Latin Entrepreneurs Light the Path Out of Poverty

SUCHITOTO, El Salvador — For Americans nauseated by the federal takeover of seemingly everything these days, a recent gathering here recalled what once made the U.S. great: entrepreneurs leading companies that create goods and services and deliver jobs, profits, and wealth. While Washington Democrats seem bent on hammering entrepreneurs into dust, here they were applauded and showcased as role models for this region and the world beyond.

Thirty miles northeast of San Salvador, the Pioneers of Prosperity Awards (PoP) were bestowed in this Spanish-colonial town of 7,000, where roosters crow at midnight and bright purple bougainvillea blossoms cascade onto cobblestone streets. After evaluating some 650 applicant companies for their commercial prowess, employee relations, environmental stewardship, and public-leadership potential, event organizers chose 10 nominees from Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Nicaragua, and Panama.

Each finalist firm secured $40,000 from the Inter-American Development Bank’s Multilateral Investment Fund. Among these, two runners-up earned an additional $75,000 each, while the grand-prize winner scored another $100,000. This $650,000 purse — which must be invested in technical infrastructure and/or staff training — is a major incentive for private enterprises to replace poverty with opportunity.

The top PoP prize went to Aduanera de Nicaragua or ADENICA, founded in 2000. Its 60 employees handle import and export logistics for domestic and international companies. ADENICA helped one client cut its waiting time to clear goods through customs from 15 days to just 24 hours.

“As our company grows in size and strength,” said ADENICA founder Carolina Lopez, “it serves as a model for other entrepreneurs, especially women, showing that with continued and sustained effort, you can succeed”

“Tourists are drawn here to see our animal life, our forests, and our conservation programs,” said runner-up Silvia Elena Chaves Quesada of Florex, a seven-year-old Costa Rican green manufacturing company. In a cinematic profile by Emmy-nominated director Jeff Zimbalist, Chaves explained that Florex’s 40 staffers “produce environmentally friendly cleaning products that serve the tourism industry so that our country is true to the image we sell to the world.”

Llamadas Heladas (“Cold Calls”) is a fascinating finalist. Its locations feature private, air-conditioned, phone-booth-like cabins where Nicaraguans can place international calls for 10 cents-per-minute, compared to the $1.00 that local phone companies charge minute by minute. Some cell-phone owners rent these cabins to chill themselves and use Llamadas’ more economical land lines. In the colonial city of Leon, Llamadas’ slogan is “The coolest calls in the hottest town.”

“Edgard Cruz and I started our company in 2005 when we were 24 and 25 years old, respectively,” says Brian Forde, who graduated UCLA and moved from Orange County, California to Nicaragua with the Peace Corps in 2002. “In a little over four years, we took a $4,000 investment and turned it into a multi-million-dollar company with 29 stores and created 85 jobs. As the youngest PoP winners, we hope other kids our age will be encouraged to view entrepreneurship as an opportunity rather than a risk. While losing $2,000 each would have been disappointing, taking that risk gave us a rich set of opportunities and experiences that would be difficult to have while working for a large corporation.”

Since 2007, PoP similarly has highlighted Caribbean and African entrepreneurs.

 “It’s remarkable how similar the winners are,” says Michael Fairbanks of the Social Equity Venture Fund, a PoP co-sponsor. “Whether Rwandan, Jamaican, or Guatemalan, they share a future orientation, rational risk taking, and optimism. They have a self-awareness of the role they play in helping their countries by hiring people, paying taxes, and being role models back home. Across these locations and languages, these entrepreneurs have their own culture that transcends the usual differences that you otherwise feel, see, smell, and hear.”

PoP’s other co-sponsors are the OTF (On the FRONTIER) Group and the John Templeton Foundation. PoP kindly underwrote my visit to El Salvador.

Suchitoto’s Theater of Ruins was an ideal setting for last month’s awards ceremony. It looked immaculate after renovations erased the severe damage it suffered, as did many similar low-rise, Spanish-style structures here above Lake Suchitlan. This area was devastated and largely depopulated by the 1980 – ’92 civil war between democratic governments and Communist guerillas. Likewise, PoP’s top companies hail from countries that either endured insurrection, such as El Salvador and Nicaragua, or – in Costa Rica’s case — the aftermath of living among violent neighbors.

“Through our good commercial and people management, we show our employees every day that a business is a solution to their lives as a job creator and wealth generator,” says Jose Francisco Duran Frixione of El Salvador’s Pan Santa Eduvigis, a PoP runner-up and export-oriented specialty baked-goods supplier with 120 workers, founded in 1955. “This is the only way to avoid getting into another civil war, where people felt a general unjust treatment and inequality.”

In recent days, the Obama Administration has nationalized health care, ejected private banks from the student-loan market, and patrolled executive pay at 419 private companies. Even from this Salvadoran hamlet just days ago, such developments sounded utterly Third World.