Monday, September 29, 2003

Panama Canal: Lessons for the entrepreneur

Monday, September 29, 2003
Business Times p.B5

By Moje Ramos-Aquino
Panamá Canal: Lessons for the entrepreneur

I wish I had my civil engineer son, Ronwaldo, with me when I crossed El Canal de Panamá from the Pacific to the Atlantic Ocean. It is, indeed,one of the engineering marvels of all time. It took the Americans more than 10 years (1903-1914), a workforce of 75,000 men and women and US$400MM to construct this inter-oceanic canal across the Isthmus of Panamá. Awesome!

Every entrepreneur would also learn from the determination, will and teamwork of the people who built the canal and left an invaluable legacy to mankind. They are credited for eradicating yellow fever and malaria, setting up the towns and the supply system, organizing the all-important train system to haul rocky materials, pushing through the construction of the locks, Gatun Dam and excavation of the Cut, and for the final engineering designs. Groundbreaking!

Today the Canal's operation is a major contributor to the Panamá economy. Its watershed of treasured forests is of extraordinary biodiversity that serves as the primary fresh water source for the efficient operation of the canal and the supply of water for consumption by cities and communities. Captivating!

If there are metal elevators for people and goods, the Canal uses water elevators (52 million gallons of water per ship per crossing) to raise the ship in transit of the channel through the continental divide. The Canal is 26 meters above sea level. Wow!

More importantly, I was in the enthusiastic company of brilliant conversationalists K. Jayshankar of Empowered Learning Systems of India and Kathy Shurtee and Susan DellCioppia of Broward County Commission of Florida, USA.The three made very interesting presentations at the just-concluded ASTD Panamá Conference in Panamá City. We'll talk about that next column. We also traveled with this amiable couple Lucio and Terry Chueca from Peru and USA.

Some nuggets of innovation that I picked up mostly from Terry are:

* Don't be neutral. You may not change the world, but you can change something in your proximate environment. Don't be afraid to speak out what is in your mind and heart.
* Accept mediocrity. This will make you do things you want to do but you are not good at or to do things for the first time. Nobody will ever be perfect.
* In Peru, people express their anger with exclamation marks!!!!! They raise their voice, gesture emphatically or overemphasize certain words. But in the US, people use a lot of cuss words whether they are angry or happy. Terry feels it very disconcerting and bad for her spirit. So she banned the use of cuss words in her office. If they want to curse or express strong emotions, they can say "cacawaca!" Everybody knows what it means but nobody is offended.
* There is always a business opportunity wherever you are, if only you looked around. There was this immigrant from Japan who had practically nothing when they arrived in Peru. They settled in an area populated by the poorest of the poor Peruvians who could not even afford to take a decent bath as necessary. This Japanese family put up simple cubicle bathhouses that not only helped a lot of people maintain hygiene but also made them financially prosperous over a short period of time.

These immigrants used their experience of bathhouses in Japan. For affordable cents, one is given a small bar of soap, a sachet of shampoo and the use of clean, sweet-smelling towels and a shower of fresh, clean water. Innovative!

* Kathy talked about a creative way of having a car without spending so much. This new car-sharing program is becoming popular in the US. You pay a $20-a-year membership and you pay per hour every time you use the car. You call a certain telephone number to reserve a car and the operator tells you where to get the car nearest your location. After use, you can leave car at designated places or in your garage. You can't use the car one minute before or after your time slot. At the exact time, you can unlock the car and at the appointed time, the car locks.
* Kathy and Jay shared their experience in an ice bar in Sweden. When you enter the shop, you get a leather overcoat and a pair of mittens. Everything inside is made of ice-tables, chairs, glasses, mugs, plates, decors, etc. This idea might just work in the Philippines where already ice-skating has a big following. Any interested entrepreneur?
* Parents should love their children; but not necessarily like them.
* Don't take short cuts. Don't make corners round.
* Pray wherever you are, what ever you are doing.

There are lots more to share. Just wait for the Innovation Camp reopening early next year in Manila. Abangan!

Moje Ramos-Aquino is president of Paradigms & Paradoxes Corp. and designs & facilitates innovation initiatives. She awaits your email at

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