The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

May 19, 2012

Seeking innovation at home by learning from abroad

Posted by Susan Amat

Miamians Susan Amat, Brian Breslin and Davide Di Cillo are spending 10 days traveling in Latin America as part of “Geeks on a Plane,” a tour for start-ups and entrepreneurs to learn about global technology markets. Knight Foundation funded the trio’s trip, as part of an effort to foster a greater culture of innovation and entrepreneurship in Miami. Here Amat, co-founder of the University of Miami’s center for entrepeneurship The Launch Pad, writes about the experience.

For the past week, Brian Breslin, Davide Di Cillo and I have been traveling with 30+ other tech entrepreneurs and investors to Mexico City, Sao Paolo, and Buenos Aires to learn about the local start-up scenes and companies. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity to deep dive into markets with strong similarities and shocking differences from our own in Miami. The experience is enhanced with insights from our fellow passengers, most of them Silicon Valley veterans who represent 15 other countries. To share this with Brian and Davide has had an even greater impact, as we reflect on each discussion through the lens as leaders in our South Florida community. 

I grew up in Miami, and when I returned for graduate school, my dissertation research took me around the country discovering best practices for creating a culture of innovation. Conducting scores of interviews, themes appeared that shed new light on ways to increase innovation in both start-ups and large corporations. Perhaps more importantly, those adjustments also increased job satisfaction, intrinsic motivation and loyalty.

The key was mentoring. When done well, the interaction proved transformative for the employee and often was the catalyst for true innovation and a level of allegiance not otherwise seen. When done poorly, it was cited as the reason for changing employers or careers. 

Within weeks of completing my research, I co-founded a program at the University of Miami called The Launch Pad. Experimentation with the mentoring methodology in both Miami and in our Blackstone LaunchPad schools in Detroit has led to dozens of new companies and strong job growth in new and existing Launch Pad companies. The entrepreneurs have thrived within this University-based community composed of students and alumni and their hand-selected and vetted mentors.

My fellow travelers Brian and Davide are entrepreneurs in Miami who are deeply involved in the tech scene. Brian, also a Miami native, has been involved for over six years through Refresh Miami and countless events - all the while simultaneously building his own business, Infinimedia, Inc. Davide founded 39inc and has been involved in fostering the local tech scene for four years through Refresh Miami and numerous mobile related efforts. 

As both community leaders and start-up founders, it was important to us to use this trip to learn how these disparate communities throughout Latin America have managed to thrive despite the adversities presented to them. The claim is that these communities in Mexico City, Sao Paulo, and Buenos Aires have simultaneously built up the startup, hacker, and investor communities - no easy feat.

It is our hope that we can eventually turn Miami into a beacon of light for Latin American entrepreneurship. Together with the community's support, we can make Miami the hub for startups and be the envy off the America's. Miami is the gateway to the Americas after all.

As we set out on this trip, here’s what we see are the assets and liabilities of Miami’s start-up scene:

Assets: While we have our individual opinions, we all agree that Miami has a great infrastructure – both physical and virtual – and important access to Latin America. Davide also sees the low cost of running a business as a plus. I’d also add that the University of Miami brings in top students from all over the world - who would stay if we gave them a reason to. New blood is very important.

Of course Miami has its cons too: it’s difficult to access smart capital (Davide), we’re often overlooked by venture money going straight to Latin America (Brian). I’d add that we have a limited pool of local tech talent, especially with scaling experience, and have few role models.

Spending time with Brian and Davide has been especially important as we envision what South Florida could be in five, 10 or 20 years and the roles we may each play in realizing that dream. We look forward to sharing our insights with you, as we continue to write on KnightBlog about this trip. We hope you will join us in creating a community that attracts, develops and retains the best talent and supports and celebrates our entrepreneurs. 



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