Everyone who grows up in Juneau, Alaska works in the tourism industry at some point. For years, I worked for a major cruise ship company during the summers in my hometown of Juneau. I was always shocked when teenagers my age would hop off of the cruise ship, take one look around at the natural beauty of southeastern Alaska, and promptly ask me how to get to the mall. They were amazed that a town of 30,000 people didn’t have a proper mall filled with chain stores and a food court. I was amazed that anyone coming all the way to Alaska would want to spend their few hours in Juneau at a mall.
Although small, Juneau is a vibrant community, with theater groups, an orchestra, and many artists, musicians, writers, and wanderers. The small businesses that we patronized growing up reflected Juneau’s eccentricities. These included a number of local book stores, the health-food store that my friend’s family owned, and dozens of small, family-run restaurants. Instead of a mall, we shopped and ate at the places where we had connections—where we could support our neighbors and our community. I supported small businesses before I knew the important role they would play in my career.
After I graduated from high school in Juneau, I attended the University of Oregon, where I studied International Development. After earning my degree, I traveled around the world, finally landing in the San Francisco Bay Area. Although my degree is in International Development, I became very involved with local economic development in my own community, working with poor and homeless individuals, primarily in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco and the Fruitvale district of Oakland. Through my experiences volunteering and working at a number of nonprofits, I saw how this type of work could transform lives. I also saw ways that nonprofits could be more efficient and how many could benefit from incorporating business practices of the private sector into their operations. I eventually decided to return to school and pursue an MBA at the University of San Francisco (USF) to strengthen my business skills, so that I could make a deeper impact on the organizations where I worked.
While studying at USF, I became involved with a start-up organization, Centro Community Partners that provides low-income entrepreneurs with business skills, leadership coaching, and methods of accessing capital. As an intern, then as an employee, and now as a board member at Centro, I have seen firsthand how lives, families, and communities are strengthened by small business development. Successful small businesses can increase the income of the owners and their families and create local jobs. In the United States and abroad, small businesses truly lie at the roots of communities by strengthening economies and promoting diversity.
Over the next 5 months I will travel to Nepal, India, and Bhutan to support READ Global, an organization that builds libraries and community centers in South Asia. READ Centers are paired with sustainable enterprises that provide the centers with sustainable financial support. I will be working with READ Global to help identify these issues and help to strengthen the capabilities of emerging entrepreneurs in READ communities.
The entrepreneurial spirit is especially strong in developing countries, where for many people, starting a small business may be the only means available by which to support their families. I am interested in transferring my experiences working with small businesses to an international setting. All small businesses, whether they are in Juneau, Alaska, Oakland, California, or Deurali, Nepal are faced with their own set of challenges and opportunities. I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to support themselves, their family, and their community, regardless of where they live.
Kathryn Svobodny is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor working with READ Global Prior in Nepal, India, and Bhutan. Prior to joining MBAs Without Borders, Kathryn worked in community and economic development in the San Francisco Bay Area and received an MBA from the University of San Francisco and a BA in International Studies from the University of Oregon. She is passionate about small business development, microfinance, and volunteerism.