Justin Eppley, Thailand, Economics
My friend asked me point blank during a discussion about capitalism and Donald Trump what “it” was that “you people” [Americans] have inside that drives our ambitions. Exhausted from work and red-eyed from dust, I was not willing to start singing The Apprentice theme song we had bonded over my first nights in Kenya. His question was heartbreaking. With all of the blatant, horrifying poverty that surrounded me, this question was the most difficult and depressing for me. I surprised myself with my answer. I told him, frankly, that I believe it is hard to have ambition when you cannot expect a certain minimum safety net from your government. Even more horrifying; I told him that I understood the common desire to leave Kenya for good and I would want the same. It was a bit of harsh frankness that I developed towards my situation at work in Kenya starting a microfinance institution. This frankness was something with which I was very unfamiliar.
When faced with unchecked idealism regarding poverty during my senior year of high school, I took action by building a charitable coffeehouse for orphans in Africa. I had fun creating drinks, marketing the products, and accounting for growth, pretending I was my own little version of Donald Trump (just a bit nicer). I did not have to think much about where the resources were, what markets I would sell to, or how I could account for the growth. I was just having fun, and fun for an apparent good cause. It was around this period of my life that I made the surprising decision to pursue economics as a career. My desire to help others spawned a career track I had not intended. I had realized at that point how much I enjoyed the entrepreneurial spirit, the drive to succeed and grow.
Three years later, that decision has led to Thailand and microfinance. Between then and now, my coffeehouse ambitions have been thoroughly tested. They were tested when I had the honor of leading a presentation at a World Bank conference to alleviate extreme poverty, but where the frustrations of little field knowledge troubled me. They were tested when I lived in Thailand studying trade relations, but where a military coup led to a revolution. Finally, they were tested in a unique opportunity to initiate and run a microfinance agency, but where the political will of the organization was lacking. The more I experienced, the more I realized how important a dynamic relationship between these macro and micro occurrences was.
My internalization of these events in my life coincided with the development of a magazine business venture I started in 2005. Today, this venture remains in tact and strong as ever. Despite setbacks and surprises, entrepreneurship has remained an important passion of mine and each of these events has been successfully integrated in my life and business and has transformed me to be a person with big dreams, like the coffeehouse, but practical goals. I hope to apply these experiences and find what Thai entrepreneurs have also internalized by dreaming big but thinking small.
I use the case of my Kenyan friend to illustrate a common experience across developing nations and why cultural sharing is important between them. As an individual who has a working knowledge of Thai culture and government and experience in microfinance development practices in two other cultures, I feel that I am in a position to better understand such cultural nuances when studying successful Thai microfinance. It would also put me in a better position to apply my findings cross-culturally after completion of the study. This sort of experience would enhance my career and it would help me on the path to finding a more effective way to give my friend an answer to his question on ambition. Between all of us, we can begin dispelling the cultural misunderstanding and myth that ambition and entrepreneurship are only American.
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