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Walden Magazine // Jul 11, 2016

Beyond Borders: Creating Sustainable Networks

When she was invited to present her research on the microenterprise development industry at the World Forum for a Sustainable Society at Sofia University in Bulgaria, Dr. Kristina Harris ’15 was thrilled to return to the country where she had conducted her study. But as the event neared, her excitement was mixed with nerves.

“If somebody came from outside to tell the U.S. what it is doing wrong, we might take offense to that,” Harris explains. “I thought Bulgarians might have the same reaction. Were they going to accept what I was recommending? Were they going to challenge me on it?”

Fears aside, her presentation, which provided recommendations on how microenterprise development companies (MEDs) can better assist small business owners, was well received—by all but one attendee. “He was a very proud Bulgarian and he took offense to some of the information that might imply Bulgaria has a long way to go in microenterprise development,” Harris remembers.

But she took the gentleman’s opposition as an opportunity to have a discussion about the challenges and potential solutions from his perspective. “We’ve talked since then, and we have an open dialogue,” she says. “I referred him to some of the entrepreneurs I worked with during my research whom he could help, as well.”

Harris’s experiences in Bulgaria have been marked by this spirit of networking. When she was awarded Walden’s 2014 Fellowship in Research and Applications in Social Change, a scholar at Sofia University helped open doors for Harris to complete her study; this same colleague invited Harris back to the university to present her findings about a year later.

Harris’s personal networking skills dovetail nicely with the findings of her study: that networking can open doors to otherwise unseen opportunities.

MEDs are supposed to pool resources and link individuals and organizations to sustainable business solutions, but many of the organizations in Bulgaria haven’t been working together to fulfill that role. Harris had shared the potential for networking with the MEDs that participated in her study, and when she returned to Bulgaria, she was eager to reconnect with her participants to share more of her findings. “They loved it. They’re implementing a lot of things that we talked about to ensure sustainability and scalability and make access to capital easier,” Harris says.

One company has networked to find the resources to grow a once-informal farmers’ market into a recurring event with a permanent location. “Most Bulgarian entrepreneurs are farmers, so that is giving them more opportunities to sell to customers and to market their products,” she says.

Although now she’s back at home in Minnesota, Harris’s influence beyond borders hasn’t ended. A Bulgarian PhD student who was an intern for one of the MEDs that participated in her study has used Harris’s findings as a starting point for further research. Harris is also setting up a Walden faculty member interested in conducting research in Bulgaria with the contacts he needs to establish a local presence.

“You can’t just go in there not knowing anyone. You have to have that relationship, that connection,” she says. “You have to understand the dynamics of that culture to successfully effect positive social change there as an 'outsider.’ ”