By Wes Wagner
At first, the sunlit logo of a thriving private business seemed ironic beside the shadowed poster of the communist president, Raul Castro.
Upon closer inspection, the juxtaposition made sense–the poster of Raul actually contained an endorsement of private business. In English, it read: “Cuba counts on cuentapropistas as the engine of future development. Their presence in the urban landscape is here to stay.”
What the poster didn’t say was that most Cuban entrepreneurs are not trained for the economic shift.
As our group from the Kelley School of Business learned more about ROX, a growing private jewelry business in Havana, we saw glimpses of Cuba’s future and the inspiring reality of Cuba’s easing economic policy: opportunities for private enterprises were abundant and countless bold Cubans like Rosana Vargas Rodriguez had already taken the jump into the private sector.
A Civil Engineer by schooling, Rosana Vargas started ROX after 14 years as a self-taught silversmith. Now, she is one of the most successful female entrepreneurs in Cuba, managing over 30 employees and jewelry artists, arranging displays of ROX jewelry in high-end Cuban hotels, and traveling abroad to show off her various silver collections.
Despite Rosana’s success, she continues struggling to operate the business in a country that has gone without substantial private business since the 1960s.
In fact, when we entered ROX’s house-turned-workshop, Rosana didn’t tell us a long history of the business and its successes. Less than a minute into explaining ROX’s story, Rosana turned the conversation on us, saying, “I want to hear from you! What I really need is ideas, suggestions, anything!”
As we pried deeper into the business’s issues, Rosana told us ROX’s biggest problems were marketing in the increasingly digital world, figuring out international shipping logistics, and pricing strategies considering the sky-high tariffs.
After talking with cuentapropista after cuentapropista, these weren’t unique problems. Paladar owners, tech startup founders, the owner of an event planning business, and private DJs told us they faced similar issues: getting to market, exporting to the USA, leveraging marketing technology, and operating internationally. Cubans’ creativity and hands-on business savviness help alleviate these problems, but it’s clear there’s a bottleneck–and it’s not Cuba’s policies on private business.
In a place with some of the most educated people in the world, one of the largest problems for businesses like ROX is the lack of formal business education.
The last 50 years as a state-planned economy didn’t necessitate formal education in accounting, marketing, finance, and operations. Now, the stagnant system is one of the most crucial factors hampering these businesses’ abilities to grow and thrive.
Luckily, as Cuba’s policy and US-Cuban relations improve, programs like Florida International Institute’s InCubando, Catholic Church of Cuba’s Emprende, and Startup Weekend Habana have risen to help educate and empower Cuban entrepreneurs to run businesses in a country slowly embracing capitalistic policies.
As Cuba continues to open its doors to capitalist practices, fostering strong business programs within the country will help sustain Cuba’s momentum joining the global economy. As formal business programs grow and business education becomes more widespread, a country would normally encounter another problem: the lack of people’s resilience and ingenuity.
Luckily, there’s no shortage of that in Cuba.