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I co-hosted the Legacy of 1804 Blog talk online show last month, and David Pierre-Louis was my guest. He talked about his Port-au-Prince Startup Week initiative.
The topic was supposed to cover the ideas and planning that led to what many considered an innovative event for Haiti. In my quest to support the event, I reached out to Alice Backer, founder of Legacy of 1804, to collaborate with her and to work with David Pierre-Louis to tell his story.
The show went on longer than we anticipated, which confirmed my instinct that the Haitian community is ready to embrace alternatives to the aid regime and the non-profits’ agenda, which is crippling Haiti’s economy.
To provide a brief update, Haiti did make the global startup line-up. See below a tweet from David Pierre-Louis that he shared on the day of the event. He and his team did a fantastic job getting Haiti to be part of the startup conversation.
During the interview, one listener called and asked some pointed questions that gave me the idea to do this follow-up post for the “old fogies”: What is a startup, anyway? What is a startup ecosystem? And what can Haitians bring to the startup conversation?
Though Pierre-Louis did a fabulous job answering the questions, I wanted to follow up with a post to dive more deeply into the subject.
I hope by the end of this article that you will not only have a greater knowledge of what a startup is, but that you will also join the startup movement in Haiti and in the Diaspora.
Before we move on to explain what a startup is, I think it’s important to understand the gravity of viewing startups as economic and social development tools—as I see them—to combat the aid crisis in Haiti.
The first thing you need to understand is that few wealthy nations are interested in promoting wealth in Haiti. It threatens their own wealth. After all, no one wants to empower you to grow economically if your remaining poor keeps them wealthy.
I’ll give you an example. Canada has recently taken over Brazil’s role as leader of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti. The country has also made it abundantly clear that its aid to Haiti must benefit Canadian companies. What are they planning to take from a “poor” country as a benefit?
The second thing you need to realize is that you no longer need someone’s permission or need the “right” network to start a business. Paul Graham, who I will introduce later in this post, aptly stated, “The evolution of technology is one of the most powerful forces in history.”
Though a network is still important, if you are creating dynamic products or offering a service that’s helping to change the world, it’s only a matter of time before people start connecting with you.
Perhaps the most important thing to know about Haiti is that you need to see through the purpose of aid from the international community. Learning about startups and deciding to build businesses is the way to get Haiti out of the aid rout.
Nikolas Barry-Shaw summarizes best for us: “In retrospect … the bold ‘new vision’ so many well-intentioned individuals claim to have for Haiti looks more like a mirage. The ‘new’ approach is the same old ‘sweatshop model of development.’”
After you learn what a startup is, you should plan to participate in the startup conversation as a means to advance Haiti’s economy.
For those of you who are curious to learn about the difference between a business venture and a startup, there is a great article here by Candice Landau that you can read. But in a nutshell, according to Landau, the Small Business Administration defines the word this way:
‘Startup’ as an entity goes beyond a company just getting off the ground. The term startup is also associated with a business that is typically technology- oriented and has high growth potential. Startups have some unique struggles, especially in regard to financing. That’s because investors are looking for the highest potential return on investment, while balancing the associated risks.”
For the record, Haiti needs both the small business ventures and the startups. But this post will focus primarily on startups because of their potential to scale.
I’m of the mindset that if you want to create change, you need to study and emulate those who have found the method to effect change.
One of the people that I am thinking of in particular is Paul Graham, whom I mentioned earlier. Mr. Graham started Viaweb in the mid-1990s and later sold the company to Yahoo! Store.
Some believe that Viaweb was the first software as a service startup in Silicon Valley. According to Graham’s website, he is a programmer, writer, and venture capitalist. Something to note here, Graham became a venture capitalist after founding a successful business. He later co-founded Y Combinator as a seed capital firm.
He has invested in a number of successful companies. You might have heard of the file sharing company, Dropbox, or the digital platform Reddit, that some experts have called influential in President Obama’s first presidential campaign. Airbnb, the home rental company, and Stripe, the credit card payment system, thus Graham knows what he’s talking about.
Now that I’ve given you an introduction and have, I hope, motivated you to join the Haiti-startup movement, I want to answer the three questions I raised above:
What is a startup?
While different people have different ideas about what the term means, I like the way Graham has defined it: “A startup is a company designed to scale very quickly. It is this focus on growth unconstrained by geography, which differentiates startups from small businesses. A restaurant in one town is not a startup, nor is a franchise a startup.”
Other startup founders have identified startups based on the number of employees they have and their market value. For example, in Natalie Robehmed’s Forbes article,“What is a Startup?” one founder asserted, “If you are generating revenues below $20 million, have less than 80 employees, and remain resolutely in control of the company you started, you’re likely running a startup.”
If only Haiti could have that problem, where it has several startups producing $1-20 million dollars a year and averaging 80 employees per company! The country would acquire emerging market status in the Caribbean region.
What are you failing to see?
The Internet has created many opportunities that most people fail to see and capitalize on. There is, however, a small group of visionaries who make a habit of paying attention to the future and will continue to reap the benefits of looking to the horizon. These individuals have the ability to anticipate the changes shaping the future.
A new era has begun, providing economic options beyond a college degree and a traditional job. By default, at least in the U.S., the expectation is go to school, attend college, graduate and look for a job with a reputable firm.
The problem is, many of those “reputable firms” no longer exist. And the few that are replacing the old firms can’t guarantee you a permanent job.
Graham argues, “There is a secular trend going on, in which launching a startup is a more common thing to do. It used to be there were two things you could do after college: go to grad school or get a job. Soon … there will be three things: go to grad school, get a job or start your own company. … this will be one of these economic transformations on the scale of the industrial revolution.”
