At the University of Arkansas, students from Dr. Carol Reeves’ New Venture Development class are preparing to conquer the world, or save it, or both. In Haiti, impoverished people are echoing American complaints about modern life using words that hit awfully close to home.
This is all related.
I spent a day in Fayetteville last week for a story I am writing for a business magazine. It’s about the Donald W. Reynolds Governor’s Cup, a competition where college students create and present business plans for cash prizes.
For the students in Reeves’ class, this is not merely a class project. They’re looking to raise money, meet people and make deals. Seth Shumate, 28, has invented a manufacturing process producing the biggest leap in solar energy efficiency since the early 1970s. His Picasolar team has already won a business plan competition in Toronto. Then there’s Calvin Smith, 28, a Marine combat veteran whose team is trying to market a home-based device allowing people to easily test for infectious diseases and food allergies. He’s already raised a pretty good chunk of cash to complete the FDA approval process. Stephen Kayode is trying to market a portable and disposable adult male circumcision product. That’s an uncomfortable subject, but adult male circumcision is a primary strategy in the battle against AIDS in the Third World. This product, if it works, would allow health workers to travel into villages and do the deed on an outpatient basis rather than requiring men to come to the city to have surgery. He’s 41, by the way, and from Nigeria.
I also met Hector, who is not one of Reeves’ students. He’s the new manager of a Fayetteville auto parts store who sold me five quarts of oil for my leaky 2002 Toyota Corolla. Instead of pointing me to the back of the store, he led me to the oil and then discussed the different brands. He tried, politely, to sell me a fuel additive at the checkout stand. He offered me a 10 percent discount the next time I visit. And he told me his story, how he had only recently been promoted to manager and how he planned soon to move up in the company – but not yet, not until he is ready.
The hours I spent among those hopeful idealists in Northwest Arkansas contrasted with an uncomfortably accurate minute-long YouTube video I saw that night. Produced by the charity Water Is Life (www.waterislife.com), it features Haitians repeating common complaints made by Americans. One young girl "complains" about "When I leave my clothes in the washer so long they smart to smell." In the background are villagers washing their clothes in a creek. "I hate it when I tell them no pickles and they still give me pickles," says a thin young man in front of a dilapidated shack.
The video is meant to raise money for Water is Life, but it’s also an effective anti-whining tool for modern Americans.
The young people I met in Northwest Arkansas may become rich, and deservedly so. Shumate may have created the process that will finally make solar energy commercially viable. Even if all those products fail and Hector’s store goes out of business, they all will eventually succeed because they see problems as opportunities.
And because they are hopeful idealists, they will make a difference in other ways. Here’s Shumate talking about the impact his invention could have in poor countries: "This could revolutionize their standard of living in those locations. They can study at night because they have a light now. That’s a huge difference – not only for Americans who already have it pretty good, but also the rest of the world who could have it good in a more cost-effective way."
When Haitians are quoting Americans, they ought to be able to say more things like that.
Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org