Virtual study abroad: UIW students in US, Mexico partner to launch fair-trade startup

April 22, 2021

Students establish cross-border startup in partnership with indigenous group

SAN ANTONIO – A virtual study abroad course brought together students from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio and Universidad Incarnate Word Campus Bajío in Irapuato, Mexico, during the Spring 2021 semester.

The course, Startup Models Beyond Borders (HON BINT 4360), teaches students the steps and processes involved in creating, funding and operating a startup business in emerging markets.

Students from the UIW campuses in San Antonio and Irapuato attended the class together virtually – a first for the University. With help from local organizations and mentors, students established working relationships with the indigenous Chicimeca people, who reside in the present-day Bajío region of Mexico, in order to acquire, transport and sell their handmade artisan goods in the United States.

A First for UIW

The Startup Models Beyond Borders course has been offered at UIW in San Antonio for several years and usually includes a week-long excursion to the Bajío region of Mexico during Spring Break. Travel restrictions due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic took away the opportunity to visit Mexico, but not the benefits of the shared cultural experience of studying abroad.

The Spring 2021 term is the first in which the University has offered a virtual study abroad course. It is also the first course to include students from the UIW campuses in the United States and Mexico.

UIW Campus Bajio

"It's been a great experience collaborating with the students from UIW Campus Bajío," said Luis Aarón Jiménez Guillén, a sophomore mechatronics engineering student at UIW. "Listening to different ideologies has helped me to expand my critical thinking towards the development of the project."

"This class has challenged my problem solving skills and enabled me to collaborate with other students abroad for a common goal. The advantage of this class is we are not relying on a textbook, but rather engaging in real time with real world transactions. Moreover, preparing us for what we might see when engaging in cross-border business," senior international business student David Flores said.

Dr. Adesegun Oyedele, an associate professor of international business and marketing at the H-E-B School of Business, said that teaching the course online has actually enhanced the experience. The Spring Break trips to visit UIW Campus Bajío in pre-pandemic times were jam packed from the moment students landed in Mexico, with visits to local businesses, meetings with students and tours of the region.

"Holding the class virtually has helped to focus on the content," Dr. Oyedele said. "Technology has also helped to bring in more people with experience."

Before, collaboration between students at UIW in San Antonio and Campus Bajío was only possible during the one week of Spring Break. By teaching the class virtually, students have been able to work together throughout the entire semester.

While nothing can replace the experience of physically traveling to a different country, the pandemic has spurred innovations to the study abroad model that will likely continue in some ways in the future.

One of the innovations made possible by teaching the course online has been the ability to bring more expertise to the classroom through guest speakers and mentors who otherwise would never be able to visit an in-person class.

Students have learned from mentors and guest speakers like Rachel L. Spence, director of operations and engagement at the nonprofit Fair Trade Federation; Joy McBrien, founder of Fair Anita, a fair-trade jewelry brand; Robert Scarlett, board of directors chair at the Venn Foundation; and Adriana Cortes, director of the Fundación Comunitaria del Bajío (FCB).

This expert knowledge and experience offered insight into the challenges unique to operating a cross-border startup and helped students navigate the steps in their own cross-border partnership with the Chicimeca people.

Shared Cultural Experience

The students in the Startup Models Beyond Borders class – eight from UIW in San Antonio and 10 from Campus Bajío – worked together in teams to establish their startup project while maintaining a focus on social responsibility.

One of the main strategic partners that made it possible for the students to connect with the Chichimecas was the Fundación Comunitaria del Bajío. For more than 20 years, the foundation has worked to improve the healthcare, education and economic opportunities for vulnerable populations in the region. Click here to watch foundation Director Adriana Cortes explain more about their work.

"One of our objectives was to help connect people from the indigenous communities to the global economy. These groups do not have formalized businesses, which limits their participation in the global economy. The Fundación Comunitaria del Bajío was the bridge to making the connection with indigenous communities," Dr. Oyedele said.

Professor María G. Alba from UIW Campus Bajío said that by working together with the Fundación Comunitaria del Bajío, students are helping to conserve the Chichimecas history and promote their traditions while activating their economy.

"We respect their values and train the new generations with a social conscience to help those who need it most, always respecting their origins, which historically are also ours," Professor Alba said. "I think this is the best way to learn – to live the reality and practice our human values."

To launch their startup projects, each team of students received $1,500 in funding through the UIW Office of the Provost. Capitalizing on the business connections made to the Chicimeca community, students purchased handmade artisans products such as musical instruments and figurines. Teams then arranged for the packing and shipping of the products across the border, where they have been sold to consumers in the United States. Click here to see a full catalog of products.

One of the largest customers for the Chicimeca products has been the Golden Purge boutique in San Antonio, which has purchased more than $1,000 worth of goods. Owner Magdalena Barrera said the products have been received well by her customers.

"The Golden Purge operates on a conviction to offer curated and distinctive merchandise through sourcing authentic, original and culturally significant artisans that offer a distinguished product assortment," Barrera said. "Offering a curated product line to our patrons is as equally important as supporting the commercial sustainability and cultural preservation of the artisans, families and their communities."

Throughout the process of establishing their startup projects, students have worked to offer fair-trade pricing by working directly with the Chichimeca people. Click here to watch a demonstration of the products.

"Our goal as a team is to share the Chichimecas story," junior international business student Pilar Romero said. "We are not just selling a product; we are allocating the community's life and rich culture to a different society. The effort to create this startup business with the indigenous community aligns with all five values of the University of the Incarnate Word: education, faith, truth, service and innovation."

"Supporting the Chichimeca community is an initiative we are taking very seriously as we know the culture and background behind these products is the most important factor for the indigenous community," Flores said.

The students sold just under $1,000 worth of the Chichimeca products at a market on campus in San Antonio and plan to continue sales through the end of the spring semester. They also hope to one day soon visit the Bajío region of Mexico once again.

By working together on this project, students from the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio and from UIW Campus Bajío have established a foundation for future endeavors between the two schools. Their work demonstrates the possibilities present in the UIW network of students, educators and community partners.

Dr. Adesegun Oyedele and Prof. María G. Alba leveraged the virtual study abroad platform to create UIW's first bicultural course experience. Through cross-cultural research and the experiential startup project, students developed a deep cultural knowledge and established the skills needed to connect with business partners in emerging markets.

The H-E-B School of Business and Administration, along with the UIW Office of the Provost and the Liza and Jack Lewis III Lewis Center of the Americas, are proud of the work the students in the Startup Models Beyond Borders class have done toward creating global connections and are excited for the future of the course as it continues to evolve.

Learn more about the International Business program at UIW.