Cuba and entrepreneurship: An MIT MBA’s reflections — Alanna Hughes

MIT Sloan MBA Student Alanna Hughes

MIT Sloan MBA Student Alanna Hughes

Soñar no cuesta nada. Dreaming doesn’t cost anything.

As I conclude a study trip to Cuba, I am reminded of this expression that a Dominican colleague frequently used. Whenever I would “think big” – first as a Peace Corps Volunteer, and later as a social enterprise director in the Dominican Republic and Haiti – my friend Hector Romero had the ability to both encourage my idealism and remind me of the challenging reality with this simple phrase.

As someone who came to business school directly from entrepreneurship work in other parts of the Caribbean, I want to dream for Cuba. I want to hope that it is on the brink of something groundbreaking for all those in the island nation with an entrepreneurial bent. However, after having studied it more in-depth, and after having spent time in Havana, my optimism is tainted by some of the skepticism I’d perceive in Romero’s voice years ago. While Cubans as a society should dream big, the prospect of larger-scale innovation driven entrepreneurship, still feels like…well, a dream.

If Cuba truly wishes to become more entrepreneurial, it will need more than its bright minds’ aspirations. It will need to financially invest and politically change – both of which undoubtedly generate significant costs.

Like many dreams, increasing entrepreneurship in Cuba is grounded in some reality. When conducting behavioral science research to prepare for our time in Havana, I stumbled upon several examples of Cuban “hacks” to provide solutions to problems resulting from scarcity, isolation, and censorship. One common example is the paquete semanal – a collection of illegal classifieds, music, and TV series, among others – that is distributed on Cuba’s black market as a substitute for broadband internet. Other examples include metal meal trays repurposed as antennas and chargers built from non-rechargeable hearing aid batteries.

Beyond grassroots creative capacity, Cuba also possesses a highly educated populace that includes thousands of trained STEM graduates well suited to contribute to high tech businesses. Only about 200 miles separate Havana’s inventive and technical minds from Miami’s growing start-up scene and its gateway into other American innovation hubs. From a talent perspective, Cuba appears to hold a lot of untapped potential.

But will this human capital really be so easy to engage? Although our flight from MIA to HAV only lasted 45 minutes, it was clear as soon as we stepped out of Havana’s small airport onto its antique car trafficked streets that we had landed a world away. In spite of the hype we had heard in the American press about Cuba’s ability to “open up,” a lot of the gates currently remain under lock and key.  So few Cubans have regular access to the internet; they have only been allowed to own personal computers and cell phones since 2008, and wifi is only available in a handful of CyberPoints and hotel lobbies – at $5 per hour through pre-purchased cards.

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$1 million to create a more inclusive, productive, and sustainable future for all — Devin Cook

Devin Cook, Executive Producer of the MIT Inclusive Innovation Competition

Devin Cook, Executive Producer of the MIT Inclusive Innovation Competition

From Forbes

Two years ago, in their groundbreaking book The Second Machine Age, Professor Erik Brynjolfsson, Director, and Andrew McAfee, Co-director, of the MIT Initiative on the Digital Economy, described digital technology’s transformative effect on business, the economy, and society.  With productivity, wealth, and profits at historic highs, digital innovation has created unprecedented bounty for a great number of people. However, not all people have shared equally in this prosperity. In economic terms, overall GDP is growing but median incomes since 1999 have actually fallen. While technology has created greater wealth for society and for innovators at an unprecedented pace, changes in our economy are actually leaving many people — especially middle- and base-level earners — worse off.

This is the great economic paradox of our time, yet at the Initiative on the Digital Economy, we know this disparity will not define our future. Rather we are technology optimists, and we believe that the future of work can be better for all. However, we cannot ensure that people will enjoy prosperous working lives, if we just stand by and watch these trends unfold. Thus to celebrate, support, and inspire solutions to this challenge, the MIT IDE launched the Inclusive Innovation Competition (IIC). We will award a total of $1 million in prizes to the world’s most inventive organizations that are enabling more people to fully experience the prosperity of the Second Machine Age.

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The best training for entrepreneurship? Hint: She doesn’t sleep through the night — Trond Undheim

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Trond Undheim

MIT Sloan Sr. Lecturer Trond Undheim

From WBUR Cognoscenti

My best ideas come to me between the hours of 2 and 4 a.m. This is not by design — in fact, I wish it weren’t the case — but, as an entrepreneur, I roll with it. My third child is a terrible sleeper. In her two years, she hasn’t slept through the night once. When she wakes up in the wee hours, and it’s my turn to comfort her, sometimes I can’t fall back asleep. I tiptoe out of the room, flip on my iPad, and work on my new startup.

It’s counterintuitive, but of all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my life — including starting a business incubator, stints in government and at big corporations, and teaching in MBA programs — perhaps the thing that’s prepared me most for entrepreneurship is parenting.

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How a big company can run fast, like a startup — Elaine Chen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Elaine Chen

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Elaine Chen

From Xconomy

What does the word “startup” mean to you?

Many words can come to mind: new, exciting, experimental, small, lean, agile, fast. To me, “startup” mostly makes me think of “agile” and “fast.”

In an early stage startup, everybody is focused on the same thing. People are passionate, enthusiastic, hungry for an opportunity to change the world, and they will do whatever it takes to get things done. At a headcount of 5-10 people, coordination comes naturally. There are no legacy processes to slow things down. Without existing customers, the team is free to modify their products and services as they learn more. There is also a shared sense of urgency. So they run fast: because it’s fun, because they can, and because they have to.

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Your startup should try a switchback strategy — Matt Marx

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Matt Marx

MIT Sloan Asst. Prof. Matt Marx

From Xconomy

When it comes to startup strategies, many entrepreneurs assume there is one optimal path. They may need to experiment or “pivot” initially among alternatives, but once they fix on an ideal strategy they simply need to execute. For example, a startup attempting to commercialize a new technology faces the strategic choice of whether to “go it alone” or cooperate with existing companies. Entrepreneurs are often taught to settle on a single strategy rather than trying to do too many things at once, but for some new ventures it may be advantageous to adopt multiple strategies—sequentially.

A new way to look at strategy involves the concept of a “switchback.” Think of a hill that is too steep to directly climb. An alternative is to proceed diagonally up the grade, eventually reversing direction, similar to mountain trains like the Darjeeling Express. It may seem like a slower path—and may even involve some backtracking—but in the end the climber reaches the top rather than getting stuck when trying to go directly.

This approach can work for entrepreneurs too. If the climb to their ideal commercialization strategy is too steep, they may build a “strategic switchback” in that they initially pursue a different strategy—which would be suboptimal in the long run—but which enables later switching back to their ideal strategy.

This is different from the popular notion of “pivoting,” where the entrepreneur iterates through a series of experiments to find potential approaches to the market. While pivoting involves trying multiple approaches in a trial-and-error fashion, switchbacks depend on the success of the initial strategy—not failure. It’s only when that initial strategy works that the startup is able to switch to its originally preferred strategy.

Read the full post at Xconomy.

Matthew Marx is the Mitsui Career Development Professorand an Associate Professor of Technological Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Strategic Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management.