(Marta Deus & Jauretsi of The New Cuba at Media Noche, San Francisco)
“This past week was truly phenomenal” gushed Kyle Maloney, the young businessman and founder of ChefMade), a startup that is trying to bring healthy economical meals delivered into homes of Barbados, his hometown. Kyle was invited to Techcrunch Disrupt by Project Binario, a San Francisco based company whose mission is to provide opportunities for thought leaders. “Being in San Francisco is very inspiring” explains Kyle. “Around every corner you get the opportunity to meet some very interesting people that are very passionate about their view of the world and the opportunity to do something that will be globally impactful”. He grins with the knowledge he can be the next Blue Apron of the Caribbean, “I dont think you get that feeling in high concentration anywhere else in the world”.
(Invitees: Veronica from Barbados, and Marta Deus from Cuba)
It’s easy to see how young hungry tech minds get hooked into the city. Kyle’s “life-changing” week (I’m using his words, not mine), was part of a larger vision conceived by Eddy Perez, a Cuban-American with a burning belief that Caribbean tech talent is being overlooked by Silicon Valley. Thus the birth of the “Caribbean Pavilion”, a sort of greatest hits sampling of the most promising startups in that region assembled by his team at Project Binario. The mission? Identify talent, and invite them to participate in the worlds largest startup conference, Techcrunch Disrupt. This includes a trip to San Francisco, a trade show booth on the coveted floor, mentor conversations, meeting high-impact investors, pitch opportunities, and networking events. Below are the 5 startups chosen for this journey.
Arriving one night early, Cuban entrepreneur Marta Deus and I decide to slip into town before the convoy begins. To get warmed up, we get scooped up by Susanna Kohly, Google’s Multicultural Marketing maven, who was one of the figures responsible for Google Cuba, with visionary Brett Perlmutter. Words cannot describe the massive undertaking with installing Google nodes on Cuban soil this year, providing faster internet on all Google platforms for Cubans. This was an achievement of historical proportions between Cuba/US relations. As a celebration of our arrival, we toasted in the Mission District at Media Noche, a Cuban-inspired cafe (where else would you expect us to toast our arrival?). Susannah shared the story of her immigrant family leaving Cuba, with the will and determination to do great things in their new country, the United States. Half a century later, it’s poetic to be gathered with this young blood, still determined, pushing boundaries, and fostering innovation on the island. Marta shared her take on Cuba’s business culture today, and all the “cuentapropistas” she lends a hand to with her business Deus Expertos Contables. Marta is a fascinating figure because of her perspective on entrepreneurship in Cuba. The landscape is too broad and complex to summarize into one statement here, but for those interested, you can begin to scratch the surface through her magazine Negolution , the sum of “Negocio” (meaning “business”) and “Evolution”. I have my own exile story, full of restaurant history with Centro Vasco, and now a newfound attachment to the island through the lens or arts & culture via The New Cuba. It’s been a long road for us all. As we ramped up on this girls night, we waxed poetic for hours on the state of Cuba today, what we had hoped for, and where we dreamed it could be. Although all of our backgrounds varied, with a variety of upbringing, distinct hometowns, we still held on strongly to our roots over a scrumptious tropical cocktail, and toasted to the beginning of a fruitful week.
(3 Cuban-Americans: Google’s Susannah Kohly, Mano’s Ric Herrero, Binario’s Eddy Perez)
The following day, was officially Day 1, when all the startups trickled into the city, and met each other for the first time. Eddy dutifully papa-beared the entire week starting now. Kyle of Chefmade joined 4 other startups who were invited to partake in the same perks of the week. There was Khalil Bryan and Veronica with their startup Caribbean Transit Solutions, paving the way to make Barbados public transportation easier to use. Second startup was Alfonso Ali, founder of the Cuban app called AlaMesa which has become a must-use application for both locals and foreigners on the island. Alfonso understood a few years ago that the most dire need in the Cuban market are “offline apps”, due to the disconnected nature of Cuban society, constantly chasing Wifi. The idea of having all the best Cuban restaurants, phone numbers, addresses, menus, and photos in the palm of your hand offline was a coup for the young entrepreneur. Alfonso is also active in Cuba’s programming community, having helped to launch Havana’s Linux group and he continues to be an advocate for open source technologies.
The next startup were women from the Dominican Republic named Katherine Motyka with Luci of Jompéame, an innovative crowdfunding platform aimed at social causes. Forbes selected Jompéame as one of the most promising businesses in her country. The charismatic Gordon Swaby attended with his startup, Edufocal, an innovative exam prep and testing platform, with thousands of users in his native Jamaica. BBC named Edufocal a “Digital Disruptor”, while the World Bank and IDB have already acknowledged the humble startup. Marta Deus joined the crew as a cherry on top, not as a tech startup, but more to represent in the field of Cuba’s young entrepreneurs with her magazine, which is akin to the Fast Company of Cuba. Marta is also responsible for bringing dreams to life with her firm Deus Expertos Contables, which handles accounting and advisor work in the nascent field of Cuba’s private sector. Google’s Susannah Kohly refers to Marta as “Bossbabe”, which I can easily concur describes the young business lady in Cuba today.