A group that’s tapping into this secular trend in Haiti to provide the tools for economic transformation is Groupe Echo Haiti. The organization has a HackFest initiative, which focuses on developing Haitian programmers while collaborating with the Haitian diaspora.
Haiti’s unique position
Few of the young Haitians in Haiti who have completed the equivalent of a college education in the United States (there are only a handful of graduate school in Haiti) have the option of working for prestigious firms such as General Electric, Morgan Stanley and Ogilvy. Startups should be an alternative to create opportunities for these young and motivated adults.
Graham keenly observed the evolution of work from when he was a young boy. He shared, “Your prestige was the prestige of the company you worked for. Part of the problem with starting your own company was that you wouldn’t have any prestige.”
“Now that people are starting more companies, he can easily imagine a world in which the number of successful startups is 10 or conceivably 100 times what is it now. There are tons of Brian Cheskys (CEO of Airbnb) and Drew Houstons (CEO of Dropbox),” reported Issie Lapowsky from an Inc Magazine interview with Graham.
This thought leads me to the next question.
What is a startup ecosystem?
A startup ecosystem is formed by people, startups in their various stages and various types of organization in a location (physical or virtual), interacting as a system to create new startup companies. These organizations can be further divided into categories such as universities, funding organizations, support organizations (like incubators, accelerators, co-working spaces etc.), research organizations, service provider organizations (like legal, financial services etc.) and large corporations. Different organizations typically focus on specific parts of the ecosystem function and startups at their specific development stage(s). Source.
For example, Pierre-Louis’s Port-au-Prince Startup Week initiative is the seed of an ecosystem. He and his team have worked to help Haiti be part of the global startup conversation.
The Techstars Program schedule below shows Haiti’s inclusion. And when Pierre-Louis opens the Port-Au-Prince Impact Hub co-working space in 2017, it will support Haiti’s startup movement.
What can Haitians bring to the startup conversation?
Contrary to common beliefs, you don’t have to come from wealth to build a startup or open a business venture. The Haitian business and startup founders that I have written about are not from wealthy families.
Graham acknowledges this, too. “Closely related to poverty is lack of social mobility. I’ve seen this myself: you don’t have to grow up rich or even upper middle class to get rich as a startup founder.”
Focus on developing Haiti’s economic independence
The opposite of poverty is economic independence, and one of my favorite quotes by Nelson Mandela is the following: “Poverty is not an accident. Like slavery and apartheid, it is man-made and can be removed by the actions of human beings.”
We are known as a revolutionary people. In fact, we’ve mastered the concept of revolution. What’s interesting is that some of the characteristics of revolutionaries are similar to those of startup founders.
By and large, we are known as resilient, determined, hard-working and driven people. Graham provided a great insight in his take on a startup founder’s character. He notes:
Most people who get rich tend to be fairly driven. Whatever their other flaws, laziness is usually not one of them. Suppose policies make it hard to make a fortune in finance. Does it seem plausible that the people who currently go into finance to make their fortunes will continue to do so but be content to work for ordinary salaries? The reason why they go into finance is not because they love finance but because they want to get rich. If the only way left to get rich is to start startups, they’ll start startups. They’ll do well at it, too, because determination is the main factor in the success of a startup.
So Haitians bring a lot to the startup conversation because of some of the characteristics that I mentioned above. In addition, we bring the language, the culture, the know-how of how Haitian society operates, and the annual $2 billion that we send home collectively to support our families.
Our problem is not being able to accelerate the conversation from aid to startups and business development. I think that’s a challenge partly because of our unwillingness to collaborate… or our lack of understanding of how to do so. Pierre-Louis also alluded to this during our interview.
He shared that as a community, when working with the “underserved population, we do not operate enough as a collective as we should.”
We need to be aware that as Haitians, no matter how successful we are as individuals, no one person has all the resources, skill sets and connections to move Haiti forward.
India, China and some African nations have all caught on in terms of how startups and business ventures can help their countries compete globally. Many parts of Africa already have startup ecosystems in the region.
For example, Kenya, Uganda and South Africa all have a startup focus. It will take time to see how it all evolves, but as these nations continue to build their startup and business infrastructure, they will minimize their reliance on aid organizations.
Haiti is changing and will not wait for you
There are a number of positive developments happening in Haiti in terms of Haitians starting their own businesses. I’ve been fortunate to write about a number of them here on my blog.
Haitians need to adopt the startup model so that in 10 to 20 years from now, we can say we were part of the startup revolution.
Here are some things you can do now:
- Learn more about the startup world. Paul Graham has a great website to get you started.
- You can connect with David Pierre-Louis.
- Learn how you can invest in a startup or the Port-Au-Prince Impact Hub.
- Partner with other like-minded Haitians and create a small startup funds for each of the 10 departments in Haiti to support the emerging businesses.
- Commit to a goal of investing in the people of Haiti to produce 100K coders. This will prepare Haiti’s future technology workforce.
- Mentor someone who has the ambition and the passion, but may not know the way.
I hope this article has given you some tools to take your knowledge of startups to the next level, or at the very least inspired you to start a business.
Your turn: Do you think startups have the potential to transform Haiti? If so, would you consider starting one? Let me know in the comments section.
About the author: Daniella Bien-Aime is the founder of the Bien-Aime Post, a digital media platform that focuses on business, leadership, education, and social media within the context of Haiti and its diaspora. Follow her on Twitter @dbienaime.