Pura Vida!

“Imagine a bunch of HBS students who are used to the Hilton roughing it in mildew-smelling bunk beds with cockroaches and waking up to the soothing sounds of Howler Monkeys.”

The spring 2010 Costa Rica IXP embarked on a journey to understand Pura Vida and how this concept impacts Costa Rica, the government and the future of the country while looking at eco-tourism and other industries.

Pura vida literally means “pure life,” but to Costa Ricans it is much more. It is about enjoying the simple things in life and, in general, confronting life with a positive outlook.

During the IXP, we embarked on a journey to understand Pura Vida and how this concept impacts Costa Rica, the government and the future of the country while looking at eco-tourism and other industries. There were 22 students, a good mix of ECs and RCs. Some were “IXP junkies” while many were newbies, including myself. While other students partied MTV Spring Break style, we were divided into four focus groups: government & education, sustainability & social responsibility, tourism & marketing, and operations & strategy.

The agenda was intense. We began in San Jose with visits to Volcan Poas, a coffee plantation for a quick café; InBio, a nonprofit biodiversity management center with an impressive collection of bugs and foliage; and a laundry list of other companies and people.

– INCAE: the equivalent of HBS in Costa Rica, but I totally bow to them – they have 6-case days, and classes are in English and Spanish!!!
– CINDE: a nonprofit investment promotion agency
– Omar Dengo Foundation: a private non-profit organization that manages educational innovation and new technologies
– Intel
– Minister of Trade at COMEX
– Café Britt
– Tamarindo Diria Hotel

After the first day, a theme was starting to develop. Costa Ricans have a “green heart,” they genuinely care about the environment, and this is reflected in the government and non-profit sector. Costa Rica’s goal is to be carbon neutral by 2021, and it is on its way to achieving this. 93% of electricity is Hydro power, 25% of the country is protected land (which is a lot for a country the size of West Virginia), and it has a relatively small population around 4 million.

CINDE only attracts companies that fit into the overall mission. It does not pursue industries that consume high amounts of natural resources and employ cheap labor. This strategy links to the Omar Dengo Foundation, which focuses on education programs like computer programming, robotics, web applications and entrepreneurism (another issue, but we will get there).

Costa Rica is looking towards the future and betting on the environment as a key component to business. The Minister of Trade, Marco V. Ruiz, emphasized that current corporate cost structures do not include pollution. They are working on models that include pollution, carbon emissions and other environmental factors, and are becoming leaders in these fields.

It is not an IXP without a little fun, and after all it was Spring Break and everyone was looking forward to some rest and relaxation. So we tried out the eco-tourist lifestyle with a visit to Rancho Margo and Tabacon, which could not be more different from each other.

Rancho Margo, a carbon neutral eco-tourist “resort” in La Fortuna, is completely self-sufficient. It generates its own power from a water-powered turbine, creates methane gas from organic waste, makes soap from kitchen oil waste, uses manure to heat water (let me clarify – it runs water through tubes that pass through manure; believe it or not, manure can heat water to 120?F/48?C), uses compost in its organic farm, has free-range livestock, and is a master recycler (meaning it recycles everything). RM was an interesting experience for some.imagine a bunch of HBS students who are used to the Hilton roughing it in mildew-smelling bunk beds with cockroaches and waking up to the soothing sounds of Howler Monkeys. Personally, I liked the place, but I know I’m not the norm. Ask anyone on the IXP – we all have a couple of good stories to share about Rancho Margo.

Tabacon, on the other hand, was a full-service luxury spa and hot springs resort located at the foot of Arenal Volcano. It was closer to the image of “eco-tourism” – all the luxuries with a clear green conscience and marketed to the general tourist, not a niche one like Rancho Margo. Tabacon was still carbon neutral (actually, it was better than neutral; it was net negative). Its green initiative centers around sustainable tourism practices, CSR (it has raised more than $100,000 for local schools), environmental awareness and improvement (recycling, use of biodegradable materials, etc.), and getting guests and employees engaged and involved. It uses low-flow showers, and hot water is sourced from the thermal hot springs (no manure or electricity needed). Other activities include an onsite wastewater treatment plant, fluorescent lighting and PVCs. It uses timers for general lighting (it cut its electricity consumption by 35% in 2 years), less than 20% of total solid waste is sent to dumpsters, organic waste goes to local farmers for livestock feed, and it gets employees and guests involved in its tree-replanting program. Tabacon is also a member of The Leading Hotels of the World, a luxury brand that focuses on carbon-neutral travel, so you can pay for carbon credits to offset your travel (I know it’s hypocritical to buy your way into eco-chic, but for now it is one of the best alternatives).

With all this talk about green commerce, I’m sure your entrepreneurial mind is spinning. Just to let you know, another common theme on this IXP was American Entrepreneurship. All you hungry entrepreneurs out there may want to take a lesson or two from your TEM class and head down to Costa Rica. For example, the owner and founder of Rancho Margo escaped his crazy, stressful corporate life at Burger King and a chemical company to enjoy running a resort.

As a consultant, you never know if your ideas will be implemented. On this IXP, however, we had some influence over the government. The ultimate highlight of the trip was Professor Laura Alfaro accepting the offer from the new government! We will miss her but are so proud that she is the new Minister of Planning for Costa Rica. She has the passion and determination to lead Costa Rica into the future, and I look forward to watching the country evolve even more. Pura Vida!!!

Robyn is an RC from Section A. When not reading cases, you can find her out in the Square, down at the Haymarket, the Esplanade, or in general getting lost in Boston and enjoying the city.

April 12, 2010
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