---- by Grace Segran, Paris ----

This year, Students In Free Enterprise (SIFE) in France will offer some 200 university students the opportunity to develop and implement sustainable projects which create economic opportunities for people in need.

SIFE students take what they are learning in their classrooms about business and use it to meet a need in the community, says Bouchra Aliouat, executive director of SIFE France. They find creative ways to teach children about global economy, provide assistance to aspiring entrepreneurs, present effective solutions to struggling business owners and help low-income families achieve financial independence.

SIFE was established in 1975 in the US by Robert T. Davis, a lawyer from Texas, on behalf of the National Leadership Institute. It was originally a regional leadership training programme for university students who were required to teach their communities what they had learned and then be judged competitively on the outcome of their efforts.

The scope has since been broadened students have the opportunity to make a difference in their communities and to develop leadership, teamwork and communication skills through learning, practising and teaching the tenets of their academic discipline to enable community members to participate more fully and effectively in the economic and social life of the community.

Some 25 universities in France take part in the programme and each team adopts its own rules and procedures to carry out activities within SIFE's broad framework. The only parameter set by SIFE World Headquarters is that the projects should be designed to educate others on five business aspects: market economies, success skills for a global competitive economy, entrepreneurship, financial literacy and business ethics, Aliouat explains.

The team identifies community needs, brainstorms, writes proposals, delegates members to implement these, and secures funding and resources.

The SIFE network

SIFE France is currently connected with more than 20 prominent corporations locally and SIFE members from some 2,000 universities all over the world, says Aliouat.

To equip SIFE students with relevant know-how, the organisation connects them with corporations which are experts in the industry that they are working on. Students can also tap resources from, and share best practices with, SIFE members in other countries.

Faculty advisors are on hand to help SIFE students identify unique needs in the communities and apply theories they have studied in the classroom.

Team competitions

SIFE teams conduct their educational projects throughout the academic year and present the outcome at regional and national competitions. The winning team then represents France in a World Cup competition against teams from 48 countries.

SIFE competitions are challenging, team-oriented events that create a spirit of healthy competition and the sharing of best practices, Aliouat says. As the intensity of these events increases, teams must continually improve the quality and impact of their educational programmes to remain in the competition.

Top business executives judge the competitions and select winners based on how creative, innovative and effective they are in teaching and equipping the community of their choice with the tools necessary for entrepreneurial success.

A personal perspective

So how do the noble intentions play out in real life?

Julie Guillonneau was involved in a project called 'Future in the Bag.' In 2006, Guillonneau and her team helped 17 disabled women in Baba-Garage, Senegal, to start their own business. We began by organising a sewing workshop for these women. They were later trained by local partners in the art of making bags and are now selling the handcrafted bags in France and Senegal, she says.

To implement their plans, Guillonneau and her team worked with several partner organisations in Senegal and helped the women to develop their distribution network and find new retailers. They also worked with them to define products which correspond to a growing market and how to meet the demand.

The team measured the impact of their project by assessing the economic, social and environmental sustainability using charts, balance sheets, forecasts, profit and loss sheets, wages, etc.; the number of women they reached and retailers acquired, and the number of bags sold. They also assessed the impact the business had on the women's lives, with a follow-up after six months and a year.

Guillonneau says of the experience: It was inspiring and gave me a unique opportunity to change people's lives by teaching them how to do business and helping them realise their potential. It's a fantastic feeling when you see the smiles on their faces, hear the 'thank you' coming from their hearts. And then you realise that you're giving them hope for a better life.

A dream job

Aliouat joined SIFE as executive director a year after the organisation began in France in 2002 because she believed in SIFE's philosophy and mission. Through SIFE, university students improve their communities, while experiencing personal growth, changing their lives forever.

For Aliouat, the opportunity to launch a new programme was attractive. I had the freedom to do it anyway I wanted, as long as I abide by SIFE's philosophy, she says.

Housed on the seventh floor in offices provided by KPMG at La Defense on the outskirts of Paris, Aliouat single-handedly plans and directs all the activities of SIFE France. She admits to making many mistakes in the process of growing the organisation but enjoys the autonomy and the challenges. I look forward to coming to work everyday, she says. Her next project is to start the SIFE France alumni network as former SIFE participants have been asking for this. It will also help to measure the impact of SIFE in France.

Bouchra Aliouat recently took part in the INSEAD Social Entrepreneurship Programme at the school's Europe campus in Fontainebleau.

GS 08/08