...from the desk of       Elly Valas
Issue: 08-04  Date: April, 2008

Elly Valas

Biz News You Can Use

Quote of the Month:

"How lovely to think that no one need wait a moment, we can start now, start slowly changing the world!"
- Anne Frank


The Entrepreneurial Spirit

A recent trip to Cuba has given me reason to re-think some of my own ideas about entrepreneurship.

The “nature vs. nurture” debate has long been used in discussions about innate qualities and personality traits. Is it the environment in which one is brought up or one’s genetic make-up that determines his IQ, language facility or any other personality characteristic?

We all live on a risk vs. reward continuum. I’ve had a number of discussions about whether or not the drive toward owning one’s own business is influenced by the environment. I find that in families with a long history of corporate or government jobs—those with a fair amount of security, good benefits and solid retirement plans—there is a great reluctance to assume much risk.

When talking about expansion or increased borrowing, my retail clients often tell me about the fears expressed to them by their spouses who may be teachers or whose parents were career government employees.

I recently spoke with a friend who was frustrated about the jobs his children had taken. He felt the positions—although secure--were far below the kids’ education and capabilities. He noted that perhaps his own career with a national not-for-profit didn’t foster an example of scrambling up the ladder to get ahead.

Which brings me back to Cuba.

Since the revolution, Cubans have had their basics covered by the government. They have free housing, education, and medical care. The nationally-issued ration card affords all citizens subsistence-level food staples. Since most businesses were nationalized, everyone earned nearly the same salary.

Yet despite an environment with few incentives, entrepreneurship, creativity and hustle are evident throughout the country. Socialism is giving way to a rapidly-growing middle class. More than half the population has access to foreign currency either from families abroad or from tips or tourism.

Street vendors hawking peanuts and souvenirs had well-honed sales pitches. For a fee, colorfully festooned young ladies would let you photograph them in front of some of the best sites in Old Havana. Others had lines of tourists taking pictures of them with their costumed dogs and cats.

Cuba has a thriving underground economy leading well-educated engineers to take jobs in hotels and restaurants, forgoing salaries for tips.

Some of the best food in Cuba is found in paladares—privately-owned restaurants that people run in their homes. Small and intimate, families work to bring local flavor to their customers. Walking up to the third floor La Guarida, I past laundry hanging to dry in what was once probably a large living room, a window into a boy’s bedroom and a number of building residents lounging on the wide marble stairway.

I was in Cuba the first week Raul Castro allowed his people to purchase DVD players, cell phones and a host of small appliances. The lines to get into the stores reminded me of the when we sold the first VCRs or big screens.

The first weekend Cubans were allowed to stay in tourist hotels, local families struggled to get their prune-looking children out of the swimming pools to go to dinner. The kids seemed to prefer room service and HBO to the hotel’s restaurants.

When it comes to entrepreneurship, I’m beginning to think that it’s something innate in all people. If people who have struggled to survive during nearly 60 years of communist rule instantly understand the advantages of tilling their own farms instead of those owned by the government, there must be some driving force within us that pushes us forward. Maybe it’s the independence that compels people to take the riskier path.

Since my father was an entrepreneur, I guess my own case doesn’t answer the nature or nurture question, but I seem to be deeply rooted in the risk, challenges and rewards that private enterprise affords me.

There have been times when I thought that a cushy government job with great benefits and a slew of vacation days might be enticing.

In the end, though, I’m glad I’m my own boss. I like forging my own course and creating my own success. Sure, the constant marketing gets tedious and I’ve invested time and energy into projects that never panned out. But like the Cubans are just beginning to learn, I love the challenge of the game and the thrill of victory.