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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The power of behavioral science for emerging economies: MIT explores Cuba and Trinidad & Tobago — Renée Richardson Gosline

MIT Sloan Prof. Renée Richardson Gosline

MIT Sloan Prof. Renée Richardson Gosline

From The Huffington Post

Both social scientists and policy makers have long puzzled over a basic question: Why do humans so often refuse to act in their own best interests? This ranges from behavior as simple as snacking on chips when we all know fruit is healthier to spending money on extravagant luxuries when we should be saving for retirement.

The answer is that our choices are shaped by both non-conscious processes and the social influences that shape our behavior. “Behavioral science” seeks to unpack these influences and can discover ways to encourage good economic decisions, healthy lifestyles and other beneficial habits. So I, as a behavioral scientist, was heartened to see the Obama administration issue an executive order in September 2015 calling for incorporating behavioral insights into federal policies and programs.

Behavioral science is kind of “cool” right now (cool, for academia anyway). There has been a great deal of mainstream attention paid to behavioral science recently, notably in books like Freakonomics and Predictably- Irrational to columns like New York Magazine’s The Science of Us, and television shows like National Geographic’s “Brain Games,” and various Ted Talks. There’s also increased attention on how behavioral science can move beyond the laboratory, with its interesting, quirky cool studies, to really be used as a tool to help shape behavior and policy. Thus, Obama’s creation of a behavioral science team within the White House could really give a boost to cross pollination between academics and policymakers that could result in public policy that would encourage healthier, more fulfilling lives. This could range from encouraging people to enroll in thrift plans, pay fines that hang over their heads, eat low-fat diets, or get out to vote.

Unfortunately, there has been a chasm between the kinds of tools that we use in academia and the policies needed in the real world. Most people outside of academia do not read the arcane articles in academic journals. But we have some great and interesting ideas percolating in campus “laboratories” that we need to share with budget-strapped policymakers dealing with real-world issues.

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Running a rescue: Thad Allen on the BP oil spill, Haiti earthquake, the next big disaster — and how MIT Sloan helped him lead

Admiral Thad Allen, MIT Sloan Fellow '89

Thad Allen, MIT Sloan Fellow ’89 and the former National Incident Commander for the unified response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, will speak at the MIT Sloan Alumni Weekend, May 13-15, 2011, which is part of Building the Future, a school-wide event that includes the dedication of MIT Sloan’s new building and the Joan and William A. Porter 1967 Center for Management Education.

During his return to campus, Admiral Allen discussed his remarkable career in a wide-ranging interview:

Q: How do you look back on the year you spent at MIT Sloan?

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