A Tech Summit as an Economic Development Tool
By Shaina Silva ‘08, Haiti Tech Summit Organizer.
I graduated from Babson in 2008 and have since focused my entrepreneurship and global business management knowledge on building capacity within startup ecosystems in emerging markets, particularly in Africa and the Caribbean. I spent 3-4 years in Cameroon, Congo, Morocco, Tunisia, and Haiti, managing projects that accelerated small business growth, facilitated collaboration between locals and the diaspora, and forged partnerships between the public and private sectors. In 2010, in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, I launched Haiti in Transition (H.i.T), a nonprofit startup focused on engaging youth in Haiti and abroad to turn local neighborhoods into innovation hubs.
The fragile streets of Port-au-Prince, Saint Marc, and Jacmel were vibrating with young people who, in the midst of the post-earthquake chaos, were finding creative ways to supply goods and services to their communities. We guided them through the process of turning these initiatives into sustainable ventures. However, frail infrastructure, poor access to both information and resources, and an overall inefficient operating environment made it very challenging to build a startup in Haiti. With no apparent ecosystem to support these micro enterprises, every effort seemed so minuscule when compared to the gaps that were yet to be filled. Nevertheless, there was a sense of fulfillment in being there and working side by side with the youth to build the Haiti we wished to see…however long it would take us.
By 2014, I was seeking new models for effective development in Haiti as a way to increase the impact of H.i.T. In a seemingly tangential move, I was presented with an opportunity to help grow the startup ecosystem in Nigeria and seized it, as it would give me a chance to learn how a much bigger market with similar characteristics addresses sustainable development. What was meant to be six months of consulting turned into two incredible years of designing programs and initiatives with multinational stakeholders working hand in hand to grow Nigeria’s startup ecosystem The ecosystem was bubbling with events, meet-ups, workshops, demo days, pitch competitions, investor summits, industry trade shows, and startup battles. Both the government and the private sector invested heavily in startup programs, seeing entrepreneurship as a tool to reduce youth unemployment. Most importantly, several young Nigerians who had spent years living and studying in Europe and in the U.S, moved back to Nigeria to launch businesses, and were able to effectively navigate the landscape as a result of the ecosystem momentum that existed. It was invigorating to be part of that movement.
During my time in Nigeria, I reflected on how I might use this experience to propel my work in Haiti. In June 2016, I was in Washington, D.C. accepting a 30 under 30 Emerging Leaders award, and had the pleasure of meeting a fellow Haitian awardee Christine Souffrant Ntim and her husband Einstein Ntim. We spoke extensively about Haiti and Africa and exchanged several ideas on how to create opportunities for entrepreneurs in those environments to access new markets and gain visibility as global brands. Several months later, connecting again at another event, we had a conversation about a tech summit they envisioned hosting in Haiti and joined forces to bring this event to life.
In the weeks that followed, we galvanized support to bring some of the top tech companies and industry experts from around the world to speak in Haiti for the first time. Babson was at the top of my list during our outreach for speakers, as I envisioned a long-term involvement in getting Babson faculty and scholars to participate in building the ecosystem in Haiti. Without hesitation, Yulkendy Valez ‘17 and Carolina Pina, Director of Babson’s WIN Lab in Miami, signed up to participate. Other members of the Babson community who attended included Alexandre DeLespinasse ‘09 who currently lives in Haiti and helps run his family’s legal practice.
From my perspective, the tech summit was an incredible success because we were able to achieve several of our objectives, including a change in narrative from the international press on their view of Haiti. Other highlights that marked the summit were the opportunities this platform created for Haitian entrepreneurs to gain visibility by connecting to tech influencers from global companies like Google and Facebook. As a Haitian-American, one of the key takeaways for me was that both Haitians abroad and on the ground are still driven by the desire to build a more prosperous Haiti. By leveraging our collective brainpower and combining that with support and partnership from friends in other countries, we can position ourselves to create the future we want in a much shorter time period than if we were to do it as individuals.
As we prepare for the summit in 2018, my role will be focused on branding and experience, ensuring that we maintain a high standard in the narrative of the ecosystem and position Haiti as a destination for innovation. There are many gaps to fill and the journey ahead is charted with hurdles to be sure. However, I feel much more equipped today with a fresh perspective on the global economy and the skill set to help leverage technology to both jump-start innovation and cultivate a thriving start-up ecosystem.