Community Connect

Office of the Vice President for Community Services

Reap What You Sow

A UTSA finance professor and his students offer up their time and business acumen to aid one of the poorest areas of Costa Rica–and get their own rewards in return

Tucked away in the mountainous rainforest of the Cartago province of Costa Rica, with a front-row view of the still-active volcano Irazú, lies one of the country’s poorest and most underserved communities. Most schools are woefully underequipped, medical access is limited or nonexistent and the jobs are scarce and all but lucrative.

In this area, which a governmental study from 2008 found to have the lowest social development index in all of Costa Rica, UTSA finance lecturer Ron Sweet provides crucial support to the local community. Through the nonprofit Indigenous Community Development International, which he cofounded in 2009, Sweet funds school and medical supplies, buses, new buildings and other community development projects.

“We don’t limit ourselves to one specific field,” he says. “For example, we support a dental clinic in this very inaccessible region, or we have adopted a school on a nearby indigenous reservation where we provide ongoing support for teachers, children and parents. We also train and employ women as maternal-infant health promoters to reduce the high infant mortality rate.”

Another ICDI program seeks to improve the profitability of small-scale farmers, some of whom have to endure a 15-hour hike to sell their produce at the nearest market. They either haul or carry their load the entire distance, trudging up and down narrow paths through the thick rainforest. Customers are aware of the farmers’ odyssey and thus wait until late in the day, when the farmers have no choice but to sell their produce for next to nothing to avoid having to take it with them on their return trip.

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“This is one of the tougher challenges, but we are working on it,” Sweet says. “We started a co-op that seeks to improve the price the farmers receive as well as to give added value to their products by processing them in the area.”

Sweet also started a microlending program for farmers and others who have the creativity and perseverance to start a business in this challenging environment. “The people there are very hardworking, extremely talented and proud of what they’ve accomplished,” he says. “But they lack the capital to start something, and no bank would ever give them a loan, especially not at the low interest rate we offer.”

Since 2009, ICDI has granted about 50 microloans to local entrepreneurs totaling close to $100,000. “That may not sound like much,” Sweet says, “but a small loan can go a long way in this area.”

To date, most of the loans have been repaid on schedule, and all of the earned interest is reinvested to provide capital for new loans.

“If people donate to our charity, truly 100 percent goes to the cause. We–meaning the board members of ICDI–use our own personal funds on an ongoing basis to exactly match all of ICDI’s expenses,” Sweet says. “For example, if someone chooses to donate via PayPal, the board members cover ICDI’s PayPal fees so that the full donation can be put to use. I doubt one could find another charity that does that.”

The loan grantees and their community are not the only ones benefitting from ICDI’s work. Through his involvement as an adviser of the UTSA Investment Society (a student organization run like a real investment firm), Sweet introduced students to his nonprofit work and allowed them to simulate the management of ICDI’s $150,000 stock and stock-option portfolio. Sweet mirrors the students’ decisions in the real portfolio, thereby giving the students an extra incentive to do a good job.

“They understand that, if they make sound decisions, real money will benefit very deserving people. Two years ago we were able to buy a $20,000 bus for a local school, thanks to the profit generated by our students,” says Sweet, who retired from USAA as vice president of equity investments in 2009 and has won several teaching awards since joining UTSA in 1997.

In addition to managing ICDI’s portfolio, Sweet offers students another unique experience. He takes them to Costa Rica. For the past three years, UTSA business students have used their spring break to join Sweet in traveling to the tropical Cartago province, where they visit schools, present lessons on budgeting and finance, and assist the microlending partners in developing business plans. ICDI covers the travel expenses; students contribute a small amount for board, ground transportation and lodging.

“It was an incredible experience,” says UTSA alumna Gabriela Martinez, who went to Costa Rica in 2014. “My mother always taught me to work hard and try to be as good a person as I can be. And that’s something I saw in the people we met in Costa Rica as well. It was inspiring to teach the microlending partners something that will have a huge, positive impact on their entire lives.”

Goldman Sachs hired Martinez upon her 2014 graduation as an analyst. She had never dreamed of such a professional career when she was growing up under trying circumstances in Torreón, Mexico.

“The trip to Costa Rica with Mr. Sweet plus the portfolio management we did at the investment society helped me a lot to get my current job. I had some really strong hands-on experience that I could bring up during my interviews.”