Creating an Inclusive Economy


“I want someone to buy what I sew so that my children can have a better future."

Rose, a Ugandan mother of six, shared her hopes of launching a business of reusable sanitary pads with me while breastfeeding her child outside her hut in the rolling hills of Northern Uganda.

Nearly 25% of Uganda’s population live below the poverty line, and the majority of families in rural Uganda, like Rose’s, survive on subsistence farming alone as they struggle to access existing markets. These statistics of poverty now had a face and a name, pushing my heart and my mind into overdrive, as I, a business professor, desperately tried to figure out how to build a market that could include Rose, her family and her village.

Many communities like Rose’s are excluded from global and even local economies. They may be remote, poor, isolated and stigmatized, and lack the access and relationships required to participate in trade and commerce. Creating access to economic opportunities for underserved communities is critical to achieving sustainable market development.

Growth anchored in inclusion creates and expands economic opportunities while generating broader access to these opportunities, ensuring that all members of society can participate and benefit. Inclusive economic growth allows for all people to earn a dignified livelihood.   

Rose and her community deepened my understanding of what inclusivity looks like. They showed me the possibilities of what can happen when we give people a chance to succeed. This chance makes them more likely to pursue education, participate in the workforce and engage in activities that lead to economic prosperity. 

Over the next few newsletters, we’ll share stories from communities who partner with our Business on the Frontlines students — communities that are often excluded from the economy. These stories challenge us to build a more inclusive economy, here in America and in corners around the world, and to imagine what could be possible.

Allyship & Advocacy for People with Disabilities: Olancho Aid Foundation in Honduras

There is only one specialized school for children with disabilities in the Olancho region of Honduras. Run by the Olancho Aid Foundation (OAF) since 1996, Escuelita Nazareth educates children with disabilities, including those who are deaf and blind as well as those with autism and Down syndrome. 

Six men, five in white uniforms, gather for a photo in a water bottling facility.The 90-some students at Escuelita Nazareth are spread over nine classrooms, divided by age and ability. Since there is no formal special education training in Honduras, most teachers are self-taught and have developed expertise through experience. 

National policies state that students with disabilities should be taught in a general education setting in Honduras. Yet students with disabilities are excluded from the traditional education system and experience inferior learning outcomes than their peers. In addition to educating its students, Escuelita Nazareth aims for students and graduates to be publicly included in the larger community. Because of stigma and lack of inclusion, Hondurans with disabilities tend to stay home with family.

Many students have flourished at Escuelita Nazareth. But as students age out of the program, they face a new problem; despite their education, there are few work opportunities. Much of the Honduran labor economy is informal, with little room for inclusion of people with disabilities.

Lack of inclusion is not unique to Honduras. Kristin Srour (MBA ‘11), associate director for the IU Center for Global Health, has invested her career advocating for those with disabilities through her work with Special Olympics International and beyond. While at Notre Dame, she was part of a Frontlines team in Uganda working with Catholic Relief Services. After graduation she served as an adviser for BOTFL teams in Puerto Rico and Uganda.

“The economy shouldn’t benefit just those that can access it with their privilege,” she said. “In order to have the most functioning economy, you have to ensure that everyone can access it and benefit from it. We should be promoting inclusive growth with our economy where there are opportunities for all. This often starts by creating, embracing and celebrating a culture of differences and inclusion.” 

“The economy shouldn’t benefit just those that can access it with their privilege. We should be promoting inclusive growth with our economy where there are opportunities for all.”

At Escuelita Nazareth, the staff took on this challenge of workforce inclusion. How could they think outside of the box to create a real opportunity for their graduates, while also fulfilling a need that exists in the community?

An answer arrived when OAF launched a pilot program in an industry with lots of opportunity: water. Since clean water in the area must be purchased, OAF has operated 27 water purification systems since 2014, which provide water for its programs' staff, participants and volunteers. The organization also sells clean water to the local community and businesses. One of the purification systems is located at Escuelita Nazareth.

Last year, the school began employing several of its graduates to work the purification system as a vocational program with a stipend.

“We have ten students who are older and are aging out of Escuelita Nazareth, of varying abilities and disabilities, who now participate in the vocational program,” explained Meagan Tenety (MBA ‘18), president of Olancho Aid Foundation’s board of directors. “We're turning it into a micro-business to get the kids involved and take home a little bit of money to their families.”

“It’s about including students in the work so they are equipped to find another job in the future,” explained Pablo Sarmiento, Olancho Aid Foundation’s water project coordinator. “They feel important. They have been empowered by the work. They do it with enthusiasm.”

As a Notre Dame MBA alum, Tenety has been on both sides of the BOTFL experience. Today, when BOTFL students arrive at Escuelita Nazareth, she said, “I am excited because I know they're going to bring us these amazing ideas and think about things differently.” 

“And as a former student, I’m excited for them,” she continued. “To watch them fall in love with the community and the people in our organization, who are just absolutely brilliant and so loving, and so fun. They start to love a place that before, they probably couldn’t point out on the map. It's a special experience, to walk alongside them while that happens.”

These immersive experiences of learning and serving alongside partners in all corners of the world have a lasting transformational effect on students. 

Austin Graber (MBA ‘22) reflected on his experiences in Uganda in Business on the Frontlines, the South Side of Chicago in Frontlines in America, and South Bend in Ways of Rebuilding Community. “If everyone adopted the mindset we learn from our partners, we would all see the responsibility we have for others and understand that others are also responsible for us,” he said. “We’d learn to focus on the future and see the world for its possibilities. We’d recognize the dignity in each human being we pass on the street.”