Missionaries Spread Business Gospel

March 14, 2005
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GRAND RAPIDS — West Michigan is the thus far unheralded home of a quietly growing and unusual form of international missionary work.

The agency involves business people who are Christian. But they’re not trying to convert Hindus or Moslems to Christianity.

“Without question, that does happen,” said Doug Seebeck, executive director of Partners Worldwide, at 2850 Kalamazoo Ave. SE.

But Seebeck — himself a veteran of traditional Christian missions to Africa and the Indian subcontinent — stressed that faith conversion isn’t the organization’s purpose.

Rather, Seebeck said that Partners Worldwide has spent eight years building a small network of businessmen willing to visit, instruct, encourage and then give long-term Internet business coaching to Third World entrepreneurs.

He said Partners’ goal now is to encourage and equip a million Christian business people to carry forth their faith not just by writing checks for donations, but by using their career experience and skills to help little firms grow and create jobs for the poor.

In tandem with its membership, he said, Partners also is building the capital fund with which it helps fund some Third World entrepreneurs.

One example of Partners’ mission began in November when Pete Lanser — a founder of Innotec, an automotive and furniture industry supplier in Zeeland — joined a group traveling to Bangladesh. It was one of several trips Lanser has taken to the South Asian country since 2000.

During November’s trip, he met Kamal Husein, founder of Shaheen Electric Co.

Shaheen produces electrical plugs and drawer knobs out of a 36-square-foot shed in the slums of Dhaka, the oft-flooded, sea-level capital city of Bangladesh.

To the untutored Midwestern eye, Shaheen might look a hopeless venture. It is a stall-sized operation amid 141 million people in a country of grinding poverty slightly smaller than Iowa.

Shaheen’s workers use badly corroded manual die presses dating from early in the last century to form electrical plugs and resin drawer knobs. Yet despite its corrugated-steel-and-cardboard walls, plaited roof and rag-wrapped equipment, Shaheen makes a profit.

And given a modest amount of capital and some coaching, Husein told Lanser and his companions that he believed he could broaden the firm’s product lines, increase production and hire at least two more workers.

Despite the hemispheric differences between Shaheen and Innotec — a spotless two-story, latest-tech firm on Zeeland’s outskirts — Lanser said he and Husein found much in common.

Each founded his firm after years of working for a manufacturer. And Lanser — like Husein — said he and his sons started their company with old machinery. And despite the conditions under which Husein’s firm labors, Husein and Lanser apparently share near-fanatic zeal about quality control.

Since his return, Lanser has been in regular contact with his counterparmt whose firm in Dhaka now is expanding its product lines.

“When I first heard about this,” Lanser said, “I thought it was just another fancy way for rich guys to get a tax write-off.”

But he said his enthusiasm for Partners’ mission now has communicated itself to nearly 40 other Innotec employees.

He said Innotec corporate policy encourages employees to undertake stewardship projects of their own, and added that a number of those now are coaching entrepreneurs in Central and Latin America.

Reporting exactly the same fellow-feeling with is own overseas contacts was Paul Holwerda, one of 38 Partners Worldwide North American team leaders. Holwerda — a principal of PositivePerformance, a Grand Rapids sales and marketing firm — is involved in 65 partnerships that mentor entrepreneurs.

At the time this article appeared, Holwerda was scheduled for a two-week visit to the Philippines. During and after such visits, he said, “I answer questions, give advice, offer encouragement and meet with chapters. We’re transforming lives by building business skills.”

Though the three men are mentoring or have mentored businesses in nations either with Islamic majorities or large Islamic minorities, none reports having encountered the slightest religious hostility.

“We are aware of one case,” Seebeck said, “where a native convert to Christianity received threats, but none of our people has.”

“People in these countries realize the impact the United States has on business,” he added. “They’re very open and receptive.”

“This kind of thing couldn’t have worked 15 years ago,” Seebeck told the Business Journal.

To be sure, he said, Lanser or Holwerda or any other partner could have visited and counseled with Third World entrepreneurs in the late ’80s, and then come back.

But continuous mentoring would have been nearly impossible because communications by mail would have been either slow or uncertain or both.

Now, however, Seebeck says the Internet makes it possible not only to plant entrepreneurial seeds all over the world, but also to nurture them from the United States.

And that’s a process, he said, which — as in the case of Innotec — seems to propagate more members for Partners Worldwide.

Information about Partners Worldwide and its growth fund is available at www.partnersworldwide.org 

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