Cuba seaside

In January, the University of Colorado Denver Business School took 16 students on a study abroad trip to Cuba, a country experiencing a renewed wave of entrepreneurial spirit. Although Cuba remains a communist nation, Raul Castro’s transition to power has allowed the creation of state-approved private businesses, many of which are flourishing.

Leading the excursion was Barry McConnell, MS, MBA, a Business School instructor with expertise in information technology and consumer product marketing. The 10-day trip offered students insight into the nation’s developing economy as well as meetings with influential entrepreneurs. CU Denver students observed that, while many of Cuba’s business approaches are different from the United States, the island’s entrepreneurs share our passion for achieving success.

Here are five takeaways from McConnell and a few CU Denver students:

1. Business is not the same in Cuba as in the United States

Barry McConnell
Barry McConnell, MS, MBA

“Entrepreneurship is a foreign concept to the Cubans and is viewed as a necessary evil by the government,” McConnell said. The Cuban government has allowed for only 200 types of self-owned business. “It was so inspiring to see entrepreneurship in its purest form,” said Manuel Aguilar, an International Business student. “Here in the U.S., we often rely on our education to start a business. In Cuba, they rely more heavily on passion and drive.”

Cuba lacks any formal business schools. The University of Havana views business as a function of economics, and unlike CU Denver, it does not offer courses in entrepreneurship.

Despite the challenges, many Cubans are eager to become entrepreneurs. CU Denver students met with app developers and owners of restaurants and bed-and-breakfasts. The students noticed in the entrepreneurs a shared willingness to learn – through trial-and-error and hands-on experience – new ways to succeed.

2. Doing more with less

Since 1962, the United States has maintained an economic embargo against Cuba. At first, the Soviet Union worked with Cuba to provide necessary resources and keep its economy functioning. However, since the Soviet bloc’s fall about 25 years ago, Cuba’s economic prospects have been extremely limited. Basic business needs such as computers, refrigerators, desks and office space are often impossible to obtain.

Melissa Andrade, a student in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, said, “Cubans are very limited in resources, which has led them to embrace their talents and creativity to succeed. Being limited doesn’t mean failure; it’s about achieving things where they hardly exist.”

Added McConnell, “I think it’s valuable for entrepreneurship students to see entrepreneurs do more with less.” Even in conditions of immense hardship, small businesses are booming in Cuba without significant start-up budgets. “It’s a good reminder and good business for any company – from Apple to new entrepreneurs – to never stop the quest to make the most of your available resources,” McConnell said.

3. ‘See opportunity where others don’t’

CU Denver students often look toward technology as the next business frontier. Filling a niche need via an always-connected smartphone’s 5-inch screen has become the entrepreneurial ideal.

McConnell said students should look up from their gadgets and see the inspiration for great businesses can come from anywhere. “You don’t need to be an innovator; you just need to see opportunity where others don’t,” he said.

Entrepreneurs also can work around technological challenges. For example, because Cuba’s internet is limited to government-run hotspots, app developers have to be creative. “Because of the embargo, Cubans have to pirate outdated versions of the app development tools that we rely on in the states. Cubans would love to pay for the tools, but they have no other option if they want to keep up with pace of of technology,” said Alexi Huppenthal, an Information Systems major at the CU Denver Business School.

Apps in Cuba do exist, but not in the way we use them, as they’re designed to work without a consistent internet connection. McConnell introduced students to the developers of Alamesa, an app that stores restaurant information on smartphones and updates when it can connect to the internet. The app could be thought of as OpenTable, but with a Cuban twist.

Classic cars on dirt road in Cuba
Classic cars are a common sight in Cuba.

4. Opportunities abound for CU Denver students in Cuba

The trip had its inconveniences for the students because, as Americans, most of us are dependent on technology.

Finding access to bottled water, currency exchanges, the internet, and maps was the hardest part of the study abroad. “We (Americans) want to explore old-world Cuba with all the modern conveniences we’re accustomed to,” McConnell said. He suggested that the students create an app that stores Cuban maps and useful information for tourists. “I could see this being sold by airlines midflight on the way to Cuba.”

Looking Ahead

The Business School is already working with the Office of Global Education to head back to Cuba in early 2018. The upcoming 10-day trip will spend four days in Havana and then travel by bus to Santiago, all the while meeting with entrepreneurs, educators and other Cubans. For more information, contact Barry McConnell via email at [email protected].

5. A good first trip, but there’s more to learn

CU Denver’s Business School will take students back to Cuba next semester, with a focus on experiencing the nation outside of Havana. “On future trips, students, in addition to meeting with entrepreneurs and listening to economists, need more time to understand the breadth of Cuban culture and history,” McConnell said. “If you’re ever going to take entrepreneurship past the tourism industry and provide services to the Cuban people, you’re going to have to understand Cubans better, and that’s the piece I don’t think we got enough of.”

Guest Contributor:  Brian Young traveled with the CU Denver Business School to Cuba

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