Upon arriving into San Francisco, Eddy and Caribbean Pavilion co-founder Meghan Stevenson assembled their invitees into a hip loft to self-introduce themselves, pitch their business to peers, and receive feedback and questions. I’d say by the second evening, the group began to let their hair down after a smartly held “Happy Hour” event at a place called Cigar Bar — cue the Cuban band & Binario cocktails specials, and now you have a tight crew. Added to the party were old friends that flew into town to join the “magical mystery tour” as Eddy described it. This included Ric Herrero, of Mano Organization, another urban support system who we wrote about last year for their support in Cuba Tech with 10X10K competition (which we covered last year). Add Jesse M. of the Latino Startup Alliance who would later invite us to visit the Impact Hub. Add a few boxes of Cuban cigars freshly flown in from the island (thank you, Obama, for lifting those restrictions), and voila, now we have a Caribbean souffle pumped for the week.
(Rodolfo Davalos, AlaMesa’s Alfonso Ali. Marta Deus, Binario’s Meghan Stevenson,Jauretsi)
In addition to the three trade show days of “meet and greets” and pitch meetings, one of the cornerstones of the trip was the mentoring sessions led by a spectacular new person I’ve recently met named Jesse Sullivan. What can I say about Jesse? He is a ray of light and somebody born to execute an enormous vision. CNN named him “Most Intriguing Person of the Day” for his earthquake relief efforts with the Haitian Ambassador. But Jesse keeps moving, to places that need entrepreneurship the most and he doesn’t pick easy places. Think Afghanistan, Myanmar, and Haiti. Note: Alter is eyeballing Cuba now. Thank the Lord. Because we need it. His social venture aims to scale the champions of these countries to build their businesses efficiently. How do they do this? Alter finds leaders in these least developed regions and matches them with Silicon Valley resources, including sector experts, management training, talent recruitment, markets and capital. He’s almost like a business fairy knocking on your door, armed with the most seasoned advisors and investors from Silicon Valley. Jesse was accompanied by his colleague, Orlando Zambrano, who both opened up their hearts and rolodex to curate a robust day of mentor talks.
Among the meetings was a visit to Endeavor, an entrepreneurial organization who has Edgar Bronfman Jr as a partner. We met with Managing Director, Allen Taylor, who schooled us on how one focused company can transform the economy of a nation with a “mentor-investment-pay-it-forward” philosophy. For the disbelievers, he had a map to prove it.
(Endeavor’s Allen Taylor. Caribbean Pavilion crew at Facebook)
Enter the map. Picture, if you will, the “Endeavor Multiplier Effect”, a sample of one of Buenos Aires’ Tech Sector, one of their work cities. At first the map looks like a calming geometrical post-modern piece of art, filled with circles encircling other circles. Big bubbles giving birth to baby bubbles. Upon closer inspection, you discover that each time an entrepreneur is cited as an influencer, their bubble grows. Endeavor builds a culture that encourages and accelerates this pattern. The key to their success is a dedicated group of entrepreneurs who, beyond scaling their business, is committed to supporting the next generation of entrepreneurs.
Here is the general thesis of the map. From 2000 to 2010, Argentina experienced severe economic challenges, including the devaluation of its currency and double digit inflation. The tech sector in Bueno Aires, however, grew significantly to become one of the largest and most successful in Latin America. Hundreds of new companies launched in the city and Google opened its 3rd International headquarters office there. Several exits occurred too such as Digital Ventures sold to Fox, and MercadoLibre.com went public on the NASDAQ.
What the network map illustrates is that more than 90% of the companies connected to this network were founded by Endeavor Entrepreneurs or were influenced by their companies. Each of the bubbles had colored arrows pointing to other bubbles. The colored arrows represented how they influenced the other bubble, for example “mentorship”, “inspiration”, “former employee starting another venture”, and “investment”. The lesson learned here is that all these organized actions created companies that eventually employed 80,000 people (by 2010). Now picture them doing this in Instanbul, Cairo, Medellin, and Denver. This Endeavor model is leading the “high-impact” entrepreneurship movement around the world. Clearly, Endeavor is all about big bubbles.
(Startups: Gordon from Jamaica, Kyle from Barbados, Veronica from Barbados)
“I’ve learned so much this morning”, articulated an intrigued Gordon after the visit. “I’ve got insight into the future of innovation from companies in Silicon Valley and what they are working on”, said the Caribbean dreamer. “I’m going back to Jamaica to inspire my team to work on being better and doing better”.
