How Haiti Is Coming Back One Entrepreneur At A Time

When most people hear of Haiti, it’s usually get about the earthquake and about mind-numbing poverty within 1,000 miles of one of the world’s richest nations. This blog is the opposite message. This is one of the best messages of hope I have heard about Haiti.

When Denis O’Brien of Ireland expanded his company, Digicel, into Haiti6, he encountered a country that had a handful of cell phone companies with fewer than 100,000 subscribers between them. Service was expensive and spotty. Only the rich could afford cell phones.

Today, Digicel is the largest cell phone company in Haiti with more than 4,000,000 customers there and coverage throughout the Caribbean (and I will cover Denis’s success story and some lessons in a future blog). In this blog, I would like to highlight how O’Brien is changing Haiti, not by some grand government or aid projects, or multi-billion dollar investments, but by something far more fundamental, and to me, long-lasting. He has initiated a project that sparks the human spirit by recognizing the best of Haiti’s entrepreneurs.

From my vantage point, the first step in the development of a country is to encourage enterprising people who have the entrepreneurial spirit and give them the freedom to build companies, create jobs, and enhance wealth. Denis has initiated a project that recognizes Haiti’s best entrepreneurs. He has started to reward Haiti’s high-achieving entrepreneurs, from all strata of Haiti’s complex society, who have attained business success.

Because of his own experience with the program in Ireland, Denis had Digicel start the Entrepreneur-of-the-Year (EOTY) program in Haiti in 2010. That was immediately after the earthquake. When his associates asked him after the quake whether the contest was still appropriate at that time or whether he wanted to postpone it, his comment was a variation of “if not now, when.”

The EOTY program recognizes entrepreneurs who are building and rebuilding Haiti. In Haiti, Denis started the EOTY program (he was a winner of the contest in his native Ireland and he knew the value of recognition) to identify the best entrepreneurs in Haiti, and to recognize them for their achievements. The EOTY award winners are picked in six different categories, which include emerging, education, tourism and culture, agriculture and environment, industry, construction and services.

To find the candidates for the awards, two intrepid souls from Ireland, Brona Cusack and Enda Kelly, travel the length and breadth of Haiti every year and try to find entrepreneurs who have achieved success. From 96 regional finalists, the judges pick the top 24. For the last two years, they then have brought these top 24 entrepreneurs to Florida International University in Miami, where I had the pleasure of working with them to help them grow.

Map of epicenter of 2010 Haiti Earthquake

After their visit to the U.S., the 24 are interviewed by another panel of judges, their businesses analyzed, and six winners are selected – one per category. And one is selected as the Entrepreneur of the Year. It’s easy to be a skeptic about entrepreneurial beauty contests until you meet these entrepreneurs. There are entrepreneurs building micro-finance empires (starting at the age of 11), fish businesses that sell internationally while helping farmers improve their standard of living, and cooperatives where low-income people invest 50 cents for a shot at a better life. Hope springs eternal.

MY TAKE: Money is important, but spirit is paramount. Recognizing these entrepreneurs who succeed in impossible conditions has created a multiplying effect on Haiti’s development. The Irish group is working with some of the leading philanthropic organizations and the government to bring Haiti to the 21st century. And these entrepreneurs are leading the charge from the bottom-up. Some of them have struggled from roadside stands to highly successful businesses. Others have endured third-world conditions and thrived. I hope they change the face of Haiti.


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