Lessons without borders

“Money, is that all there is?”

Out of all the questions a student could ask a business professor, this is probably one of the hardest to answer. That’s why Douglas Peterson, assistant professor of management and international business, didn’t know what to say when he was asked the question a few years ago.

Peterson didn’t have an answer right then, but the question got him thinking and five years later he is out to show that there is much more to the business world than just making money.

Now in his second year teaching at the College, Peterson is also in his second year running Business Without Borders (BWB). He’d come up with the idea for the project a few years ago, but it wasn’t until last year that things really came together. And it all started with another question. This time, however, it was not a student’s question.

A conversation with David Letcher, professor of business, and his wife, Eleanor, led to a discussion about the HIV/AIDS crisis in Africa. Eleanor Letcher told Peterson about HIV/AIDS groups in Africa that make crafts that are sold to raise money which is then returned to them so they can use it for treatment, medicine or supplies. She wanted to know if she could import the crafts herself, sell them and then send the money back to Africa.

“I said, ‘I’m a professor of international business. That doesn’t mean I do anything practical,'” Peterson said, joking about his lack of an immediate answer.

After doing some research though, Peterson discovered that it was something anyone could do. He told Letcher she could do it, but thought it could be a large-scale project that would make hundreds of thousands of dollars for the people in need. This turned out to be the perfect project for BWB.

After getting some funding from Bristol-Meyers Squibb, Peterson started the first chapter of BWB right here at the College last year.

“The idea is to create what would be a real business experience for students working on an activity that would have real-world significance,” Peterson said.

With a $20,000 contribution to import crafts from Africa, students involved in the project had to find markets in which to sell the crafts and then distribute the profits back to organizations that provide care for people with HIV/AIDS.

Last year, there were 17 students involved in BWB. According to Peterson, not all of them were business students. The group also included international studies and even a couple nursing majors.

They decided to sell the African crafts, which include everything from figurines to beaded AIDS ribbons, at two Trenton Titans games and made $1,200. BWB was happy with the results.

“The beauty is that students get to practice what they learn and see they can use their business skills for good rather than just for money,” Peterson said.

Peterson expects the group to grow in size this year, getting a total of somewhere between 40 and 50 active members. Since selling at events proved to be very

successful for the group, they will most likely follow the same strategy and also expand the business to a Web site.

In addition to serving as the faculty advisor of BWB at the College, Peterson is also the founder and CEO of its umbrella organization, Affeirs Sans Frontiers, which is a charitable nonprofit.

This organization has a board of directors that plans to build a national structure of schools with BWB chapters on their campus and create a curriculum for any schools that want to implement the program into their service and teaching missions.

So far, information about BWB has been spreading largely by word of mouth. There is another chapter of the organization at Rutgers Business School and pending chapters at the University of Delaware, University of California at Berkeley and Illinois State University.

Peterson believes that BWB will really take off in the future, gaining both national and international significance. When that happens, the College will be the model chapter that all schools look to follow. That means that the students here have to keep putting in the work to make the organization successful.

Peterson has been also putting in extra work. Before the start of this semester, he went on a two-week trip to South Africa.

He found supplier organizations, created partnerships with non-governmental organizations and was even followed around by an international camera crew that is filming a documentary on the HIV crisis in South Africa and the people who are trying assist it.

“I saw orphanages, hospices, community treatment facilities, spoke to Zulu tribes, mastered a bit of language, got the word out on Affeirs Sans Frontiers,” Peterson said. “It was a very, very moving trip.”

Coming from a humanitarian background and having studied everything from international business to hospital administration, it seems that Peterson has finally found a way to combine all of his interests.

“Professors should use their professorships to do more than just teach,” Peterson said. “They should use them more as a pulpit from which they can help the world.”