Young Leaders of the Americas on Being Emerging Entrepreneurs

Sitting in a small room with a dozen social and business entrepreneurs discussing their passion and big ideas, it’s hard not to get excited. As they chatted away about visiting U.S. cities and businesses -- switching effortlessly between English and Spanish -- the energy of these young leaders convened from across the Caribbean and Latin America became palpable.

A few weeks ago, I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing these entrepreneurs as they completed the last leg of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI) exchange program, which concluded in Washington, D.C. As I sat down with the tight-knit group, it was hard to believe that they were strangers only three weeks earlier.

As our conversation continued, I shared how much this group reminded me of an equally enthusiastic bunch of entrepreneurs I worked with just four years earlier when the State Department established a U.S professional exchange focused on innovation for the Young African Leaders Initiative  — one of our inaugural efforts to connect young international entrepreneurs, U.S. technology and business firms, and U.S government and exchange partners in this model. Over the last six years the State Department has led the U.S. government’s effort to empower young leaders from around the world to effect social and economic change in their local communities. Understanding the value of investing in youth as social and business entrepreneurs, this successful initiative now includes programs across the Middle East, South East Asia, Europe, and Latin America.

Approximately one year ago President Barack Obama announced the launch of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative ‪(YLAI)‬, he is pictured here during an event in Kingston, Jamaica April 9, 2015. [AP Photo]

Several YLAI leaders pointed out what a relief it had been to learn through this program that they were not alone in the business challenges they faced -- whether low internet connectivity, difficulty implementing online payment methods, or finding financial support for their ventures. Although the group was very diverse they had come together around their similarities as business leaders. Claudia Paredes Plasencia, Cuban CEO of Mi Escaparate, agreed, stating, “In my case, I learned a lot from my peers, we are all seasoned entrepreneurs. I realized that as ‘Americans’ we work hard, because we are used to having it really hard. We have a lot of great tools, but most of all we have a really good attitude towards work. We are used to it not being easy, but we just go forward anyway,” she added.

For many of the participants the exchange provided their first opportunity to travel to the United States and proved an eye-opening experience. César Tzian from Guatemala appreciated the chance to travel to the United States since he outsources some of his online marketing work for his company WOWProjects to San Diego. The exchange gave him the opportunity to see aspects of his digital marketing business in real-time and better understand his U.S. clients’ expectations. Even visiting restaurants and other businesses and then visiting their Facebook pages gave César a better understanding of different digital marketing strategies and an appreciation of just how big the digital market is in the United States.



YLAI also brought vital new personal and professional experiences for those who had previously traveled to the United States. As one YLAI leader acknowledged, “Even for those who have been here before, this is a whole different experience. It was much deeper and surprising and magical, because we got to live with an American family and got to work with Americans.” Eric Dijhuis Martinez, Cofounder and Director of Braii, quickly realized that his relationship with his host family would become equally as important as the one with his business mentors. He explained, “The big value was my host dads. While I was having breakfast I was having an entrepreneurship lecture. They were both entrepreneurs. They were both doers and they connected me with many people in Seattle.”

Other YLAI participants quickly chimed in, brimming with excitement and pride as they described their host cities -- Denver, Charlotte, Miami, and Seattle -- where they had lived and worked alongside U.S. mentors and business leaders. Claudia De Heredia Romo, co-founder of e-commerce firm Kichink, described the stark contrast between her country and host city, stating, “In Mexico e-commerce is just starting, but in Seattle, it is super set-up. I met some really amazing people from Microsoft and Amazon. We don’t think about it that much, but Seattle really was one of the pioneer cities in tech related issues.”

While Claudia valued Seattle as a technology hub, those who stayed in Charlotte and Denver emphasized the sense of community they experienced in their host cities. The YLAIers who were mentored in Charlotte cited the city’s distinct ethos around building business networks that made them feel comfortable and included. The participants who visited Denver marveled at how the city had developed its own entrepreneurial culture in recent years; one that valued “paying it forward” to the local community, as well as individuals like them who are new to the business scene.

Many of the YLAI entrepreneurs agreed -- for this group the invaluable connections forged were not only in their work environments, but also within the community. Several participants who had visited local middle and high schools shared how much they enjoyed the chance to expose American kids to new cultures, their local challenges in their home countries, and new applications to technology many of them take for granted. As Eric noted, “For them it’s only technology, but because of the need we have in our country, the technology changes to a tool for actual social change. Just sharing with them their eyes were like lighting up wondering ‘What else can I do with this technology. What else can I create?’”

All of the participants noted that working with U.S. companies and business incubators or accelerators exposed them to new professional opportunities and skills. Kheston Walkins, Founder of Raiora Data Services, shared how his mentor exposed him to “other people who could compliment or improve my skills, my company, and how it ran.” He now looked forward to future collaboration, stating, “We are going to organize some type of exchange between us. They will bring some of their IT and expertise to help us develop our business, our programs, and capacity in some of the spaces we have in Trinidad and Tobago.” Kheston acknowledged while his American counterparts might not see an immediate return, it’s an investment for the future.

Ricardo Allen, CEO of One-on-One Educational Services, also discovered several new ideas, especially around business management, that he was eager to implement when he returned home to Jamaica. While he was certain what he learned would help make his business more efficient so it can scale effectively, Ricardo emphasized he had learned as much, if not more, from his fellow participants. He even noted plans to work with his fellow YLAIer Alexandro from Panama to start a “House of Genius”-like event with other YLAI participants once they returned home.

As our conversation wound down, the group quickly moved on to how they could continue their momentum. Speaking with the certainty and ambition that seemed to exemplify this group of young entrepreneurs, their discussion demonstrated their collective desire to use their skills to problem solve around a common goal. Despite real challenges of distance and varying levels of technologic infrastructure across the region, before departing Ricardo assured me and his fellow colleagues that “we are going back and will use YLAI as a means through which we continue to help entrepreneurs, and we act to bridge between the region and the United States.”

About the Author: Jaclyn A. Cole serves as Co-managing Editor for DipNote, the U.S. Department of State’s official blog, and  several publications for the Bureau of Public Affairs.

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Aaron T.
United States
September 19, 2016
It was an amazing experience with a group of upcoming businessmen of the United States, I think there should be as many programes like this with active participation of leaders from all sectors. Regards, Aaron
Young Leaders of the Americas (YLAI) Fellows gather for a photo in front of the White House. [Meridian International]
Posted by Jaclyn A. Cole
April 20, 2016


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