? Foreign aid donors and private investors face similarly perplexing decisions.

During the first phase of the project, we interviewed world-class tourism experts and operators in North America (Four Seasons, Starwood Hotels, Globus Travel, Carnival Cruise Lines) to get their perspective on the prospects for tourism in Honduras and to formulate general recommendations for improving the country’s offerings. Drawing on these insights, my colleague and I then traveled throughout Honduras, speaking with all the major stakeholders in the country’s tourism industry, from hotel managers to the Vice Minister of Tourism to leaders from the World Bank.

Based on these discussions, we quickly reached a draft strategic document with staged phases of action, starting with the quality and level of service. While I had to return to Boston for the start of school, my colleague on the project remained in Honduras to finalize the strategy documents and make preparations for the implementation phase of the project. This is but the beginning of a long-term goal to develop tourism in Honduras, but a critical first step for demonstrating the country’s commitment to developing the industry and growing the nation’s GDP.

Harbus: What was the most rewarding aspect of your summer experience?
HH: I feel very fortunate for the opportunities I have had, and feel an instinctive drive to “give back” and help others. It was extremely rewarding to be able to leverage the skills I gained from consulting and from my MBA education in order to help the stakeholders in Honduras on a macro level. Personally, it was also very rewarding to learn more about Honduran and Central American culture on a firsthand basis.

Harbus: What was the biggest challenge you faced this summer?
HH: The biggest challenge was avoiding gunfire. Just joking, but I did have a close call: one night, when returning from the office, I suddenly realized that our car was in the path of a high speed chase. We managed to pull over just in time-as soon as the car being chased and the police in pursuit passed us and rounded the corner, we heard pops of gunfire…
That’s just an indication of the unusual challenges you encounter in development work. Rather than office politics, you have to contend with challenges like getting attacked by sandfleas or surviving a five hour bus ride over precarious mountain roads in order to get an important interview.

Harbus: What was your background prior to HBS?
HH: My roots are in the non-profit realm. During college, I interned in the White House, in Congress, with my Governor, and for a think tank. Academically, I majored in Philosophy, Political Science, and French. Immediately after college, I joined up with the Gore campaign. It was an amazing roller coaster ride that lasted a year and a half. I started on the campaign in June of ’99, before Gore had officially announced his candidacy, and remained with the campaign through the now infamous election day in November of 2000. While I wouldn’t have traded my campaign experience for the world, it did convince me to make the move to business. I felt there was a great deal of inefficiency in government, and didn’t foresee a long-term career as a political operative; in addition, I had begun to recognize the power of business to create opportunity and help others.

At the start of 2001, I joined McKinsey. Even then, however, I couldn’t deny my non-profit roots. During my second year as a Business Analyst, I transferred to Switzerland for a special one-year consulting assignment at the World Economic Forum. The summer before business school, I spent three months in Tanzania working with Technoserve on an investment assessment project for the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the private investment arm of the World Bank.

Harbus: Why did you pursue a social enterprise summer fellowship?
HH: I’m passionate about international economic policy and development, and jumped at the chance to pursue these interests with the financial support of the Social Enterprise program. The Fellowship is a unique and commendable program that illustrates HBS’ stated commitment to develop leaders across all disciplines.

Harbus: What classes/aspects of the RC experience were relevant to your summer endeavor?
HH: I actually had a concrete opportunity to apply theory to practice: when meeting with the founder of a low-cost start-up airline, AeroHonduras, I was able to speak with him in detail about his expansion strategy, drawing directly from learnings in an airline strategy case we had discussed during the RC strategy course.

Harbus: What advice would you give to students interested in pursuing an internship/career in this sector?
HH: My advice, foremost, is to go for it-it’s now or never. If you have an interest in development, now is the perfect time to explore this interest without majorly impacting your life’s course if you decide it’s not for you. Secondly, it is critical to invest a fair amount of time in identifying an effective organization that is in-line with your interests and priorities. There is a plethora of NGOs out there; the best approach is to figure out which country or function you are most interested in, then to talk to leaders from that region or field in order to identify the most respected organizations. For instance, I found out about Technoserve by calling the Johannesburg office of McKinsey to ask firm leaders which NGOs on the ground were most effective and respected. The last bit of advice would be to get field experience-to actually go live and work in the regions you want to help. A major part of the learning experience is not just professional, but rather the day-to-day rhythm of life and cultural learning…understanding the daily exper
ience in that region is critical to making informed and effective policy recommendations.