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Mason's Honey Bee Initiative expands its international impact

May 10, 2019   /   by Damian Cristodero

Abby Rasheed had never been out of the country before she traveled to Colombia during spring break with George Mason University’s Honey Bee Initiative.

Exploring the initiative’s hives in the Santander region, touring coffee and cacao plantations and learning how the Honey Bee Initiative can increase the earning power of local populations was transformative.

“It was definitely my favorite experience in the business school,” the senior management major said. “It made me want to start my own garden and get more involved in the environment.”

The Honey Bee Initiative, a collaboration between the School of Business and College of Science, has come a long way in a year, increasing the number of hives in the region from 60 to 500, and the number of beekeepers from 20 to 160.

BBVA Bank, a multinational out of Spain that is helping finance the program, is so impressed with the program’s growth that it wants more Mason students and faculty to work with the local communities, said Germán Perilla, co-founder of the initiative.

The initiative is also planning to work with chef José Andrés’ World Central Kitchen to establish hives on five farms in Puerto Rico to help with the recovery from Hurricane Maria.

“The idea is to create a project we can spread to the whole island,” Perilla said. “The purpose, more than beekeeping, is food security.”

What the Honey Bee Initiative is doing is showing its students how to put their knowledge to work to create sustainable businesses. It is doing this not only with beekeeping lessons but by experiencing the foundational work that needs to be done with banks and communities.

The success in Colombia, where beekeeping is providing sustainable incomes to families, especially those led by women, is one reason the School of Business’ “Business for a Better World Initiative” was selected by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business as one of its 2019 Innovations that Inspire.

The Honey Bee Initiative’s annual student trip to Colombia included observing local entrepreneurship, seeing how products such as coffee and chocolate are produced, and helping create and make presentations to stakeholders such as officials from BBVA Bank and Mason’s partner institution, the Universidad Industrial de Santander.

Twenty-one students participated this year, split between those taking Perilla’s EVPP 423 Beekeeping and Sustainability course and MGMT 454 Social Impact and Entrepreneurship, taught by professor and Honey-Bee Initiative co-founder Lisa Gring-Pemble.

Expenses for the trip were offset by Mason’s Global Education Office, the School of Business, the U.S. State Department, and the 100,000 Strong in the Americas innovation fund.

“It highlighted for me that George Mason University is more than a traditional university,” said Mason alumnus Mark Monson, 68, BS Biology ’74, who is taking Perilla’s beekeeping class. “Students have the opportunity to get into these kinds of fields that most people don’t think about but are critical to solving some of our long-term issues, particularly in environmental sciences and policy.”

“What’s most remarkable is here we are in class reading about social impact. We’re talking about triple bottom lines, tri-sector partnerships and sustainable development. We’re talking about and reading about all these important topics,” Gring-Pemble said, “and we go to Colombia and see it in action. The students have a lightbulb moment and say, ‘Aha, this makes sense.’ ”  

For Rasheed, what makes sense is pursuing a job working for a nonprofit “that does good.”

“You want to feel like you’re making an impact,” she said. “To study these local businesses in Colombia that really do connect with their communities, it made me want to do that more.”