Doing Business in Panama

Doing Business in Panama

By Andrew Steiner

Brendhain Reid, a business major from Jessup, Md., spent the last week of May in Panama with tattoos on his arms and money on his mind.

Eight students from Calvin’s chapter of the Global Business Brigades (GBB) divided their time between two Panamanian communities: a micro-finance bank in Tortí, and an artisans’ collective in Piriati Embera.

Global Business Brigade, a national organization with chapters all over the country, uses a “bottom-up approach” to help find solutions to communities’ problems. “One of the things we’re really big on is no handouts …,” Brendhain said. “It’s more about presenting them with the right questions so that they themselves can come up with the right answers.”


The students worked with 50 Embera women who founded an artisans’ collective as a means of preserving traditional crafts—like basket-weaving and jewelry-making—and as a source of income. Aided by two translators and two coordinators, the students analyzed the collective’s practices and offered a business plan that addressed the importance of collaboration between the artisans.

The brigade also helped the women articulate a vision for their business that reflected their goal of cultural preservation. While the Embera value their baskets for their usefulness, tourists and missionaries value them as cultural objects. “It’s not just a basket,” Brendhain encouraged the collective, “it’s an Embera basket.”


Doing Business in Panama

In Tortí, the students offered three days of workshops for the bank’s board of directors. The bank was already on strong financial footing, making profits and paying dividends to its members. What it needed was a stronger definition of leadership roles, an issue the students were able to address with the knowledge they had gained in class.

“It was great to take the business knowledge I’d acquired through 90-some credits at the time and actually apply that in a real-life situation, and not only to apply it, but to apply it for someone else’s benefit,” Brendhain said.


Even though GBB’s goals are economic, not spiritual, Brendhain has found that the subject of faith has come up on every trip. “What I found out this time,” he said, “is that all the board of directors (of the bank in Tortí) were members of the same church. Sometimes we would open meetings with prayer. Sometimes that was at our request; sometimes it was at theirs, which was really great. Working with Global Business Brigades, their values line up with our faith.”