On Thursday, December 8, President of Engage Cuba, James Williams moderated a panel discussion with four Cuban entrepreneurs in Washington, D.C.The discussion focused on how U.S. regulatory changes have allowed Cuba's private sector to flourish, and how technology has facilitated the process of modernizing Cuba's economy. Joining the entrepreneurs on the panel was a policy expert from TechFreedom, a D.C.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting free and open internet.
Gathered in one of WeWork's communal workspaces in D.C., the entrepreneurs shared their stories about starting their own businesses and navigating Cuba’s regulatory framework. Following regulatory changes in Cuba that allowed for an expanded private sector, these four women seized the opportunity to jump into Cuba's nascent private sector in the accounting, event planning, and hospitality industries.
The entrepreneurs included Marta Deus, founder of the financial services firm Deus Expertos Contables, the courier service Mandao.express, and the business magazine Negolution; Marla Recio, founder of the event planning company Havana Reverie; Yamina Vicente, an event planner who founded Decorazon; and Julia de la Rosa, who owns her own bed and breakfast and taxi service.
While access to internet is still limited, the women spoke at length about how they have relied on Cuba's growing internet access to identify customers and clients, conduct market research, and ultimately expand their businesses. They attributed much of this progress to the thawed relationship between the U.S. and Cuba, since American companies face fewer obstacles in accessing the Cuban market. The women also discussed the major benefits of Cuba's internal network, El Paquete, a weekly package of digital internet content that is delivered across the island on a flash drive.
The women expressed difficulties of not being able to access Google services, an issue that has since been resolved following an agreement announced days after the panel discussion between Google and the Cuban government allowing Google to install multiple servers on the island.
Among the discussion's main takeaways was that Cuba’s many technological and economic barriers have forced the Cuban people to constantly innovate. Startups like AlaMesa, the Cuban equivalent of OpenTable, have all of their content downloadable to view offline. Similarly, Ke Hay Pa’ Hoy offers downloadable content about upcoming shows and cultural events. The Chinese app Zapya allows for offline file transfers between mobile phones, which facilitates the proliferation of popular apps and media. The entrepreneurs explained that Cubans businesspeople typically start their days by connecting to wifi and downloading all of their emails, messages, and other content from mobile apps to view when they return home. The women were optimistic about their ability to use the internet to their advantage and expand their businesses given the continuing progress in Cuba’s private sector.