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DBi… Costa Rica: Finding Harmony in Economic Development and Sustainability

Escaping the cold of January in New York City, 34 Stern students travelled to San José, Costa Rica, to understand the nuances of doing business in the emerging Central American country. 

Classes were held in the beautiful campus of INCAE (Instituto Centroamericano de Administración de Empresas) located just outside of the capital city in Alajuela. The course was centered around two main themes: economic development and sustainability. Through investigations of the eco-tourism, agriculture, coffee, and solar industries, the students explored what brought the small country to the world stage.

After arriving at the beautiful Hotel Intercontinental in the outskirts of San José, the group met up for happy hour in anticipation of the week to come. After exchanging ideas and plans for free time, students turned in for a good night’s rest before an early morning bus ride to the campus.

The first day of class explored the development of eco-tourism and its role in bringing the Costa Rican economy to what it is today. The lessons of the morning session were then driven home by a fascinating simulation in which each study group played the leader of a developing country. Over the course of 20 years, each team made decisions affecting everything from rates of employment and wi-fi connectivity to improvements in GDP in a socially responsible way. Using INCAE’s proprietary measure, the Social Progress Index, students saw how difficult it is to replicate Costa Rica’s success.

Later that night, everyone sat down to a delectable dinner at a nearby Peruvian restaurant. After courses of ceviche, snapper, and assorted desserts, the group was ready to rest up again for the next day.

Day two was focused on the sustainable supply chain. The class was treated to a detailed discussion on how two high profile firms desperately tried to transform their supply chains to better account for the needs of both the environment and all laborers who help make their products. The class was a perfect segue for the next day’s adventure: the coffee cooperative tour.

At what seemed like the crack of dawn, the bus departed from the hotel en route to the Coopedota Coffee Cooperative in Santa María de Dota, about two hours from San José. After a winding ascent, the group was invited to follow the journey from berry to bean to the hot beverage that starts so many of our mornings.

Furthermore, in keeping with the theme of progress in a socially and environmentally friendly way, the group learned how such a large cooperative—more than 900 families in total—can give the farmers that actually produce the labor-intensive crop fair compensation by cutting out the intermediaries that take a cut of the profits before the bean makes it to the coffee shop; for this planation, the coffee was likely going to Germany.

The final day of the course held what turned out to be the most fruitful discussion for many of the students. Led by Professor Andrea Prado, a Stern PhD alum, the class discussed a topic that isn’t often heard at American business schools: on doing business at the bottom of the pyramid. That is to say, a business environment where many survive on income that falls below the poverty line and where basic lines of consumer credit don’t exist. How do we as business people in the 21st century tackle this problem in a way that improves the lives of everyone? The group now had a better understanding of this question.

The final afternoon was spent in one of the most beautiful places many of the students had ever seen. Nestled in the “Cloud Forest” at the top of the Poás Volcano, a tour of the La Paz Waterfall Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary gave the class the opportunity to take in breathtaking miradores and interact with many of the native Costa Rican plants and animals.

Of course, the trip wasn’t strictly business. In addition to the hours spent in the classroom, the group was able to experience some of the after-hours culture of the country. From fine dining to late night dancing at a discoteca, everyone was treated to the authentic “Tico” lifestyle for one week. Pura Vida.

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