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Supporting entrepreneurship in Haiti

The neighbors were sometimes lined up outside her home in rural Haiti by dawn, remembered Rebecca Roseme Obounou.

Seeking medical assistance, they came to Obounou’s mother, Rose Roseme, a nurse who worked at a local hospital and provided health care at all hours.

Eventually, Roseme opened a clinic in their home, where she was able to care for patients who were turned away after the hospital’s daily morning triage. She also created jobs and internship opportunities for local community members.

“It definitely had a lasting effect on me … watching how my mother impacted the community, not only by providing affordable health care, but also by creating some wealth opportunities for others,” said Obounou, a program coordinator at MIT Sloan Executive Education.

Obounou and her three younger siblings were born in the United States, but the family moved back to Haiti when Obounou was a teenager. Obounou then returned to the United States to earn a management degree from Bentley University in Massachusetts. She joined MIT Sloan in 2007, but still felt drawn to her homeland.

In 2008, Obounou created a nonprofit to help Haitian entrepreneurs start businesses. She and her mother founded the Christian Haitian Entrepreneurial Society, also known as CHES, as a way to see Haitians live “with dignity and free of poverty.”

Obounou recruited volunteers from Boston’s large Haitian community and brainstormed ways to help in Haiti, where, according to The World Factbook, 80 percent of people live below the poverty line. When the earthquake hit the country in 2010, Obounou and her volunteers collected more than 200 boxes of supplies to donate.

Today, Obounou is focusing on training people and providing small loans for viable businesses, usually women-owned, in Haiti. CHES, along with Partners for Change, another non-profit working in Haiti, recently hosted a three-day workshop for entrepreneurs there. The two groups trained 15 women in marketing and sales and discussed the concept of conscious capitalism.

Obounou, who is pursuing an MBA in global management and entrepreneurship part-time at Babson College, has also been active in the MIT-Haiti Initiative. In 2014, through her position in MIT Sloan Executive Education, she worked with Professor Deborah Ancona to deliver a course titled "Transforming Your Leadership Strategy" to more than 50 of Haiti’s government leaders, including then-Prime Minister Laurent Lamothe.

Associate Dean of Executive Education Peter Hirst said that Obounou’s work in Haiti and her connection with the MIT-Haiti Initiative helped initiate a dialogue with Lamothe’s office.

“This led to our informal scholarship program for senior Haitian government officials and ministers to attend Exec Ed programs at MIT as our guests. Rebecca has really become the steward of this program and relationship,” Hirst said. “It's a wonderful illustration of personal initiative and commitment to purpose, walking the MIT Sloan talk, and making things happen through imagination, patient persistence, and sheer hard work.”

Currently, there are three volunteers working at CHES, and one part-time employee based in Haiti. Obounou is looking for volunteers to assist with web design, marketing, and providing business training on-site in Haiti. The group is also collecting office supplies and donated frequent flier miles. The CHES website features Haitian products for sale, including silk scarves and chocolate. Fifty-five percent of the revenue generated in 2014 came from products made by entrepreneurs in Haiti, and Obounou is also looking for venues that will consider selling some of these products on consignment.

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