This blog post was written by Cam Houser, 3 Day Startup’s Founder
Entrepreneurship in the Caribbean is not without its struggles: slow inter-island transport, dangers from residing in hurricane alley, and a shortage of risk capital pose challenges to startups and the greater business environment.
But after spending a week in Curaçao at the Road to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit, I’m convinced that the islands–and specifically Curaçao–are a region worth watching.
I was invited by the U.S. Department of State to keynote the summit, deliver a handful of workshops to high school and adult entrepreneurs, and advise key stakeholders on ecosystem development strategies and global best practices.
For those unfamiliar with Curaçao, the island is a former Dutch colony of 300,000 people, located 428 miles north of Venezuela. The population is well-educated, fluent in four languages (Papamiento, English, Dutch, and Spanish), and industrious. The largest industries are oil and tourism, both. of which are cyclical and subject to uncertainty, especially given Venezuela’s recent turmoil. As tourism remains stagnant and the global economy shifts away from oil, Curaçao faces a unique opportunity to look towards entrepreneurship to provide the economic boost, adaptability, and innovation needed to carry the country forward toward a bright future.
Day 1: Launching Youth Entrepreneurship
On a bright Thursday morning, Willem, my colleague from the U.S. Department of State, drove me to two local high schools: Radulphus College and the International School of Curaçao. There, I met up with local entrepreneurs I already knew.
Some quick backstory: the opportunity to speak at this summit stemmed from 3 Day Startup’s work building hybrid programming for the Young Leaders of the Americas (YLAI) program with the U.S. Department of State and Meridian International Center. The YLAI project focused on supporting Latin American and Caribbean scale-ups to grow their businesses to global markets and forge fruitful connections between international ecosystems. As such, I had already made strong bonds with 2018 YLAI Fellows Roush Alexander (Humans of Willemstad) and Reyeanne Goilo (Fortress Interactive). By the time we brought in YLAI alums Flavina Wanga (Crab Social), Sulin Passial (Pantalla Chica), and Ulvrin Sprott (Severus) from earlier editions of the YLAI Fellowship, we had exactly what we needed to drive impact: an impressive mix of expertise, local success stories, and a seasoned international educator.
At both institutions, we delivered experiential learning activities alongside stories from YLAI alumni about their entrepreneurial journey. In true 3 Day Startup-style, we downplayed lectures in favor of high energy activities and story-telling.
At Radulphus, 70 students packed into a tiny room, hanging on every word. Like most high school students across the world, entrepreneurship was a relatively new and unfamiliar concept. But they jumped at the opportunity to identify problems, brainstorm business ideas, and learn from local mentors.
Day 2: Celebrating Your Local Entrepreneurs
My keynote addressed the challenges I faced founding 3 Day Startup and how its growth trajectory provided a priceless lesson in how entrepreneurship ecosystems evolve and change. The past ten years provided so many first-hand experiences about how cultural factors influence starting a business, how the future of business is connected across global communities, and how the secret to growing as an entrepreneur and an ecosystem supporter is to treat it as a marathon and not a sprint.
Perhaps most importantly, the talk covered the extreme differences between entrepreneurship ecosystems and how there is no “one size fits all” approach. I’ve spent hours speaking with government employees and ecosystem supporters seeking to copy Silicon Valley. However, imitating Silicon Valley is a flawed strategy because that particular part of the world capitalized on its singular advantage: early stage capital, top-tier research university infrastructure, and a longstanding history of semiconductor industry that established a base to attract the best and brightest talent.
Maintaining a degree of focus on your region’s strength–a strategy that 3DS calls the Adjacency Principle–increases a region’s odds of success and shortens the barrier to local success. The faster a region can generate a local success story, the faster the awareness spreads that your community is one where successful entrepreneurship can happen. The technical term for this is “role modeling.” We often refer to it as “people be who they see.”
Day 3: Mentorship, Ecosystem Development, and Judging the “Present Your Startup” Competition
I spent most of the third day working directly with entrepreneurs to dig deeper into the challenges of doing business in the region, gaps in the ecosystem, and how Curaçao compares to similar locales. Entrepreneurs at the Summit were organized across two different tracks: entrepreneurs participating in a pitch competition (“Present Your Startup”) and those participating in a hackathon.
Both groups possessed tremendous energy and a desire to pursue entrepreneurship on a bigger level. Their concerns were unsurprising: concerns tied to corruption and a low capital base were at the top of the list. A challenge that stood out to me was the frustration these entrepreneurs expressed in not having access to tools such as Venmo and Stripe that make accepting payments and moving funds so simple in the U.S.. This serves as a key reminder: entrepreneurial mindsets and perspectives are crucial, but must be complemented by financial infrastructure that allows the wheel of business to turn.
Closing Thoughts: Gradually, Then Suddenly
In the earliest stages of ecosystem development, everything happens too slowly. Ecosystem players work hard to move things forward. It takes forever and the misfires and barriers seem never-ending: poorly attended events, promising startups lose steam, key international partners fail to see the region’s potential and invest in it.
A smart approach to developing an ecosystem involves lots of experiments to see what works in your community. After enough experiments, things start to click into place. Those wins build on themselves, and eventually, the success stories start rolling in.
Curaçao still has a long way to go, but momentum is moving in the right direction, and the energy is building. I’m excited about the talent the YLAI program fostered, as well as the YLAI alumni themselves for stepping up as local role models. As an ecosystem supporter who works in entrepreneurial communities around the world, I am hopeful for the future of the Curaçao ecosystem, and look forward to supporting entrepreneurs there for years to come.
Special thanks to the YLAI Fellows and the people in and around the ecosystem moving Curaçao forward: Roush Alexander, Reyeanne Goilo, Ulvrin Sprott, Valerie Vallenduuk, Willem Remie, Chesron Isidora, Willem, Ergun Erkocu, Rector Francis de Lanoy, Prime Minister Eugene Rhuggenaath, Margaret, Aaron Steers-Smith, Margaret Hawthorne, Ambassador Peter Hoekstra, Oz Eleonora, Elgenia Pieternella.