What do you call a ‘non-entrepreneur? Cuba’s best hackers
Posted Sep 16, 2016 by Elizabeth Gore (@ElizabethGore)
CRUNCH NETWORK CONTRIBUTOR
Elizabeth Gore is entrepreneur in residence at Dell and Advocate at the
United Nations Foundation.
What do you call a highly innovative person who builds a product out of
nothing and launches something that will change people’s lives?
Everywhere besides Cuba, you’d call this person an entrepreneur.
You would never expect in the land of communism, censorship and classic
cars that you would find a hotbed of entrepreneurship. Technically, it
doesn’t exist. But in my eyes, entrepreneurship is thriving in Cuba.
Indeed, I’ve seen some of the world’s best innovators in Havana who
could win any hackathon.
I recently had the opportunity to travel on behalf of Dell to Cuba to
exchange ideas and learn from our friends that are a mere 90 miles from
Florida. From recent visits by everyone from the president of the United
States to the Rolling Stones and Elon Musk, Cuba has garnered some
serious attention of late. While I was excited to hear the best music on
the planet, as an entrepreneur I did not have high expectations for my
“educational” trip to Cuba because of the lack of support for capitalism.
Upon arrival, I was immediately told that while the Cuban government
does not officially recognize entrepreneurs, they do allow individuals
to register as “cuentapropistas,” a category for the self-employed.
There are 201 registrations available that allow someone to run a
non-state organization, from private restaurants to hardware repair to
even being a private clown. I very much dislike clowns, so this
registration we could do without.
Each cuentapropista, or as I would like to say, “non-entrepreneur
entrepreneurs,” can only have a limited number of employees and make a
capped “profit.” This is clearly problematic. We come from the land of
scale and high growth. Additionally challenging is the fact that there
is little to no access to the internet. If you do get internet access,
it can be slow and limited.
So how could there be a hotbed of entrepreneurship in Cuba? I have
always thought that we should define people as entrepreneurs, not their
actual businesses. On my trip, we spent day and night visiting young,
innovative people who were creating the Cuban versions of Amazon, Etsy
and Yelp. According to the World Policy Journal, the number of
cuentapropistas rose from 150,000 to 500,000 between 2010 and 2015, and
some estimates put the number now at 600,000.
No internet? Let’s get around it… If there is a hotspot within 50 miles,
you will see a hundred people standing underneath to get even basic
connections. Facebook is king. I went in to the artist Kcho’s tech
studio. He has one of the few Wi-Fi hot spots in Havana — not to mention
extraordinary art –and every single person was on Facebook either for
learning or social contact. These entrepreneurs (I have to start calling
them what they deserve to be called) use these moments of connection to
download every shred of information they need before going back to their
homes (because there are no offices that do not belong to the
government, most of these people work from their homes).
My favorite system for information sharing was “el paquete semanal,” or
“the weekly package.” This is an incredibly sophisticated system of
delivering weekly memory sticks that can have up to terabytes of
information. They host TV shows, news and, most importantly, products,
offerings and services for entrepreneurs. These are not legal or
officially counted, but it is said that 2 million of these could be
floating around at any given time. They cost around 2 dollars a week for
a subscription and are delivered with new information weekly.
Many of us think of Cuba as the land of classic cars with drivers
smoking hand-rolled cigars. However, like the cars, they have technology
that can be up to 10 years old. In the U.S., the average person gets a
new laptop every 4.5 years. Or, as soon as something breaks, we toss it
and get a new one. I walked into repair shops that had personal
computers, servers and laptops that are older than my 2010 Ford Truck.
These innovators are the Alexander Graham Bells or Thomas Edisons of our
generation. They fix, or even more accurately, invent, every day with
any part they can get their hands on.
I once walked into an entrepreneur’s “office” in his living room. He has
a registration for a “computer business.” He had seven people who had
each created their own registration, so they didn’t exceed the limit on
number of employees allowed. They had four different brands of used
computers, all of which they got off a “boat” from Italy, and boasted
they could fix any glitch within the systems. They were creating a DIY
platform to sell Cuban crafts and art locally through paquetes, with
hopes to someday sell outside of the country. If you got your memory
stick, you would see their “online store,” with new products they would
hand deliver to your door — à la Amazon.
I would put this type of entrepreneurial mind-set up against any
entrepreneurs in the world. Even with the limited access to technology,
these innovative minds can hack their way into any solution. Their
education system has significant coding classes, with more women taking
them than men. If Cuba ever opens up, we won’t just be talking rum,
cigars and classic cars. We will be greeting the next generation of
innovators and “non-entrepreneurs!”
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