Alumna Sustains Good Works in Guatemala through Enterpreneurship

Growing up in Guatemala during the country's civil war in the 1970s, Ibis Schlesinger '84 belonged to a family that stressed generosity. Her parents and grandparents always gave away food, clothes and money, even though charity sometimes aroused suspicion during the government's war against communists.

Ibis Schlesigner '84 (second from right).

"You could be called a communist for giving to other people, so you had to do it really quietly," Schlesinger says.

This tense political environment did not dampen a young Schlesinger's enthusiasm for good works. She belonged to her middle school's beneficent society and remembers the warm reception she and friends received when they visited orphanages.

"I was very moved by these children and often wondered, ‘What would happen if they had the same opportunities we have?' " Schlesinger says.

After marrying an American and moving to California in 1980, Schlesinger maintained a deep connection with her home country. As a student at Saint Mary's, she engaged in spirited discussions about Latin America with history professor Ben Frankel.

"He opened my eyes up a lot, and I learned just how important history is and how U.S.–Latin American relations influenced the economy in the region," she remembers.

After earning bachelor's and master's degrees at Saint Mary's, Schlesinger and her husband, John, started a family in Lafayette. While traveling to and writing about Guatemala during the next two decades, Schlesinger visited more orphanages. She often raised money to buy toys and medicine, but ultimately realized the situation called for more than fundraising and charity.

"People can get tired of giving, and with donor fatigue, there's no steady revenue for an orphanage," she says. "I began thinking, ‘What if we created businesses in Guatemala that support the orphanages?'"

This idea led Schlesinger to create Ties to the World, a nonprofit foundation she runs out of her home. The organization trains American and Guatemalan college students to create businesses in Guatemala that invest earnings into Hogar San Francisco Xavier, an orphanage outside Guatemala City.

Schlesinger recruits volunteers from colleges, including Penn, UOP, UC Santa Barbara and Cal Poly (and hopes to add Saint Mary's College) to travel to Guatemala, where these students develop relationships with the orphans they support and business leaders they want to cultivate.

"These college students are going to be the professionals who will shape the world," Schlesinger says.

Starting businesses in a foreign country is a trial-and-error process, and Ties has already examined models based on selling orchids, mushrooms, water and printing services, only to determine they weren't viable. The most recent business project centers on recycled paper products that incorporate designs from local artists. If this model of a business-supported orphanage succeeds, Ties will expand to other Latin American countries.

"We don't want to start a business and then agonize a year later that it won't work," Schlesinger explains. "This orphanage is our pilot program. It takes time to do it right."

Meanwhile, the foundation raises money for Hogar San Francisco Xavier, where Brothers of the Divine Providence support 90 boys ages 4 to 14. Last year, Schlesinger's organization funded English and computer teachers and three tutors for the orphanage's school.

The goal is to help these children enter Guatemalan society with an opportunity to succeed.

"My father told me that people are never free until they are economically free," Schlesinger says. "You can't just feed them and give them shoes. You have to educate them and give them skills."

–John Grennan