From seed to cup

By Naomi Smith Perrone

Students visit Café Los Volcanes, a local coffee farm. Photo: Ben Yeung

Coffee as a symbol of social innovation and entrepreneurial leadership

Planting the seed

Students in the Social Innovation and Entrepreneurial Leadership in Latin America course (MGG 302/MGG 606) are as varied as the types of coffee preparation methods. Open to graduate and undergraduate School of Management students, and graduate students from the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, this virtual class explores the region’s cultural differences and similarities in business management compared to the U.S., societal norms for entrepreneurs and historical impact on social innovation. Highlighting their individual skills throughout the semester, students work on a project for a Costa Rican nonprofit, women’s-based group or indigenous population.

In addition to the required online portion of the class, students are encouraged to take part in an optional in-person trip during spring break to San Jose, Costa Rica, where they enhance their learning through experiential leadership.

This year, students spent each morning with their host families before joining the larger group. Breaking bread and enjoying a piping hot cup of coffee during the morning set the tone for the day.

Ben Yeung BS '24 and Jessie Kulesza BS '23 near Jaco Beach. Photo: Srikrithi Krishnan

The trip included an extensive walking tour of the city led by Javier Arguedas from the Institute for Central American Development Students (ICADS), with stops at government buildings and cultural sites. Throughout the action-packed week, students learned about how Costa Rica’s unique history was a beacon of democratic values, as well as the nation’s commitment to honoring its laborers.

After getting to know a bit of the city, students also spent time becoming familiar with the Costa Rican tradition of cafecito — or little coffee — by learning more about coffee cultivation. The group visited Café Los Volcanes, where the owner, Miguel Castro Murillo (Pancho), received consulting input from School of Management students on the same trip in 2019. Since then, he has expanded his efforts, improved his coffee tours and more.

Through experiences like this, students see the lasting impact they can make on a small business. Sophie Schindler MBA ’23 was grateful to learn from Pancho about the intricacies involved in creating coffee.

Processing, brewing and sharing

Coffee beans in various forms of processing. Photo: Ben Yeung

Beyond learning about Costa Rican cultures, UB students also gave back to the community by acting as consultants for Fundación Mujer, a nonprofit focused on meeting the U.N.’s sustainable development goals through their work microfinancing entrepreneurs, with a specific focus on female entrepreneurs and providing resources to refugees and nationals.

“Having the opportunity to work with businesses in Costa Rica during the semester was incredible,” says Grace Murphy, BS ’24. “But when we were able to work with the Fundación Mujer in person, the impact we had was visible. We could better see how the work we were doing was actually helping them.”

Halfway through each morning session at Fundación Mujer, the group stopped to enjoy a cup of coffee (or two) during cafecito. Recognizing the change in pace of the workday is something many students highlighted in their experience.

“One thing I really appreciated about Costa Rican business culture was the concept of ‘no working lunches’,” says Srikrithi Krishnan MBA/MPH ’25. “We used our lunchtime to connect with each other and discuss things about our lives outside of work. This gave me the opportunity to learn more about my classmates and the business employees and volunteers we worked with.”

Students also visited a private company, CMA, and met with the head of the Costa Rican Chamber of Commerce, Julian Castillo.

“There were more similarities between Costa Rica and the U.S. than I had anticipated,” says Kennethea Wilson, MBA ’23. “We saw franchise restaurants, a strong emphasis on family and work culture, and highly developed urban areas with breathtaking landscapes and art throughout the inner city.”

Of the three projects the students worked on virtually, they were able to visit one in person: Asociación por la Sonrisa de los Niños, a nonprofit that provides services to children in highly marginalized communities. There, staff members and volunteers enrich students’ formal education in an after-school program that offers a safe space filled with joy and laughter where they can form bonds with other students and receive free, nutritious meals.

Students rounded out the week with a reflective activity at a dinner led by our ICADS partner, Javier. During this exercise, each person at the table shared a highlight, lowlight and takeaway, along with and changes that they will make in their future.

“This was a wonderfully eye-opening experience,” says Sydney Merritt, MS’23. “The opportunity allowed me to become a more globally minded person, and to reflect on my own cultural values.”

Ben Yeung, BS ’24, encourages future students to participate in Global Programs trips.

“It was truly a life-changing experience being able to connect with and learn from people in a different part of the world,” he says. “I hope more students will take advantage of this opportunity to learn and grow.” 

Joana Gaia, clinical assistant professor of management science and systems, served as faculty lead for the spring 2023 trip, along with Naomi Smith Perrone, academic programs assistant, as professional staff assistant.