Crushing it in Cuba
Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has. ~Margaret Mead
The Innovadores Foundation just completed the most amazing year of progress, thanks in no small part to that small team, and the support of donors like you who believed it could be done.
ReBirth of our Foundation
A year ago, our 501c3 was still named KFAC, a charitable hold-over from our many years crossing Long Island Sound to benefit our community and environment. Part of that journey led us to support young entrepreneurs who won internships at Grand Central Tech; we have placed more than two dozen kids in that enviable spot in the past two years. But when we began to make our inroads in Cuba, it seemed right to rebrand the Foundation Innovadores to more closely align our name with our new mission. And with that, we cast off KFAC.
Part of what made that transition work was the Start Up Choate program. We momentarily changed the name of KFAC to CAA to reflect our assistance of Choate entrepreneurs, but that got sticky once we arrived in Havana– they don’t like things that rhyme with CIA apparently. Nonetheless, the interns that were chosen to participate were all in on their commitment to the project. They served not only their assigned companies, but hosted four Cuban interns for the summer in perhaps the best diplomatic experiment of the year. All I can say about the kids was they used stunning problem solving and communication skills and somehow received, hosted and got home the interns when defection would have spelled disaster for us all.
Innovadores has succeeded because of it’s amazing partners, first and foremost John Caulfield. John was former head of Special Interests (the weird title comes from the fact the US had no Embassy in Havana the last 50 years). We first met at an Family Office Association conference where he was a speaker, and I asked in the Q&A, “if Cuba can export artists, jazz musicians, plastic surgeons and baseball players, why not tech geniuses?”. In short, he dared me to do so, and I dared do it. Kind, fair, deliberate, well informed and realistic, John delivers a priest-like zen to the sometimes unpredictable proceedings in Havana. That doors open and crowds part would be both an overstatement and an understatement, because John demands nothing, but people- all types of people- are kind and accommodating to him. Needless to say, we benefit from his glow, and his is well earned.
One introduction that he made was to Frances Colon at the State Department and Vaughn Turekian at AAAS (and now over at State. Through their introductions, and the timely translation help from Marga Soler, my first trip afforded me introductions at the highest levels in Havana, and made the Innovadores Intern selection event a smash hit. The fact that current Ambassador DeLaurentus was there was an honor to our young initiative as well.
But all these kids had expectation of going to some mythic tech hub in New York City, so we had to deliver on that too: enter Grand Central Tech. Underwritten by a young Millstein scion and managed expertly by Charles Bonello and Matt Harrigan, GCT has become a red hot hub for innovation right in midtown Manhattan. With almost 100 companies in residence, and another 20 expected in this 2016 (Class III), Grand Central has become the incumbent grand-daddy of tech innovation in the city; sorry WeWork, NeueHouse, and NYC Tech island thing. Thanks to this relationship, the Innovadores Interns not only have a place to land, they landed in the central hub of innovation in NYC. Quite a jump!
No-one would know about any of this, of course, if not for Gregory FCA, a helluva Philly PR firm that has supported both KFAC and Innovadores with tremendous media outreach and storylines that just plain sell. Greg recognized the incredible timing of the project, perhaps more and before than anyone including me. He jumped right in, and the media response since then has been tremendous. Here is a small sample of what has been published to date; more is coming soon as we swing into our announcements in Cuba and our second Innovadores program.
None of this would be possible without our in-country hosts. Founded The Ludwig Foundation of Cuba (LFC), a non-governmental, autonomous, non-profit institution, was officially created in January 1995 with the purpose of promoting and protecting the work of young Cuban artists. This was during Cuba’s “special period”, where people were surviving on a few hundred calories a day, the Soviet teet had run dry, and sugar prices were crashing. Its principles and strategies have been increasingly refocused in response to emerging needs in the Cuban cultural environment, including the reality that art and media are merging into one. And so, our Innovadores fits perfectly with Ludwig’s future art initiatives.
And not much would get done in the future without our first hire in Havana, Jono Matusky. Jono is a Carnegie Mellon grad with an EE degree and start up experience with a Musk-like battery cell maker. He is situated in Vedado near the Ludwig and has engineered both the intern program and the Innovadores program with Ludwig. He will be driving the content with our new publication IfCuba, covering all sorts of opportunity in Cuba, from our unique vantage point.
We have also partnered with Fashion Snoops, the data trend and fashion forecasting business. They are hosting Fashion Interns and Programs in NYC this summer through our Innovadores program, and have already been on the ground in Havana with Jono to scout out the best designers in town. Snoops selected three designers from the Design Bienalle to present T-Shirt designs to a large US retailer: more to come on that I’m sure.
Our Internship program is second to none in the country, with over 100 qualified applications in hand for just three spots at GCT this summer, it is truly the talk of the town in Havana. We use this as our hub of communication about our program, and the opportunity that may stem from it. We plan for an event in Havana to announce the winners in mid-June. At that time, we will also announce our anticipated MOU for the Incubator in conjunction with Ludwig.
The Innovadores Ludwig incubator will be a realization of a year long vision, and what seems like ten year’s work compressed into one. It’s a major milestone in any setting; in Cuba it seems surreal. With our feet on the ground there, and the connections here in the US we can source, support and develop some of the best innovators and tackle some of the most interesting opportunities in this ripe country. We have often said that investment is a three to five year horizon in Cuba; we are beginning to think that opportunities may surface before then.
We will be publishing more about what we discover in our new publishing platform. Branded IfCuba, it plays on the Innovadores Foundation but also answers some of the constant questions we get… If Cuba has rule of law, If Cuba allows investment, If Cuba open for tourism, If Cuba develops a tech community, If Cuba etc.
Our path forward will be an exiting one. We can see the bridge from foundation activity to an expanded role where we can continue momentum we started and lay claim our spot as first and only sanctioned incubator in town. We thank our generous and visionary donors in advance for their continued support of this ground breaking initiative.