Published: Nov. 17, 2022 By

Elex Ayala standing in from of the mountains in Cape Town, South Africa, on top of a "Live on" signEarning an engineering degree can be draining. After three years of college, I have become accustomed to wandering the halls of the CU Boulder Engineering Center with bloodshot eyes trying to make it through the next laborious homework assignment, mind-numbing midterm, and textbook reading quiz. All in the hopes that my diligence will keep me on the right side of the grading bell curve, where I will eventually graduate with a degree and a fat paycheck. School and hard work can be demoralizing, but after participating in Entrepreneurship & Empowerment in South Africa (EESA), I realized that it doesn’t have to be that way.

EESA is a six-week study abroad program where students become business consultants and learn the complexities entrepreneurs in Cape Town face. Students are put in teams with the sole mission of helping their clients. How do we help the clients? That’s what we had to figure out. With guidance from instructors from the University of Colorado Boulder, the University of Notre Dame, and the University of Florida, teams learn everything they can about the business. Then we create accounting systems, marketing tools, employee training, or anything else to accelerate the success of our clients’ businesses.

Before going into EESA, my understanding of business was slim. An ECON 101 class and a Shark Tank marathon aren’t a robust background. To say that I got thrown into the deep end would be an understatement. Classes were held for a few hours in the morning where I got a relentless crash course in marketing, accounting, economics, leadership, and much more! But unlike a normal class where material is taught for a test, we would meet with our clients in the afternoon and apply what we learned. I found it refreshingly engaging to sit in class and pay attention to what my professors had to say because the more I learned, the better consultant I became.

Granted, the fast-paced nature of EESA is something felt by every student, not just the non-business majors. The entire goal of the program is to help empower entrepreneurs in limited time, so the pressure is on for everyone! My team spent countless late nights writing reports, designing logos, and sifting through company records to make the biggest impact we could. I spent most of my time stressed and burnt out, but the work was worth it. Normally, I throw out my homework the second my grade is posted, but contributing to a deliverable for a client was worth the strain! I knew the later I stayed up and the harder I pushed, the bigger my impact would be for my clients.

But EESA isn’t just grueling work. Woven into the late nights are unforgettable days of adventure. We went wine tasting, bungee jumped off the second tallest bridge in the world, saw the world's only warm water colony of penguins, hiked mountains, went out with friends, and so much more! Cape Town is a breathtaking city of culture and beauty, and EESA was an incredible way to immerse myself in all it has to offer.

Even with all these amazing adventures, my favorite experience was working in the townships of Cape Town. Tourists are told to stay away because they can be unsafe and hard to reach, but the people I met in Khayelitsha and Mfuleni were incredible. I spent hours talking to my clients about their business and learned so much about the lifestyle, the hardships, the culture, and the community they cherished. Though I am thousands of miles removed, I see my clients as friends.

Alex Ayala with one of his EESA clients and his teamThe thing I miss the most after returning to school in the states is the sense of fulfillment I found in EESA. I spent hundreds of hours with my team, our clients, and the professors, but everyone was so committed and motivated to help the entrepreneurs that staying up late working on a report or designing a website was what I wanted to do. I stopped caring about my letter grade and focused on how I could contribute to my team. It felt liberating when the work I had to do and the work I wanted to do were the same.

Traveling to South Africa has been the best college experience! The skills I learned will transfer to the rest of my education and career. I’m not sure when or how, but I’m going to find my way back to South Africa. Cape Town might be the most amazing place on planet Earth! I know that whatever I do with my career, I will devote far too much energy to helping people and loving people with whatever I do.

If you are ready for your next great adventure, apply to be part of 2023 Entrepreneurship and Empowerment in South Africa or reach our to me at alexander.ayala@colorado.edu to discuss the program. Apply for EESA now! Applications are reviewed on a rolling basis.

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