From the Boondocks
Former telecom executive Raúl Burgos, who since leaving the industry has been immersed in the world of entrepreneurship, offers his candid take on Puerto Rico’s business landscape and how it compares to what is going on beyond our shores. Following is his first collaboration for News is my Business.
What have you been doing in the years since you left T-Mobile?
After being in the wireless telecommunication sector for almost 18 years, participating in five start-ups in five different countries and having been sold or acquired approximately seven times in that time span, I figured it was time to do something else and, in the process, enjoy myself a little bit more.
In 2009, I left the industry and created Global 1080, Inc., an umbrella company to fund and support various investments interests. Today we have offices in Miami and Sao Paulo and have four different business ventures ranging from traditional business consulting to e-learning technologies.
I have a friend in Peru that says that I remind him of the David Carradine character in the TV series “Kung-Fu.” Not because of my martial arts expertise, but for my “roaming the earth bit,” as he would call it.
During the past two years, I’ve engaged on a quest to seek and meet entrepreneurs and companies in various aspects of web and telecom-based services who are breaking ground across the globe. From a social media monitoring business in Madrid selling its services worldwide that can help an unknown candidate become mayor, to a two-way SMS service in Holland selling to subscribers in South America with employees in Spain and Peru.
Norway, Israel, Holland, Spain, Peru, Italy, Dominican Republic, Trinidad & Tobago, Colombia, Argentina and the U.S. were some of the stops I made, along with multiple calls to people in Germany, Russia, Romania, Uruguay, Mexico and Italy. All with the same objective in mind: to find out what’s next.
I do understand Johnny Cash when he says “I’ve been everywhere!” but these days I find myself spending quite a bit of time in Brazil, one of the globe’s thriving economies, supporting two of our start-ups and keeping my eyes and ears open for new trends and opportunities.
How have your experiences shaped the way you view Puerto Rico and its place within the region?
Having had the opportunity to travel, live and work in different countries, that in itself changes your perspective.
The way we live in Puerto Rico is blessed in many ways and we can’t seem to realize it. Most countries don’t have the social nets we have here, the accessible conditions to financing (even in a recession), accessible educational system (with all its flaws) and highly literate population. Most countries in Latin America can only dream of that, but that reality is driving them and their workforce to continuously seek ways in which they can compete and survive in a global economic reality.
Now, having said that, one thing that continues to escape me is how have we become so complacent about our position within the American-Caribbean economic environment. Puerto Rico had a very unique and desirable position and status amongst our Central American and Caribbean basin neighbors, but that positioning is losing ground fast. I find these same folks talking more and more about procuring high-end services and products from Colombia and Panama.
We need to reposition ourselves as the prime supplier of high-end services to the Caribbean basin. Take medical tourism for instance. When you see the Punta Pacifica Hospital in Panama carrying the John Hopkins brand as well, that is a winning proposition, since no other hospital in the region can claim to offer a “John Hopkins-approved” medical service. The John Hopkins tag, along with significantly lower costs, is attracting patients that in the past might have visited Puerto Rico for treatment as an alternative. This is just one example of a service segment where Puerto Rico is beginning to lose ground.
We need to get creative and exploit our advantages while continuing to closely monitor what some of our neighbors are doing to ensure that we remain competitive. When it comes to premium-based services and technology, we should be leaders in the region, not followers.
What do you think should be done to encourage small and mid-sized business growth on the island?
Entrepreneurship of all sizes and levels are the cornerstone of all economies. In Puerto Rico, our cornerstone is fragile.
If a railroad worker named Richard Sears had not made the decision to buy watches and sell them, today many malls in Puerto Rico would have significant square footage space empty. Richard Sears was a micro-entrepreneur by all definitions that with vision, discipline and desire founded a mail-order business that became what we know today as Sears Roebuck Inc.
We need to foster the right attitude!
The entrepreneur in Puerto Rico is fearful of assuming the risk and we need to wipe that fear away. But how? The government needs to provide leadership, vision, a fertile environment and actionable direction on this. We need to recognize the importance of entrepreneurship and its place in ensuring a sustainable long-term economic recovery.
Incentives of different types and at all levels are required. From education on the fundamentals of running a business, to the development of an environment that promotes “risk-taking.” Some of these fundamentals are in operation in some way or shape but we need to ensure that we are maximizing them as much as we can.