Minds blown and tummy’s rumbling, we headed to Facebook campus for a personal tour, and then a feast. One of the perks of a cushy Silicon Valley job is the abundant lunch rooms, flowing endlessly with salad bars, international cuisine, and baked cookies. Back in the headspace for more, our crew headed to meet Scott Brady, one of the areas resident visionaries. One of Palo Alto’s heavyweights, Scott has served as CEO, Chairman, and Advisory Member to big league ventures. Suffice it to day, that Google’s Eric Schmidt looks to Scott Brady when picking top talent to invest in. Scott is also the Chairman of the MSx Advisory Board of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business and a Member of the Advisory Council of Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business. Did we mention he holds numerous technology patents? Scott Brady is king.
A pragmatist with a nose for wit and passion, we’re graced with his presence for a solid hour. “Being tenacious is necessary” says Brady, “but not sufficient” to building a great business. As a Professor at Stanford with a class “Formation of New Ventures”, Brady shares a wealth of concrete tips, and healthy discourse about risks, failure, examples, the how and why. Once he makes his point, he opens the field to abstract thinking. Dream big, he tells our team.
We hear this term always, but how does that translate into actual business practices? Brady explained it this way. There is local way to solve problems and there is a global way to solve problems. Just jump in the game. “There is no clear path to find an idea, or fund an idea”. If you have no idea what the hell you want to do, just begin your journey and start incubating your big idea. Think of solutions to global problems, take lots of chances, create experiments, learn from them, and refine your process. According to Scott, the fabled “struck-by-lightning” phenomenon is a fantasy. “Finding a great idea is a process, not an event”. His message: Do not let the lack of an idea prevent you from being an entrepreneur. Scott also spoke about one of my favorite topics – Intuition, and the importance of it. Do NOT be paralyzed by your lack of what you DON’T know. Some of the best founders had no idea what their final product would be at the start.
(Alter’s Jessie Sullivan leads the group in discussion at Endeavor)
Other standout comments of Brady was his advice to be VERY careful when picking founding partners. I’ve always been surprised at how quickly some people jump into [business] bed with each other, sometimes upon meeting one weekend. But if you look at their marriages, think how long they dated their spouse before saying “I Do”. For business formation, marrying the wrong person could make or break you, so choose your founding partners wisely.
And the final golden nugget he offered. Always develop the skills of great storytelling. “This can advance you in moments of funding, recruiting, and selling”. If you want to move mountains with your words, sharpen your ability to tell a good story. I think we can all see this through orators like Steve Jobs or Richard Branson.
Brady was so captivating and magnetic in his talk that the whole team left on a cerebral high. It’s one of those experiences where one witnesses the force of words, encouragement, mixed with hard-boiled instructions. One can only imagine the hundreds of thousands of ventures Brady has doula’d over the years.
(Alter’s Orlando Zambrano with Project Binario founder Eddy Perez)
After 1 fruitful day of meetings, it’s clear the startups have all been bit by the Silicon bug. Dominican Founder Katherine echoes the sentiment “I have learned that my business [Jompeame] can be global and not local. I want to come home and I want to work hard to see if I can actually come here [to San Francisco] and expand and create something bigger than what I am creating now”. Her partner Lucy responded, “I literally had one of the best times of my life”.
As an experienced New Yorker joining a few small-business entities from Havana and surrounding islands, I will admit that all the meetings arranged by Eddy Perez and his colleagues were mind-expanding. By the end of the trip, I asked Marta what she had gained these past few days. The response was too many things, but she assured, “I am sure inspiration and wisdom will reach the readers one way or another”. Marta continues, “the truth is I didn’t expect anything more than coverage for Negolution” she estimates, “but I didn’t expect to learn so much about innovation and about all the companies that are coming out now, the apps, the websites”. Marta, who is frequently quoted in international papers for her views on Cuba’s youth market, absorbed additional technique from watching pitch meetings. “So absolutely yes”, she laughs, “it was very productive and I felt very inspired”.
As we jump in the vehicle after the last meeting, I see Kyle quiet in the back seat, brewing in his head. He takes a deep breathe and sighs, “Mahn” he reveals in his Barbadian accent, “the projects [Brady’s] working on, or helping to catalyze through venture capital, are things that I can only dream of being a part of or investing in. Things that are really changing the landscape of how we as human beings interact, or how we access things, or how we are able to be more productive”. Kyle’s bar for problem-solving has just been set higher than before this week began. “He embodies so much of what I want to become”, he says of Brady. “That definitely was major light bulb moment.”
Overall, mission accomplished. Tenfold. The Caribbean Pavilion marks the first official activity by newcomers Project Binario. Each of the 5 startups and the supporting teams are all heading back home a bit transformed for the better, thanks to the work of Eddy and Megan, sparking a deeper impact for world solutions. And an extra shout to all the Cuban-American minds merging with Cuban talent today, all part of this interlacing beautiful network I like to call “the new Cuba”. Keep heads up.
Thank you: Jacob Van Winkle for the Design/Logo for Caribbean Pavilion (another cool Cuban-American in support of “la causa”. Special Thanks to Project Binario, Caribbeans in Tech, Latino Startup Alliance and TechBeach for empowering entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean.