By: Justin Solomon
With economic policies rapidly changing in Cuba, more and more local entrepreneurs are capitalizing on a unique opportunity, as CNBC's "The Profit" host Marcus Lemonis discovered first hand on a recent visit.
The number of self-employed Cubans continues to climb, from just shy of 150,000 to over 500,000 between 2010 and 2015, according to data compiled by Engage Cuba. The adult population of Cuba is 11 million, per the CIA World Factbook.
Here are five Cuban entrepreneurs, many of them professionals such as engineers and dentists, taking the plunge and starting their own new businesses.
Sandra & Tony Camacho Rodriguez
Siblings Sandra and Tony Camacho Rodriguez held stable jobs in Cuba: Sandra excelled in dentistry and Tony in mechanical engineering. But in 2013, reflection on their childhood memories of cooking with family rekindled their passion.
After finding success selling cookies and tarts out of their home, the Camacho Rodriguez duo founded Burner Brothers Bakery.
"The reason why I see an opportunity here is because it isn't easy," Tony Camacho Rodriguez said. "If it were easy … you know how many people would have opened a bakery?"
Now the bakery's kitchen staff is sprinkled with fellow defectors, like former lawyers who make more money baking than they did on government salaries. For Sandra, the move was a step up from the $50 per month she was making as a dentist.
Fernando Fumes Monzote
Even farming is offering renewed optimism, as former professor Fernando Funes Monzote quickly learned after he left the classroom he'd taught in for 20 years to take up a shovel.
Funes Monzote now runs "Finca Marta," an 18-acre patch of farmland that yields over 60 types of vegetables. And while he doesn't own the land himself, the Cuban government allows him access to produce organic produce which he and his staff deliver to Havana's top restaurants in a Soviet-made Lada car.
In an Old Havana tourist market, former hairdresser Sandra Aldama is brewing up business out of her kitchen.
She founded artisanal soap company D'Brujas after experimenting with her own homemade soaps and shampoos — something she learned from her grandmother who had worked in a cosmetics factory before the Revolution. By melting down and mixing government-sold ingredients, Aldama is able to produce 10 different types of soaps. Each sells at around $2.
In three years, sales have grown tenfold as D'Brujas has expanded to bring on six full-time employees, who all squeeze inside the make-shift kitchen soap factory.
"We are making something different; at least in our country," she said. "Step-by-step, we are growing and learning — we are standing up."
Kirenia Reguera is looking to make the most of her economics degree by growing her television and film costume design business.
By arranging wardrobe for Fast and the Furious 8, Reguera has already made a name for herself and the operation she runs out of a tiny back room in her home. There, she can perfect a traditional Cuban shirt in just over a day.
But as much as Reguera has enjoyed early success in Cuba, she often shares the same conflict facing other Cuban parents on the island.
"It was never one of my dreams to leave my country," she said. "I want my daughter to grow up where I did … [but] if I ever want a better future for her, I have to consider the possibility that she may go elsewhere … and that truly makes me sad because I love my country."
As Cuban travel restrictions ease, entrepreneurs are looking to capitalize on any tourism wave that could result — and Enrique Nuñez is a step ahead.
Abandoning his career as a telecommunications engineer, Nuñez sunk everything he and his wife had into opening a restaurant in Havana in 1996. The city was experiencing an influx of visitors thanks to the Oscar-nominated Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate, which was filmed there.
Much like entrepreneurs are doing now, Nuñez wanted to act fast after a window opened: After the Soviet Union fell, Cuba briefly let restaurants privatize. Now he and his wife are reaping the benefit of a 20-year head start. His restaurant is already a Havana staple, attracting the likes of Jay-Z and Beyonce, Will Smith and Jack Nicholson.
But that's still not good enough for Nuñez.
"One of my dreams is that I hope to have more Cubans in my restaurant," Nuñez said. "I hope that … our Cuban economy can grow and develop."
Justin Solomon | CNBC
Thursday, 17 Nov 2016 | 9:35 AM ET