Imagine you’re an ambitious 25-year-old business school grad in Spain. But it’s 2013 – and unemployment there is a scary 26 percent. Where do you take your entrepreneurial talents?
Communist Cuba. Seriously.
"I saw all the changes in the law there for the private sector," says Marta Elisa Deus, referring to the free-market reforms that Cuban leader Raúl Castro had in full – if halting – swing by then.
Deus and her family had left Cuba when she was 12. So, full of curiosity about her past, she crossed the pond again to find, ironically, opportunity on her birth island.
"I decided to open my own business," she says.
Not just any business. Deus started one of the first accounting and financial services firms for Cuba’s other half a million private companies. It’s called Deus Accounting Experts. Three years after its launch, her three employees make many times the $20 monthly salary most Cubans earn – and Deus is wearing the same power business suits she would have sported back in Spain.
“I’m very proud of our team," she says. "All of us we are women – yes! And we also want to help the young people find opportunities in Cuba.”
Deus’ pioneering moxie caught the eye of Florida International University in Miami. She’s one of 15 young Cuban entrepreneurs taking part in an FIU pilot project this summer called InCubando. (That’s a Spanish pun for business “incubating.”)
InCubando is the first college-based business education program in the U.S. expressly for Cuba’s fledgling business owners. It’s the brainchild of Roots of Hope – a Miami-based group that promotes outreach between Cubans and Cuban-Americans – and FIU’s Cuba Research Institute and College of Business.
“We are trying to learn from them how they have been doing business in Cuba in a planned economy," says Carlos Parra, an FIU marketing and information systems professor and an InCubando director.
“We’re trying to give them tools to do it differently in a way that’s applicable. We know that supply and demand doesn’t work in Cuba, so we’re trying to develop in what context what we have can apply to them.”
That can involve high-level, MBA-style theory like pro-active stakeholder engagement. (Managing your relationships with customers, employees, suppliers and regulators.) Or simpler things – such as teaching the Cuban fellows that in capitalist economies like the U.S. we usually don’t have to ration basic goods, a lesson they learn on their first visit here to Publix.
“One of them was very interested in getting a lot of boxes of plastic utensils," Parra recalls.
"So one of the organizers asked, ‘Why don’t you wait for the day before you’re heading home?' And he was like, ‘No no no, I’m worried that they’ll run out.’ So the organizer said, ‘No, we don’t run out of things here. We run out of money.’”
BILL GATES DREAMS
Still, Parra says, FIU profs are surprised at how much the Cuban entrepreneurs have learned about business by doing business in Cuba. They’re especially impressed by their sense of how to tailor products to customers’ needs.
A good example is a 33-year-old industrial engineer named Javier Puig, who recently started MCG Technologies in Havana. He’s developed software – called Open Opportunity – that he says gives companies new ways to integrate management systems.
"I think I have something very vanguard and innovative," says Puig.
As Puig explains his product, he makes another noteworthy observation: He’d like to be Cuba’s version of a software innovator like billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates.
“Some days Bill Gates sleeps and wakes up in the same office because he worked all night," Puig says. "For me it’s almost the same.”
Problem is, the Cuban government isn’t quite ready for a Cuban Bill Gates – which is why Puig is still waiting for a license to sell his software. So he’s taking advantage of InCubando to build his business savvy – and make business connections in Miami on this, his first trip ever outside Cuba.
“I am waiting for an angel investor for my business," he says, "maybe to go to the Latin America market.”
Deus feels the same way.
“Miami is a huge market for me because Cubans that live here can open their own business in Havana," she reasons. "Maybe they will need me.”
Executives from companies like PayPal and Western Union are coming to FIU to speak to the InCubando fellows. Which is why another required course they take is probably as important as business: