The Economic empowerment program in Montana US has added value to my action plan.

Vansy Senyavong, Lao, Professional fellow in Economic Empowerment Exchange Program in Montana

First of all I would like to say thank you very much to Economic Empowerment professional staff Deena Mansour and Kelsey Stamm for organizing and providing us all kinds of exchanges through which I am gaining many different experiences.
And especially thank you to professional fellow Heather Sobrepena George who is really kind and active to coordinate our exchanges and take care of me and Soutsada during our 2 week professional field practical.
We really appreciate the Montana Department of Commerce that had given us lots conveniences during our two weeks in Helena and has provided us facilities while we working in their office.
I also would like to thank very much our host family Ms. Cheri Long and Mr. Dan Beadle who have given us a very wonderful hospitality. I feel like I’m at home and it makes me less home sick. We are having lots of fun together and especially we have learned many things from them as well.
Cheri has her own studio for pottery, so we practiced pottery-making with her and her kids. Their kids (Nadine and Levi) are very sweet, smart, and friendly which makes me feel that I am part of their family.
During the 2 weeks that we are in Helena we have done much exchange with many different agencies such as government, Local NGOs, non-profit organization and small business people.
Many of these agencies have been added to my action plan to improve my program and my tasks as you will see in detail below:
On May 12 /2014
Soutsada and I had traveled to Helena, capital city of Montana. We were picked up from the hotel by Heather and met our host family who live at Marysville. It is very small village with a population of 50 people, 20 households. It used to be a bigger village a long time ago (about 150 years ago) because it was a mining place, but after the mining was finished everyone moved away.
A long time ago in the mining areas, they were all male, no women, only Ms. Mary, so she set up this town and that is why it is called Marysville town.
We got a very good welcome from our family host. There are 4 people in the family: Mr. Dan, Mrs. Cheri, and 2 kids, Ms. Nadine (15 years old) and Levi (12 years old).
After dinner we had a good hiking to the mountain next to their house, it has very nice views, there is some snow. It was very enjoyable with their kids for snow playing.
On May 13 /2014
We got a good welcome to Montana Department of Commerce; there are many sectors.
We had an introduction meeting with professional management team of the Business Resources Division. There are 10 people from different sector such:
Soutsada and I made a short introduction ourselves and the program that we were implementing in Laos.
Then we visited the Radley Elementary school for 3rd grade classes to introduce the culture and way of life in Laos. During my speech I got an impression of Laos from the student’s level. They asked us interesting questions such as:
– What kind of animals do you have in your country?
– How many boys go to school?
– How did you build your house?
– What kind of job are you doing?
– Do you have a pet?
– How do you decorate your jelly
1: Visited the Radley Elementary school for 2nd day of 3rd grade class
Again we introduced the culture and way of life living in Laos. I observed that the children in this school are very active, enthusiastic by asking many questions.

2. State capital tour (Helena)
We joined the State capital tour with a group of middle school students. It captured my feeling– the way that Montana government has of recording the history of Montana. The building was painted with all the pictures of people who were involved in establishing the Montana territory as a state. And I am so impressed by knowing that the state is open to all generations to have a chance to speak out and government really pays attention and listens to the people’s opinions for solving the problem of their living condition.
More interesting than that is: The state Governor is focused on finding ways to support students in diversifying their knowledge, gaining a good understanding of their culture, and opportunities for a broad learning experience to upgrade their knowledge to a higher level.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Will meet with the head of cultural department in Bokeo to ask about how they record and present the histories of Bokeo,
– Consider and write a grant fund proposal to hire some a professional artist to draw the picture of Bokeo histories, write Bokeo’s history, make historical books, and build a small culture hall and library (if the government allows or considers my innovation), and
– Decorate the culture hall with pictures of history to the culture hall and distribute the history book to schools and store in Bokeo’s library.

3. Visit the Montana Department of Agriculture, (Mrs. Nancy Matheson Special Project Coordinator on Agriculture Marketing and Business Development)

– This department mainly supports the “value adding” on product processing for the agriculture small business agencies. There is some support to the women food products,
– Try to support the small business on diversifying product processing by providing them the revolving funds loans and providing some of technical advice and training to improve the quality of product,
– They have the grants and loans; the loans interest is lower than bank about 4%,
– The minimum grant fund is $2,500 and max grant fund is $100,000,
– Agriculture staff also helps producers to apply for funds from other agencies,
– They also provide yearly organic certification for producers who have to pass the test of no pesticide and no manmade chemicals or materials. They have to recheck every year before they give this certification. They also do the same to Lao farmer if they can pass the test,
– The State department does not force the farmers to produce the organic products, but non-profit organizations encourage the producers and consumers for local, sustainable and value added foods. These non-profits get the grant fund from government and private agencies, and
– The organic production is required to have the label showing that they have passed the test of being the organic.

