Innovation Under Pressure

Small business owners in Cuba face significant challenges to innovation and growth... but that's what makes them so successful. José Rojas Avila highlights how innovation facing pressure and lack can be a springboard rather than a stumbling block.

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Cuba Travel

I got my start as a small business owner in Cuba – a country where small businesses were not even legally permitted until a few years ago. My dad used to pick mandarin oranges out of a tree and sit me by the bus stop in front of our apartment to sell them after school while I was growing up. It was my first taste of entrepreneurship, and it taught me to constantly be on the lookout for opportunity.

If there is anywhere where the cards are stacked against small businesses, it has been in Cuba. Though they’ve blossomed in the last few years, and brought a wealth of new opportunities and experiences to the island, being a small business owner is still a great challenge. It’s about spinning something out of nothing, or even less than nothing.

It is hustle, pure and simple.

One of the largest small business booms in Cuba has been the home or apartment short-term rental business. Many Cubans have taken their properties, especially those in desirable locations for tourists, and transformed them into beautiful rental properties. Some continue to live there when renters have not booked a stay; some just rent a spare bedroom in the property. Either way, they capitalize on their own homes as a way to earn income often far beyond what they could earn from working a typical job – average wages in Cuba can range from $15-45 a month, while a rental apartment might make that amount or more for a single night’s booking.

This represents a major mindset shift for Cubans – just a few years ago, the government did not even recognize homes as private property. People that needed to move would advertise to trade their homes with other families to find a more convenient location, or more or less space. Now as a few intrepid entrepreneurs started making accounts on Airbnb, the business has boomed and has provided wealth for families and entire communities. I always recommend staying in a short-term rental in Cuba, and preach about the benefits it has for communities – it is an amazing testament to innovation, and you’ll meet the best people.   

That mindset shift – viewing something as a resource or an asset to be leveraged for the first time – has had tremendous positive consequences. More mindset shifts are happening, too, that are transforming small business in Cuba. Cuba now has its first YouTubers, launching channels sharing about life on the island and earning big bucks for their honest portrayals of Cuba on the inside. Cubans have begun looking at time, perspective, voice, and creative talents as new assets previously unleveraged, and are employing them in incredible ways.

In Cuba and elsewhere, we’re facing unprecedented and challenging times; small business owners are forced to look for ways to pivot knowing it is the time to sink or swim. The challenges facing small business owners as we walk through this pandemic remind me of my own experience, starting with less than nothing and spinning it into some amazing opportunities.

The challenges are great, but I’m reminded of how often the hardest challenges have birthed the greatest, most life-changing opportunities. I’ve experienced that in my own life, and the success of small businesses in Cuba is the story of overcoming the insurmountable.

Sometimes when we have nothing at all, our eyes are opened to opportunities we never would have seen otherwise. My dad’s mandarin orange tree is the perfect example – in better times we were content to eat bags of oranges ourselves, but when other doors were slammed shut, it was time to take a second look and discover an untapped resource at our fingertips.

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