Participants of the first Cuba Entrepreneurial Exchange meet with representatives and fellows of Venture Hive in Miami. Photo by Tomas Bilbao.
Tomas Bilbao is executive director of the nonprofit Cuba Study Group. Knight Foundation supports the group’s Cuba Entrepreneurial Exchange Program, which connects entrepreneurs in Cuba and Miami.
On a sunny day this past summer, two entrepreneurs met in South Beach to talk about artisanal soaps. They exchanged stories about how they became interested in the soap-making business and discussed their favorite places to buy supplies and how to develop their favorite scents. What makes this seemingly routine meeting between entrepreneurs different is that Ricardo is a Cuban-American with an established soap-making business in Miami and Sandra is one of Cuba’s half a million nascent entrepreneurs and sells her soap out of a storefront in Old Havana. Sandra and four other female Cuban entrepreneurs were in Miami for a weeklong exchange program that paired them with Miami-based entrepreneurs, featured them at conferences with Cuban-American economists and academics and introduced them to non-governmental organizations focusing on entrepreneurship and innovation. The August 2014 trip was part of the Cuba Study Group’s Cuba Entrepreneurial Exchange program, which pairs Cuban entrepreneurs with their counterparts in Miami to build skills, reduce barriers and educate the public about the realities of private entrepreneurship in Cuba, highlighting both challenges and opportunities.
The exchange program comes at a time when Cuba’s economic reforms have led to the rapid growth of entrepreneurs throughout the island. While Cuban regulations only permit 201 different categories of self-employment and place many barriers on their operation, Cubans on the island are demonstrating the resilience that has characterized their counterparts in Miami. Now, thanks to greater openness on both sides of the Florida Straits, entrepreneurs in Cuba and Miami are connecting in new ways.
In 2015, thanks to the support of Knight Foundation, the Cuba Study Group will host two more Entrepreneurial Exchanges: a Makers Exchange in the spring and a Culinary Exchange in the summer. Both will pair Cuba-based entrepreneurs with their Miami counterparts for a week of meetings and conferences.
Participants in the Markers Exchange will highlight the creativity and resilience of Cuban entrepreneurs who are producing goods that tourists or average Cubans demand. They will help shine a light on a part of Cuba’s new private economy not dominated by the service sector. Meanwhile, the Culinary Exchange will bring the head of some of Cuba’s top paladares, privately owned restaurants, to cook meals and share techniques with some of Miami’s most creative chefs.
Miami has a long tradition of entrepreneurship, of hardworking individuals overcoming great obstacles to build value, create jobs and spur innovation. This tradition has helped transform the city and make it a beacon of opportunity for people from around the world. The Cuba Entrepreneurial Exchange capitalizes on this success to connect Cuba’s nascent entrepreneurs with their Miami counterparts in ways that empower them to help transform their communities in the same positive way. There is much these entrepreneurs can learn from each other and the Cuba Study Group is pleased to play a role in facilitating that exchange.