4. Montana Office of Tourism (International Markets, Eco and Agri tourism)
This sector is working with many different companies, helping the business people around the world know each other, link to each other and peer to peer exchange for their business. They work with a network of tourism entities in many countries such as: Europe, Australia, etc.
They have created lots of media trying to attract tourist attention from outside to get to know Montana and to attract people to Montana.
15/5/2014 (Thursday)
1. Visited the Radley Elementary school for 2 class
2. Meeting with Mr. Chris Shove, the executive director of Montana Business Assistance Connection (MBAC)
This is a non-profit organization that provides loans, grant funds, and technical assistance to new business people looking to start their business. For the new business they can rent the office from this organization in a “business incubator” location with low prices until they can afford typical rental space by themselves. The lease maximums do not exceed more than 5 years, but depend on the situation of the business. They also provide some training to the community which focus on economic access.
If some of small business people fail with their business, this organization will help redevelop that location and possibly even rebuild for other kind of business. They are now trying to buy a foundry business industrial property, remediate it to environmental requirements, and build a business incubator for more businesses.
The finance support
MBAC gets 50% of the financial support from government through grant funding and 50% from private foundations or companies by submitting proposal according to the foundation/company grant fund guidelines.
Mainly the government fund is for the staff salary, the grant for the small business people through this organization, and some training costs.
For MBAC to access foundation/company grant funds, they first write a letter of inquiry and send with MBAC’s organizational profile to the foundation. If the foundation responds with interest to support then MBAC can write a full proposal to them. Mainly this funding is helping the business people who don’t get enough loans from bank.
At present this organization has $ 3,000,000 for the business loans and $400,000 for home energy conservation loans.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Contact to the non-profit organization for cooperation between businesses looking for the volunteers to work with MHP base in Bokeo.
– Write the proposal for grant fund to train and provide loans to small business people in Laos.

3. Meeting with Small business Administration SBA (Mr. Tom White)
This is a U.S. federal agency with an office in Montana State and focuses on supporting small businesses by providing 75% loan guarantees to alleviate bank risk.
There are 3 partners
– Bank is (Lender)
– Business is (Borrower)
– Government is (Guarantor) to the bank 75%
The system of the loans/ loans counseling contact:
Factory wants:
– Bank loans
Bank wants:
– Business plan
– Who are you?
– What is for?

4. Meeting with Mrs. LORA BEHLMER Nature’s Topical and Teas Shop
This shop had produced lots of different kind of skin topicals and teas which come from many different countries. She produces and creates the name of these topical and teas by herself, which is very attractive the customers. These products are natural and herbals which she imports from many different countries in Asia, Europe, United States, India, and Australia.
She had joined with the World Tea Conference every year and has tasted teas from all around the world and picks up the ones that she thinks are the best ones. She then gets in touch with the desired tea producer and makes a contract for order from them.
The way Ms. Lora presents the product to the customers and the smell of her production is very attractive.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Search and make contact with world teas events and apply for joining the Tea World Network
– Write a proposal to invite Mrs. Lora to visit and teach MHP’s staff on how to process and package Lao teas.
– Contact the University for tea research results
– Join with world tea events

16/5/2014 (Friday)
1. Meeting with Made in Montana Trade and International Trade and Relations Bureau (under Montana Department of Commerce.
This agency assists businesses to promote their products to be attractive to the customers by creating product identification labels of Montana and to help the business people to access to market.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Search and contact with US Peace Corps to request the volunteers to help MHP to design and make a Bokeo-made product identification logo to market and identify local Bokeo produced goods,
– Make a sort story ‘hang-tag’ for each product with a picture that pinpoints the value proposition of the product to the buyer, and
– Make a tourist’s book and brochure for Bokeo province.

