Haiti and the Dominican Republic share space on the island of Hispaniola, which is positioned on a geological nightmare. I’m sure you remember when Haiti was hit by a massive magnitude 7 earthquake in 2010, which released energy equivalent to 199,000 tons of TNT. But I remember it for something quite different: startups.
For all that you see when you search Haiti on Google for the first time, I must say that it truly is a shocking misrepresentation. My visits and involvement there have given me a new perspective. Although Haiti is still largely without reliable electricity and water, there is development and prosperity that goes unaccounted for in the documentation in media. The startup scene simply puts other entrepreneurial ecosystems to shame.
For a country with so many bumps in the road on the way to success — literally and figuratively — there are people who are driven to make serious change and won’t stop for anything. Wi-Fi, where available, turns into a coworking space. The Marriott in Port Au Prince is teeming with startups, occupying comfy couches all over the lobby. Backup generators and solar panels power homes when the government-subsidized electricity fails. They give a whole new meaning to the phrase “startup grind.”
It is not uncommon to meet someone who is working on multiple startups. Their mindset, however, is different from ours.
I sense that in the entrepreneurial ecosystems of more developed countries, founders are split into two groups: those who chase the cash and those that want to do good for others. The latter kind is commonly referred to as ‘social entrepreneurship’ — a simple distinction that is not even considered in Haiti. If you are starting a business, your goal is to help someone first, and make money later.
Maybe that’s because of the tragedy that occurred in 2010. Maybe it’s the fact that a top-down approach doesn’t appeal heavily enough to the nongovernmental organizations and aid organizations with their own agenda. For some reason, the fire is in the heart of the people of Haiti.
I see the spirit in the eyes of the people who don’t want to look outside of Haiti for help, but rather look in. These are the government workers, the visionaries that hope to change the institutionalized corruption. These are the social entrepreneurs, putting their life savings into their small businesses. They plan to stay in Haiti and make things better, by investing in their projects, their communities and the place they call home.
But there is something I see in Haiti that hurts more than anything else. Much like the instability that exists in the inner cities of the U.S., Haiti experiences housing insecurity that affects the ownership and identification of Haitians with their country.
The housing crisis causes instability for Haitians, and has the same effect for U.S. communities. What hurts development most is the lack of ownership and stake in community that disenfranchised inhabitants experience. Neighbors who don’t know one another can’t work together to take care of children and other domestic needs that often affect impoverished communities most heavily. Without pride in their home, and without stability, there is nothing to invest in. School, work and life are insecure, and the results are more of the same: cycles of poverty.
Would you spend part of your minimum wage improving the plumbing in your home if you knew your lease would be up at the end of the year? Would you start a business if you didn’t know where you would be living next month? Of course not. It’s this temporary existence and transience that is mirrored in poor communities anywhere. This is the fundamental issue.
When a Haitian can do nothing but think about how and when she will leave her home, her neighborhood and her country to escape somewhere else, all hope is lost for her potential investment in her community. If she is given a chance to have ownership, think of how that potential could play out over generations and across a populous.
This is the same argument I have for inner-city development in the U.S. How can we motivate people to invest in their neighborhoods and communities? I write this just after listening to yet another panel about persistent inequity in San Antonio. If we could give people a foundation of a home, we enable someone to bring their hopes and dreams to reality. Maybe their artwork, maybe their invention, maybe a small business.
When it comes to development, you need a foundation that is unshakable. For many entrepreneurs in Haiti, even a magnitude 7 earthquake can’t break their spirit. What breaks their spirit is when they don’t have a place to call home. We are no different.