University of Southern California

Supplies, Skills and Self-Esteem
Six USC Marshall First Year MBAs Travel to Cambodia to help and Prevent the Exploitation of Children
August 4, 2009 • by Karen Lowe

As the plane flew into Phnom Penh, Professor Joseph Nunes' stomach churned with fear: He wondered how this group of first-year USC Marshall MBA students could help Riverkids, an organization working to prevent the trafficking and exploitation of children from some of Cambodia's poorest slums.

Turns out, some his students were quietly asking themselves the same thing.

"This mission resonated with me," said David Salazar, who was among the six students who accepted Nunes' challenge to work with a non-profit organization in difficult conditions to help children at risk. "But I didn't know whether or not being there would be beneficial to these kids or an inconvenience."

At the conclusion of the PRIME program in late May, Nunes accompanied the group, which included David and his wife Pilar Salazar, as well as Marshall MBA 2010 candidates Rebecca Gelenberg, Jungmoo Kim, Jong JP Park, Nick Olson and Elina Heng--on the school's first trip to Cambodia. Funding to participate in the project came from the students themselves as well as a sponsorship from USC Marshall. The group also delivered items needed by the non-government organization that were donated by alumni, including pediatric vitamins and other donated items.

With only three days on the ground, there was little time to ponder their mission: to help develop organizational skills among Riverkids' staff, and to build self-esteem among some of the world's most vulnerable youth.

More than a third of the Southeast Asian country's 12 million people live below the minimum wage of 50 cents a day. Estimates of the number of children trafficked annually in Cambodia range from hundreds of thousands to as many as a million, most of them girls.

"These children live in a culture of desperation where some families see their own kids as assets, assets that can be sold off," Nunes said.

On day one, the students talked to Riverkids workers about fundraising, communication, conflict resolution and goal-setting. USC Marshall student Gelenberg said that when the group touched on evaluating superiors and subordinates, they struck a nerve.

"When it came to evaluating staff, there was some cultural sensitivity," Gelenberg said. The use of '360' reviews, where an employee is reviewed by both superiors and subordinates, has its limitations in Cambodia. "There, you don't evaluate your superior."

It rained the first day, which did not bode well for the next day's activity - teaching a group of 30 girls between the ages of 14 to 20 how to solar cook. These girls will soon leave Riverkids. The cooking lesson was intended to help develop self-esteem and strengthen their resolve to resist unacceptable work.

On day two, the sun shone brightly and six groups of students and girls put chicken, rice and vegetables in cardboard reflector solar ovens. While they waited for the food to cook, the girls drew self-portraits, using photos taken by the students. For many of the girls, it was the first time they had seen pictures of themselves.

When it was time to check on their solar-cooked meals, one of the Marshall students gingerly pulled back the reflector panel and poked a fork into a chicken leg. The meat was so tender it fell off the bone, and the kids roared their approval.

The Marshall students provided many of the kids with a number of firsts – including a trip to a modern shopping mall. Thirty kids, some of them barefoot, giggled as they made their way up the escalators to the seventh floor roller skating rink. As music pulsed in the air, David Salazar spontaneously started dancing. The normally ultra shy girls laughed – and jumped in to dance with him, drawing a crowd of amused onlookers.

"You have no idea what you're going to feel before you go there," Nunes recalled. "You expect to be sad. And then you see something like this and you feel this profound happiness. There were times when my heart wanted to explode because these kids were so happy."

Both Gelenberg and Salazar said the experience was transformational. "There's no question that I want an experience like this again," Gelenberg said. "It ignites a passion to serve and to help."

About the USC Marshall School of Business
Consistently ranked among the nation's premier schools, USC Marshall is internationally recognized for its emphasis on entrepreneurship and innovation, social responsibility and path-breaking research. Located in the heart of Los Angeles, one of the world's leading business centers and the U.S. gateway to the Pacific Rim, Marshall offers its 5,700-plus undergraduate and graduate students a unique world view and impressive global experiential opportunities. With an alumni community spanning 123 countries, USC Marshall students join a worldwide community of thought leaders who are redefining the way business works.