Small business owners cross borders to boost profit and create conditions for peace

Karina Koper pays for cabs for her employees to keep them safe from gangs when they go to and from her 53 shops in Guatemala. She also pays extortion money so gangs won't attack her stores.

But what was on Koper's mind during a trip to New York last month was learning the nuts and bolts of running a food operation and making her coffee, yogurt and natural foods stores more profitable.

Koper was one of 28 business owners recently in the U.S. under a program sponsored by the Business Council for Peace, or Bpeace, an organization that helps provide mentoring for entrepreneurs from countries torn by war or violent crime. If companies in those countries become more profitable, they can hire more people and lessen the likelihood of civil war and violence, Bpeace CEO Toni Maloney says. The program, which receives State Department funding, has also helped owners in Afghanistan and Rwanda.

At Chop't, a salad store in Manhattan, Koper learned some of the finer points of being an employer. For example: It's part of a store manager's job to foster a good working atmosphere, unlike in Guatemala, where managers tend to be aloof and distant from their employees.

"I see managers listening to people here," Koper says. "I was not expecting this."

Koper learned stores perform better when managers monitor sales, profit and expense figures. In Guatemala, owners usually don't share financial data with managers, Koper said. She also picked up pointers on how to make salads and serve customers. For instance, when employees pour dressing, they shouldn't look at the salad bowl. They should make eye contact with customers to get a "that's enough" signal.

Bpeace brought the owners to the U.S. for four weeks for classes on running a business and then matched them with small businesses that mentored them and helped them network. After returning home, they can get more help online, and Bpeace will send mentors to help them work on their individual challenges, CEO Maloney says.

Veronica Mejia Handal, owner of La Cochinita, a pork products seller in El Salvador, got mentoring in social media marketing and production at D'Artagnan, a Newark, New Jersey seller of poultry and meat products like duck, venison and pheasant. While networking, she solved one of her biggest problems: packaging that tears and loses its vacuum seal when ribs and other bones are inserted. A D'Artagnan supplier said she could help — her company has a salesperson in El Salvador.

Mejia Handal has also contended with gang violence in El Salvador. Recently a man tried to extort money from her, threatening to poison her pigs' drinking water. Unemployment is a reason there so many young people join gangs, she says.

"People don't want to hire them, so they start stealing," she says.

Some of the visiting owners said their problems result from the way business is conducted in their countries. Buying ingredients is hard in El Salvador because monopolies control the cost of flour, sugar, milk and other goods, according to Celia Concepcion and Jenny Ruiz, who between them own 23 bake shops. The women spent a week at Carlo's Bakery in Hoboken, New Jersey, met with suppliers and learned they can order ingredients from the U.S. that are cheaper than in El Salvador.

They also worked in the kitchen of the bakery, owned by Buddy Valastro, star of the reality TV show "Cake Boss." Concepcion and Ruiz learned techniques like applying icing to cupcakes in a swirl. When they've mastered it, they want to create upscale confections so they can raise their prices and turn a higher profit.

"I will try to do the things I practiced here," Ruiz says.


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