Carmen Cecilia Cabrera Polo is the founder and CEO of Skole, the leading school uniform company in Ecuador. She is also the sales manager for a family-run textiles company, CC Jr. Sport Confecciones Cabrera. In elementary school, she was the child who was always trying to do business by selling food, novelties, or services to her classmates. She has been working for the family company for as long as she can remember, in every department: quality control, production, HR, sales, marketing, and finance. She has had to navigate crises and overcome economic and political challenges that drove many Ecuadorian textile companies into bankruptcy.
With Carmen’s vision, the company has made two important shifts over the last ten years. First, because of federal policy decisions, it went from manufacturing uniforms and textiles for the government to manufacturing for private companies. Second, it created a network of 125 women-led workshops which employ approximately 375 women, making the company more agile and competitive while also—and just as importantly—changing the destiny of countless families for good.
Once the business was stable, Carmen began to seek opportunities to enhance her business education in order to help the company grow.
“I was hoping to attend an MBA program, but the ups and downs in politics and policies here can be challenging, and at that time I was not able to go. But it was always on my mind. That’s when I met someone who suggested I look into executive programs at MIT.”
Carmen decided to see what MIT Sloan Executive Education was all about and enrolled in the Neuroscience for Leadership program, led by neuroscientist, medical doctor, and executive leader coach Dr. Tara Swart.
“I immediately fell in love with the structure, how practical, engaging and empowering the learnings are, and how you can apply them to every stage of business and life. It was an amazing experience. Dr. Swart teaches you how to assume and manage your leadership role, but she also explains how your role can take a lot from you, internally. She presents simple switches in mindset, routines, and actions that really do matter. I can say that I truly apply these approaches every single day to improve my performance, because they really work! I’ve since read her new book, The Source. It’s amazing!”
Carmen was hooked and went on to complete ten programs over the next twelve months, earning her Advanced Certificate for Executives (ACE).
Transforming her company with takeaways from MIT
Throughout her MIT experience, Carmen has been most impressed with how incredible the faculty members are. “Here, in Ecuador, professors are unreachable. I have felt that way in other places, too. But at MIT, they are very accessible, and they care about you.”
In particular, the faculty of Visual Management for Competitive Advantage: MIT’s Approach to Efficient and Agile Work (formerly Implementing Improvement Strategies: Dynamic Work Design) made a significant impact on Carmen’s business. “My conversations with those faculty were unlike any experience I have ever had. As a result, I made changes in our textile processes and implemented Dynamic Work Design in five parts of our factory. Our production has jumped from 12,000 units to 15,000 units in the last year.”
In the past, Carmen’s business also struggled with some human capital challenges as a result of socio-economic factors specific to her country.
“It’s very costly to have textile employees,” explains Carmen. “Women typically have the necessary skills, but husbands discourage their wives from working once they are married. We found ourselves training women only to see them leave a couple of years later.”
Carmen’s solution was to start a work-from-home program. To qualify, women need to work at the factory for six months as part of a workshop training program to learn techniques and quality standards. Then the women are sent a machine to use at home, and they are able to pay it off within two months of work.
“Their productivity at home proved to be amazing,” says Carmen. “In fact, it doubled. The workshops were very productive, and more women wanted to be part of the project. It reached a point that I didn’t know how to manage demand. I didn’t have a plan to scale and control it. It was at this time that I attended Emilio Castilla’s program, Leading People At Work: Strategies for Talent Analytics. Let me just say I don’t even have words to describe my time with Emilio.” Through her class work in the program and conversations with Professor Castilla, Carmen was able to take control again and solve all her human capital challenges by applying Professor Castilla´s advice and strategies.
“Most of these women, 90 percent, haven’t even finished high school, and one of the main causes of poverty in my country is the fact that there is not access to education. Giving them the opportunity to work from home gives them an income and economic independence. Now they can pay for education and health insurance for their children, which is essential. Almost all the children of our employees are attending school. Four of my employees are even sending their children to college now. This was something that they couldn’t have imagined a couple of years ago. It has been life-changing for many women and their families.”
“Leading People at Work was really special,” Carmen adds. “Sometimes we, as managers, don’t ask the important questions, such as who are our employees, and how can we motivate them? This course helps you understand how to hire the right people, how to walk in their shoes, and how to make them happy and proud of everything they are doing so that they are not just waiting for the workday to end.”
Carmen connected this concept of engagement to her takeaways from another program, Systematic Innovation of Products, Processes, and Services. “Professor Ray Reagans reminded us that you love something when you create it and become part of it. It’s like when you assemble your Ikea furniture. You’re engaged with it, and that engagement makes you value it more. So how can you apply that to every single thing? How can you make your people feel ownership and a sense of belonging?”
“The programs at MIT have been impactful and invaluable. The information and skills I have gained are momentous. They have shifted my mindset for the better in both my personal and professional endeavors.”