No matter where they’re from, tech entrepreneurs share an enthusiasm for creating something new, and a passion for answering an unmet need. They struggle with similar challenges in securing funding and hiring talented employees to execute and successfully market their ideas.
But when the startup is based in Cuba, Peru or Guyana — a country on the Caribbean with a population of 735,000 — it faces hurdles that entrepreneurs in booming tech hubs such as Seattle or Silicon Valley would find hard to imagine. In these countries, large segments of the population lack Internet access, smartphones or even credit cards. They’re anxious about technology and fearful of online fraud.
“Everything works completely differently,” said Claudia de Heredia, co-founder of a Mexican e-commerce site called Kichink, which has helped more than 55,000 small- and medium-sized businesses in the country sell their products online. “You have to get really creative and look around and see how can you offer alternative solutions to things people take for granted [in America].”
To help Kichink and other foreign startups in the Western hemisphere meet these challenges and grow their businesses, the U.S. Department of State is sponsoring the first-ever Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative.
The program brought seven Latin American entrepreneurs to Seattle where they’re spending two weeks meeting with area tech companies and working with two local business incubators and accelerators: CoMotion Incubator at the University of Washington, and 9Mile Labs. An additional 17 participants went to Denver, Miami and Charlotte, N.C. The program wraps up this weekend with a three-day visit to Washington, D.C.
“This program really represents a more innovative and responsive international exchange program. It’s not just a typical study abroad or professional exchange,” said Rachel Paris-Lambert, senior program officer with Seattle’s World Affairs Council, a nonprofit that is helping coordinate the visit.
In the fall, the program is expanding and 250 entrepreneurs, and leaders will be visiting the U.S. from Latin American countries. The effort is modeled on the Mandela Washington Fellowship, which is part of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative.
In a meeting this week at the CoMotion Incubator, the seven visitors said they were excited to be learning from successful enterprises in Seattle. They’re getting the chance to network and make important business and personal connections. And they’re sharing their own inventive workarounds with each other.
Eric Dijkhuis of Paraguay recounted his attempts to use Indiegogo’s Generosity site for a crowdfunding campaign. He was trying to raise money for Po Paraguay, a nonprofit he founded that uses a 3D printer to create prosthetic arms and hands in customized colors.
“It’s a trustworthy site,” he said of Generosity, but people in Paraguay aren’t accustomed to entering their credit card information online.
His solution? “We made a video on how to donate,” said Dijkhuis. “That was a way we started making people trust it.”
Videos play an important role in numerous aspects of the startups. For many of the entrepreneurs, they’re an important educational resource as they’re building their sites and technology.
Dijkhuis credits the “University of YouTube” for teaching himself and other members of Po Paraguay important tech skills. He also said the Instructables website, The CAD Academy and a prosthetic group he belongs to in Google Plus has supplied key information.
While the visitors lamented the need to provide basic tech education to many people in their communities, they also relished the potential that their startups hold because their countries aren’t so saturated with tech ventures.
“I wouldn’t say it’s always bad,” said Pedro Branco of Brazil, to be further behind in technology. “We have lot of opportunities that we wouldn’t have here [in America], and the competition is different.”
Branco is the commercial and partnerships leader for Hand Talk, a startup that created an app for the hearing impaired that turns Portuguese into animated depictions of sign language. Hand Talk has been downloaded more than 1 million times in Brazil, he said.
Other participants in the State Department program include Claudia Paredes Plasencia, CEO of Mi Escaparate, a Cuban e-commerce business that sells second-hand clothing; César Tzián, co-founder and CEO of WOWProjects, a group in Guatemala developing online marketing strategies for organizations working towards social good; and Pedro Crisostomo, founder and CEO of Pide Nomás, a Peruvian company that provides a web platform for shops to receive orders for delivery.
Triston Thompson is a partner and information systems architect at IntellectStorm, a company in Guyana that provides a wide range of internet services, including website development and social media marketing.
He’s also working on a product called Directory GY, which he describes as “a full-service directory for all things Guyanese” — the Google of Guyana — that will allow users to search for tourist sites, cultural events, movie times, news and weather forecasts, though in his Caribbean country “the weather is pretty much the same all year round,” Thompson joked.
He and the other entrepreneurs say they are excited that their work could be used to promote their countries and Latin America more broadly. They see technology as a tool to provide important services within their own communities, and grow their economies both through tech-related jobs and by supporting other businesses.
Mexico’s de Heredia recounted a story about two young women in her country who were sewing and selling handmade shoes. The business was close to going bankrupt when they began offering their shoes through Kichink. The women quickly sold 300 pairs of shoes, grew their staff and saved their enterprise.
“It’s huge for us,” said de Heredia. “Instead of going bankrupt, they gave jobs to 30 women who have children. For us, that’s awesome.”