Fellowship connects GROW, Costa Rica


Selenia Rodríguez Vargas is working with GROW and networking with various local organizations, including Rotary Club of Grand Rapids. Courtesy Two Eagles Marcus

If there’s one person who’s especially thankful Michigan’s weather stayed warm so late in the fall, it’s Selenia Rodríguez Vargas.

Rodríguez Vargas, who hails from San Ramón, Costa Rica, has been in Grand Rapids since Aug. 15 on a four-month international fellowship with Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women, 25 Sheldon Blvd. SE.

She has been working in Grand Rapids as part of Community Solutions, a globally minded professional development program for community development. The Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the U.S. Department of State sponsors the program, she said.

“It’s a program for community leaders around the world that, each year, come to the states and they start working with a host organization. For us to do the application process, we have to do a proposal — an issue we want to address from our country and how we can develop it here,” she said.

“So that’s how I got to Michigan because my proposal was about empowering women business owners.”

Rodríguez Vargas’ proposal is called EmpowerHer! The program’s goals are to “increase economic independence for low-income women business owners through communication, leadership and business management training in a friendly and encouraging environment delivered by facilitators and students who have different expertise.”

Rodríguez Vargas said she hopes the program increases access to business support services for Costa Rica’s low-income women business owners and also increases their knowledge and sense of empowerment.

“It’s going to address women business owners in a way that they could get training, communication and leadership skills, as well as management tools. This is the program I’ve been designing: working with girls, learning from GROW and the programs they have here,” she said.

“What I wanted was to work with women business owners, and GROW was the perfect fit for that.”

Grand Rapids was the right city to be in to develop this kind of program, Rodríguez Vargas said, adding she has found numerous resources and networking events to build off of, as well as a supportive and collaborative community.

“All the networking events I have gone to, there’s always someone who is willing to help you. There’s someone who relates to what you’re doing and they offer their help right away,” she said. “I feel that Grand Rapids is a place where people can explore their potential because the resources are here and because GROW is an organization that is very helpful in exposing me to different events. I would say it couldn’t be better.”

Rodríguez Vargas plans to take what she learned during her time with GROW and return to Costa Rica by Dec. 12. She will then begin to implement EmpowerHer! through the University of Costa Rica, her alma mater.

“The fellowship is giving me the skills … to design a program to take to Costa Rica, and because of the conversations I’ve had with the University of Costa Rica, I think it’s going to be implemented there. But at this moment, the program doesn’t have any budget, doesn’t have any resources other than what the university is offering to host — meaning the classrooms I can use. We can loop facilitators through the university, but other than that, we have no money,” she said.

“This program would see its successful implementation for the first time in collaboration with the University of Costa Rica, under the scope of The University Community Work Service Project: Supporting Micro-Entrepreneurs from January to June 2016. This program will benefit up to 30 economically disadvantaged businesswomen in San Ramón of Alajuela, Costa Rica, my hometown.”

Rodríguez Vargas was born and raised in Costa Rica and received her bachelor’s degree in elementary English from the University of Costa Rica. Her first time in the U.S. was when she traveled here to study at the University of Wyoming in 2010.

“That was my first interaction with the USA. It was really cool. There were no cowboys as I was expecting because that’s what everyone thinks when they talk about Wyoming,” she laughed.

She returned to Costa Rica and worked as an English teacher, but soon found herself becoming involved in organizing and planning leadership programs, workshops and anything that could help women in business. She decided she could help more women if she went back to school and studied business. She received a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Costa Rica last year, she said.

There are serious challenges facing disadvantaged business women in Costa Rica, Rodríguez Vargas said. EmpowerHer!, a Grand Rapids/Costa Rican partnership, is looking to change that.

“Talking about women that start a business, I would say they are more likely to start a business because they double the number of men starting businesses, but when it comes to sustaining a business, they just cannot do it because the country itself has a culture that doesn’t allow them to go forward,” she said.

“This program is like a starting point to open up to a culture of entrepreneurship. And once we do that, we’ll go forward for resources.”

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