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.
If Cuba ever opens up, we won’t just be talking rum, cigars and classic cars.
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!”