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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