Turning Business Students Into ‘Business Adventurers’


The village is called Baan Tawai and has a group of woodworking artisans who make a type of wood sculpture unique to the area that has been passed from generation to generation.

“It has helped define the culture,” says Allred. “And it is very characteristic to that region of the world. But in the last 15 years, the craft has really struggled. It has struggled to the point where the master artisans are having to go other places to find work because there is no market for it in the region. They have to take on other responsibilities to provide for their families. And as they die, their children are not picking up the art like they used to because there is no profit incentive.”

An artisanal wood sculptor in Baan Tawai, Thailand

An artisanal wood sculptor in Baan Tawai, Thailand

The wheels in Allred’s brain and heart started churning.

“Information about business is everywhere,” Allred says. “What are we really providing our students? I have a fundamental desire to get students engaged in experiential learning. I want to get students involved. And if we are going to be involved, why not make it meaningful? Short-term projects may have some meaning, but the most meaningful contributions have a life in themselves.”


Allred decided to commit himself and his students to the artisans in Baan Tawai. The next summer, in 2014, he led a team of undergraduate and MBA students to Baan Tawai to learn about the art and culture and conduct market research.

“We wanted to study the environment and what has changed over the past 15 years and help preserve the culture through economic rejuvenation,” Allred says. “What we have found over the past couple decades from organizations like the Peace Corps is when you go in and do something like build a well or something, when they leave it falls into disrepair. What they often fail to do is understand and teach the skills to keep it going.”

So Allred and a team of 15 students spent six weeks dedicating themselves entirely to understanding everything possible about the community before doing anything.

“We wanted to go in underneath and work closely with the village,” Allred explains. “We wanted to understand what is happening and then build the infrastructure around that culture. We looked at customers, channels, competition, collaborators, and context.”


One of the biggest issues is the declining number of artisans. About a decade ago there were 80 master artisans and now there are 30. The Krannert team narrowed the cause down to a few trends. First, tourists have forgotten the village. “People have forgotten it or see it as a manufacturing area instead of an iconic, artistic gem.” Allred explains.

The bigger issue, according to Allred, is that the artists have been exploited in a number of ways. “First, there were a few galleries and collectors selling the items but they would remove the names of the artisans,” says Allred. “The original pieces weren’t identifiable because they weren’t signed or authenticated. Others would then copy the pieces and the original was no longer greater than the copies.”

Another problem is this practice removes the artist and stories from the art, and thus the brand. “When you look at something like Mona Lisa or Monet’s Water Lilies, they are special because we know the artist and the stories behind the pieces and how they started movements,” Allred explains. “None of this has been gathered. They haven’t been able to tell the stories of the artisans and the art.”