Colombia's School for Business Revolutionaries

CESA's real-world curriculum teaches students 'principled private initiative.' The grade so far? Alums have created 10,000 new jobs.

Eduardo Macía, 37, gets a little heated when asked to discuss the financial performance of the restaurant business he and his wife, Beatriz, 36, founded 16 years ago in Bogotá, Colombia. It's not that the numbers aren't impressive: the Macías, sole owners of a chain of 14 Crepes & Waffles restaurants throughout Colombia, Ecuador, and Panama, report a growth rate of 30% for each of the last five years; the company now employs 700 people. What Macía objects to is the classic definition of success only in terms of financial gain. "Life is not only money," he insists. "If you do things right and take care of your employees and customers, the profits will come by themselves."

For the Macías, doing things right involves helping to finance more than 80 homes for their employees, providing free health insurance after one year of service, and making a social worker available for home consultations. Beatriz Macía explains, "To be a leader is not just to build a business, but rather to contribute to the country's development. To raise the quality of life in every way."

This is hardly business-as-usual in Colombia. Too often, the country's 30-plus years of underground civil war, grinding poverty, and the violence and corruption of an estimated $5 billion to $7 billion illegal drug industry combine to end aspiring business careers before they begin. But the Macías -- and about 1,200 other young Colombians and international students over the past two decades -- acquired their sense of purpose from an unusual educational institution that's launched a quiet revolution from a cluster of buildings on the edge of Bogotá, at the foothills of the Andes.

CESA (Colegio de Estudios Superiores de Administración) was founded in 1974 by a group of businessmen who assumed the responsibility of "giving business leadership capabilities to the community," according to Marco Fidel Rocha, the school's current director. CESA's mission: to revitalize Colombia by cultivating pragmatism and idealism in a combination Rocha calls "principled private initiative."

"We are looking for young people of high moral character and awareness, who love Colombia and want to create a better community through economic opportunity," says Rocha. What CESA offers in return is an unprecedented shot at opportunity -- to create a business and to make a difference. The school's graduates have posted a 100% employment record, many landing positions in prestigious private and public sector organizations; the majority of alumni start their own businesses, and have together created 10,000 new jobs.

The heart of CESA's unique course of study -- which is divided into nine 22-week terms -- is a commitment to propelling students out of the classroom. Most business schools have students prepare a business plan as the last step before graduation; at CESA it's the first step after classes begin. By their third term, students are required to develop a complete plan, including extensive market research, capital costing, and the calculation of interest rates, taxes, and depreciation.

The process of developing a business plan infuses the whole CESA educational experience, providing a strong real-world perspective. "The experience gives us a background when we study the topics later in the program," says Diego Restrepo, 21, now in his third year at CESA. "You have more interest in the book work."

In fact, even book work at CESA takes students beyond the classroom. In addition to pursuing course research on-site at Colombian companies throughout the program, in their sixth and seventh terms students visit companies around the world.

The final year of study is an internship in an operating business or public sector agency. By the end of their education, students will have spent substantial time in more than 80 companies, ranging from Banco de Bogotá in Colombia to Dow Chemical and Gillette abroad.

In an even more radical experiment to close the gap between university and corporation, CESA has enlisted companies as partners to develop areas of the curriculum. This year, KPMG Peat Marwick is helping to develop the accounting classes; discussions are under way with Coca-Cola executives to partner on the subject of logistics and distribution. "It's risky," says Vice Rector German Ramírez, "but I think we are ahead of the curve."

For his part, CESA Director Rocha is careful to emphasize that these practical lessons carry deeper and more important insights for students. "Our professors talk from real life," he says. "And in doing so, they give to the students what we call 'hidden studies' that deal with morality and social responsibility."

David Benson is founder and director of Trendwatch Information Services in Bogotá. For more information e-mail CESA, scesa@itecss.telecom-co.net or visit http://www.cesa.edu.co .

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