Below the Radar

Professor Tonia Warnecke ’99 receives a Fulbright grant to research economic and global development.

Tonia Warnecke '99 conducts a course titled Economics for International Business. (Photo by Scott Cook) Tonia Warnecke '99 conducts a course titled Economics for International Business. (Photo by Scott Cook)

“I’m always interested in the invisible side of things—the hidden side of things that make economies work.”

Tonia Warnecke ’99, assistant professor of international business, is sitting in her office in between meetings with students—it is, after all, the week before exams—explaining in rapid-fire detail the basic principles of informal economies in developing countries: What we know and what we don’t know; what this means for millions upon millions of people; and especially what this means for women, who end up working long hours in terrible conditions and struggle to get by, outside the umbrella of regulations and minimum wages and taxes and labor law protections, often at the mercy of their employers because they have no other choice. Most are not well educated. Because of cultural norms, they face restrictions on what they can do with their lives.

Warnecke, who was recently granted tenure, has been poking around the world of these below-the-radar economic activities since her dissertation at Notre Dame. This fall, she’ll get a chance to fully immerse herself in the subject at McGill University in Montreal, where she’ll hold the Fulbright Visiting Research Chair in International Development Studies.

“I always wanted to be a Fulbright Scholar at some point in my career,” she says. “I assumed that I would be somewhat older.”

Last summer, she received an email from someone at the Council for the International Exchange of Scholars: “Have you thought about applying for this Fulbright in Canada?” the missive asked. That email came out of the blue, she says, but it piqued her interest.

And so Warnecke began exploring: What did the grant entail? What was this school all about? What would this position actually mean? As it turns out, it was a perfect match. McGill had something called the Institute for the Study of International Development, a relatively new, interdisciplinary institute focused on development and living standards, civil society, and state-building—all of which aligned neatly with her work.

“I’m not a traditional economist,” she says. “I have always brought multiple disciplines together in my own research and teaching.”

Warnecke decided to go for it. The first step was a lengthy project statement, outlining the research she wanted to conduct and detailing how it would benefit McGill, Rollins, and the field in general. Five pages, single-spaced.

Her project will look something like this: Warnecke’s work has, in recent years, looked at female entrepreneurship in Asia, specifically the burgeoning markets of China and India. She is focused more specifically on so-called “necessity-based entrepreneurs,” women who do what they have to do to survive, but who tend to fall through the cracks of aid schemes and exist in the shadows. These are, for example, street vendors selling fruit in Shanghai.

The broader business literature, meanwhile, has a lot to say about entrepreneurship, but not so much on this kind of informal-sector entrepreneurship. Warnecke’s goal, then, is to bridge that divide. This is particularly important, she says, because these women tend to fall through the cracks of entrepreneurship programs, which often support wealthier, better-educated women.

While there are also programs supporting the very poor (e.g. microfinance programs), “there are not many programs that are trying to create a ladder between the two groups,” she says. She wants to figure out how government programs can better support upward mobility.

After the semester is over, she plans to write a book.

“Another thing I am hoping to get out of the experience is the ability to foster a greater network of colleagues with complementary interests,” Warnecke says. “I am excited about supporting the Institute for the Study of International Development.  I would also like to bring back knowledge that I can incorporate into the classroom, since I teach courses about global development as well as globalization and gender.”