On Wednesday, July 8, the 15 Cuban entrepreneurs, who arrived to the United States from Cuba in early June, concluded their six-week stay at the Modesto Maidique Campus after having participated in [email protected], a program established to boost independent business and innovation in Cuba.
The program officially began on Monday, May 30.
“[email protected] is part of a broader, longer-term FIU plan to re-engage academically with Cuba. The university’s leading administrators have made it clear that FIU will play an active role in the development of teaching, research, and other educational activities on the island,” said Jorge Duany, director of the Cuban Research Institute.
This particular program was intended to strengthen the capacity of young Cuban entrepreneurs to run and expand their independent businesses on the island.
The program participants spent their time living in student dorms while attending a variety of classes during the morning including accounting, marketing and business plan writing, taught in Spanish by FIU instructors.
During the afternoon, the Cuban entrepreneurs took intensive English courses provided by FIU’s English Language Institute.
They also had the opportunity to visit and interact with local entrepreneurs, some of whom served as mentors to members of the group.
The participants were able to experience Miami life as they met and engaged with representatives from various international companies including American Airlines, Western Union and Perry Ellis International.
“In addition to being exposed to concepts in micro and macroeconomics, free markets, leadership, management and team building, the participants gained on-hand experience with how many businesses operate in the United States,” said Duany.
[email protected], the first program of its kind in the U.S., was a result of the private-public partnership between both FIU and a nonprofit organization known as “Raices de Esperanza” or “Roots of Hope” in English.
In turn, Roots of Hope initiated Startup Cuba for the program, which is an international network of students and young professionals working to empower youth in Cuba.
FIU, as the public and higher education partner, delivered the academic, housing, and meal components at no cost. All non-academic expenses of the program were covered by private gifts channeled through Roots of Hope.
“[email protected] served as a summer training program with the purpose of it being to provide Cuban entrepreneurs with basic training since there are no private enterprises on the island and, as a result, [they] have no proper training on how to run a business and do what they do based on instincts,” said Sebastian Arcos, assistant director of the Cuban Research Institute.
The entrepreneurs represented a vast array of the micro-enterprises that have sprouted in Cuba the last few years in apparel manufacturing, hospitality, media, fashion design and financial services.
Their businesses further exemplified this variety and the increasing opportunities available to entrepreneurs on the island: an online cultural magazine, a workshop that produces printed t-shirts and recycled bags, a tourist-oriented transportation network, an accounting office, a fly fishing school, a business that grows and sells ornamental plants, as well as an office that refills ink cartridges for computer printers.
The application process to participate in [email protected] began on Dec. 1, 2015, when the Cuban Research Institute activated a website and various digital and print media with the FIU College of Business calling for applications.
The students were then chosen from a pool of more than 100 applicants from all over the island by two committees, one composed of two representatives of the Cuban Research Institute and the other composed of three representatives from the nonprofit organization, Roots of Hope.
The representatives were then in charge of evaluating and selecting 24 applicants.
Criteria for selection required the applicants to be between the ages of 18 and 40, have completed at least a high school education, and licensed as self-employed workers.
From the initial 24 selected however, nine were not able to receive a visitor’s visa from the consular section of the U.S. Embassy in Havana.
Nonetheless, many have considered the program a great success.
Arcos said, “The participants were able to learn things that are important for what they do in Cuba, for their businesses. They were able to advance their knowledge of English significantly; they were able to see how business is done here in Miami, not only in the United States business environment but also in the Cuban-American business, which is similar to what they experience in Cuba.”
“We would like to increase the number of students, as there is a significant interest among Cuban entrepreneurs to participate based on the number of applications received and based on the number of inquires we have gotten since we launched the program last year. Thus, we would love for this program to repeat next year,” said Arcos.
He hopes that the program can be expanded to include more specific industries.
As of now, one of the largest industries in Cuba is tourism and since FIU has one of the best hospitality schools in the nation, Arcos suggests creating two cohorts, one dedicated to restaurants and the other dedicated to taking classes similar to the ones provided this year.
Overall, Duany was strongly impressed by the breadth of the participants’ personal backgrounds and entrepreneurial experiences, as well by the difficult conditions under which they operated their businesses.
“Once the participants arrived in Miami, I confirmed my initial impression that individually and collectively, they displayed an extraordinary entrepreneurial spirit and had been able to overcome intractable obstacles to develop their businesses. I do hope they will contribute substantially to Cuba’s economic development and the improvement of the living conditions of ordinary Cuban citizens,” said Duany.
Ceylin Arias, FIUSM
August 6, 2016