Cuba Delegation Spring 2016: Women, Cuba, and the Business Climate

Above: Eileen Scully (second from left) with Innovadores interns Raul, Gabriela and Gabriel

This past April, Innovadores visited Cuba to meet with the next round of candidates for our 2016 internship program. Below are Innovadores advisor Eileen Scully’s observations on Cuba and what it’s like for female innovators.

One of the first things you notice upon arrival in Havana is how highly Cubans value their artists. Starting in primary school, art and music are a core element in education–not an optional or occasional indulgence as in the US. This bleeds out into every aspect of Cuban life and culture. Walking around Havana, you are surrounded by beauty and creativity in myriad forms.

Artists are one of the few segments allowed to show and sell their work. The Cuban government restricts independent business licenses, but encourages the proliferation and sale of Cuban art. And as the country opens up, business licenses are extending into other categories of small businesses to support the tourism increase. These include paladares, private homes that serve as restaurants; casa particulars, home shares in the AirBnB model; and additional licenses for others that have already existed, such as taxis and markets.

Changing regulations provide a unique opportunity for women in Cuba to legally own successful small businesses. Gender may present other obstacles to Cuban women in the same way it does for all women, but the business climate in Cuba may prove to equally support both genders. Time will bear this out as we observe the influence of the US on the Cuban economy, but for now, it appears as though the possibilities are equal for both genders.

One of the women-owned businesses we encountered on our trip in April 2016 was Clandestina. Two artists, Idania and Leire, have a shop in Old Havana that invites you to come inside with a subtle wink. The colors and designs are bright and playful, and their business has several employees both in the storefront and in the workshop creating the products they sell. A true success story for Cuban women–passion for their art combined with the resourcefulness and creativity required to start and run a profitable business, all within a restrictive supply chain and economy.

Cuban women, in some regards, experience higher levels of equality than US women. They are well represented in professional and technical fields due largely to free universal education. In the US, women-owned small businesses are growing rapidly, and the reasons for this are as complex as the women who run them. Statistics from the National Women’s Business Council show a 27% increase in women-owned businesses from just 2007 to 2012, and we can assume that trend is either continuing or increasing. Cuba is considering changes that would legalize many small businesses that are currently operating without official status. If these changes go through, we can expect the number of women-owned businesses to increase, drawing on their large pool of well educated, independent women.

Access to capital is always going to be a challenge for Cubans, but if the current support of small business growth continues, it is likely that women-owned businesses in Cuba will thrive. Seek out these women-owned businesses when you travel to Cuba–learn from them, buy from them, and support their work.

Originally published at on May 5, 2016.

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