2. Meeting with Small Business Development center (SBDC) under Montana Department of Commerce
The SBDC manages the federal grant fund for non-profit local development organizations (LDOs), under the federal Small Business Administration (SBA). Every year they get $625,000 in programmatic funding and distribute these funds to 10 non-profit LDOs to support the salary for their staff to provide the business counseling to small business people. The LDOs are paid on a reimbursement basis from the SBDC.
The non-profit LDO writes a7-year plan proposal and the SBDC review the contract yearly measuring the activities of the LDOs with their plans.
SBDC also provides trainings and conducts a yearly conference and peer learning opportunities to the counseling centers (non-profit LDOs).
SBDC also conducts an online survey every 3 months to follow up and make improvements of services to clients and to help fill any gaps in service needed by small businesses.
1. Meeting with Alternative Energy Resources Organization (AERO) with Caroline Wallace
AERO is an NGO based in Helena. Their main activity is to support the communities and farmers on food security, ecotourism and regional networking conference.
They have 500 members. Each member contributes the yearly membership fees (about $ 40 per year). Some members donate more when they have extra income.
50% of AERO’s budget is from the membership fees and other 50% of income is from private foundation. AERO also got a grant fund from Montana Office of Tourism for ecotourism and agri-tourism activities.
They have 12 members on their Board of Directors. Each board member is responsible for fund raising from different areas and also the board members themselves donate their own finances and time to these projects. Mainly each Board raises from their network, friends, and assist with the seasonal fund raising campaign.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Get in touch with private sector individuals and companies. Find a way to attract them to become MHP’s members and contribute donation to the poor.

Today we had a very good fun for weekend activities with our host family in Helena city. We learned how to work in the pottery studio, now I know how to make the cup and plate. We also worked in the garden to plant the tree and flowers.
At the end of the day we went to the church in the town and came back home to cook the Laos food. These activities are increasing our relationship as a family more and more. We don’t even want to think about how to say good bye when is the time for us to leave them.

1. Meeting with Montana Women’s Business Center (MWBC) in Bozeman (Presented by Ms. Amanda Shultz, Director)
This organization assists women businesses, since the statistic of research had showed that women led businesses are growing fast and they have to increasing the number of employees for their business. They have to improve more on human resources management.
There are 175 members and each member pays $250/year. This fee can cover only business counseling. The center assists them how to make the financial plan and gives them some advice in looking for loans and grants.
The woman business center has developed many different kinds of conferences and training which meet the need of small business people (mainly individual). They also help the business people to link to each other and peer to peer learning: these activities the business people have to pay for attending.
How do they attract the clients to become their members?
The women business center had developed client data and finds out the need of those business people. Then they develop the technical materials and identify the strengths that can attract the clients, and then post the advertisement.
Financial support
Mainly their income is from member fees. They get grant fund from government for staff salary and some grant fund from private foundation.
The women business center also manages the loans for small Business Administration (SBA) and they gain the income from the interest of these loans.
The interest of these loans is 6% / year, the period of loans is 5 years, and maximum of loans is $250,000.
The challenges: The main challenge is to access to the financing, it is difficult to help them to solve the financing problem. There is few staff but have too many responsibilities.
My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– for our strengths Improve our training manual for business finance planning (contact to Ms. Amanda) ask for her training manual.
– Find the specialist trainer to train MHP’s staff to improve their methodologies.
– Create the brochure

Meeting with Western sustainability Exchange (WSE)
This organization is one of local NGO based in Livingston and focuses on supporting the farmers for sustainable practices and maintaining the farmers ‘s characters with many program such as :
Market Connection: Links farmers to market by organizing the speed dating between producers and buyers. Each buyer receives a directory of producers who have obtained sustainable certification.
Steer to Steak Program: Helps Montana cattle producers find local markets for their sustainably produced beef produces. WSE helps coordinate the slaughter of the cattle and helps incentivize sustainable livestock production by getting large buyers to pay a premium over commodity prices for sustainably produced beef.
Farmer’s Market: WSE runs the Livingston farmers market, organized the lander, restaurants, shopping store to meeting with farmers. They also have diner meeting and farmer’s festival.
Young Entrepreneur Stewardship kid’s program, trains the kids to have an idea and to turn their hobbies to be a business. And they cultivate the kids to have character to love being a farmer and love animals and have the character want to donate to others. So the kids create their own activities to sell and then donate a portion of their income to a local non-profit of their choice.
Harvest Celebration is an annual event that celebrates environmental protection and focuses on organic farming and turns the animal’s manure to the energy. WSE does a check presentation to the organization of the kid’s choice and is a way to recruit farmers and ranchers to participate in the program. WSE focuses on education and economic incentives to sustainable agriculture. It doesn’t focus on pursuing any policy or politics as this is divisive and their goal is to find a common ground between preserving the environment and supporting agriculture.

My practices for lesson learn on this topic:
– Link the farmers to the market


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s