Some of our South American neighbors such as Colombia, Argentina, Peru, Brazil and Chile are actively promoting entrepreneurial growth, especially if it is technology-based. A combination of actions that include among others, tax incentives at all government levels (federal to city in some cases), more accessible loans and even organizing trips to meet with Silicon Valley “angel investor” groups, are creating the right environment and risk-taking attitudes of these small businesses.
I believe that we should take a look at what some of these successful neighbors have done, their experience, learning and level of success. I for one, and being biased by my travels, favor an expanded focus on web-based technologies and services as the next step in our entrepreneurial evolution. Our telecom infrastructure, bilingual and bi-cultural aspects of our culture, skilled workforce, and proximity to the U.S. provide the fertile ground for that evolution.
We need to create and foster our own “technological farms” with a new breed of “Boricua Whiz Kids” bringing down the servers at the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez with their new creations and ideas. When we start hearing news about these outages we will know we are on the right track!
What do you think Puerto Rico needs to grow as an economy and as a place to do business?
That is not an easy question to answer. There are many levels to that objective, short vs. long term, sustainable vs. unsustainable, multidisciplinary vs. traditional manufacturing, etc., etc., etc.
But when thinking about this question, an old Jimmy Buffet song comes to mind — I do believe we need “changes in attitude and changes in latitude.”
Let’s start with the “changes in attitude.” We have become a deeply divided society along political lines with no clear sense of a unifying greater purpose other than having your favorite color win at all expense. This needs to change fast or we may find ourselves becoming the 21st century Rapa Nui or Easter Island, as non-Polynesians know it. As an FYI, this was that famous island in the Pacific off the coast of Chile that lost everything, including its most precious “life-sustaining” resources, to tribal and social class bickering. All that remains today are 887 extant monumental statues, most of them looking out to sea, called moai. I hope we don’t end up with large-headed statues of our governors looking out to sea!
To achieve this “change in attitude” we require a strong visionary leadership on all sides and at all levels. Crisis can bring the best and the worst out of societies; let’s stop the bickering and find what is best for our Puerto Rican society and let’s build upon that.
We need to define and agree on areas of economic development with well-distributed policies and strategies that provide the right environment to the various segments, be it manufacturing, tourism, technology or knowledge-based services. In times like these, no sector should be left behind. The objective is economic activity.
We need to recognize that we are in a deep crisis and the areas of health, education and economic development have to be declared as “Politically Demilitarized Zones.” This may be “pie in the sky,” but it is our only salvation. Regardless of who is in power, we need to understand that we all need to row in the same direction.
These three areas are critical to any economic recovery and as such, need executable solutions with consensus and commitments of all sides, namely unions, private and public sectors. The days of “wine and roses” are gone and we need to focus on moving the ship forward. This can only be achieved through thoughtful and unselfish cooperation from all sides.
In my view, the overzealous and eternal conversations about our political status above everything else, feed our ideological hunger while at the same time starve our current reality needs and limit the future of our people. We need to address the fundamentals; in other words, how do we develop an educated, healthy and productive society. We should be overzealous about creating the most educated, competitive and productive Boricua there ever was! After we achieve that, by all means re-engage the political status discussions and arguments.
Our attitude has to become one of “can and will do!” at all levels of society.
Now let’s talk about “changes in latitude.” Our world stopped being 100 x 35 the day the world of virtual commerce and services was born and the world’s global economy invaded our homes. We have yet to recognize and seize this opportunity. Granted, Puerto Rico has become an expensive proposition for anyone seeking unskilled and labor intensive manufacturing, but in turn we can become the provider of knowledge-based services, from developing lower cost payroll processing options to stateside companies, to improving our call center industry.
In my travels throughout Europe and Latin America, I have been able to witness an interestingly new and different perspective on the average entrepreneur/small business, that is they are thinking beyond their borders. These businesses have embraced the global economy and will ship anything from Kosta Boda glass from a shop in Sweden, to chocolates from a local shop in the Netherlands.
Maybe, just maybe, we can sell web-based services to the rest of the world. From “software as a service” (aka; SAS) options such as data storage, to the best Arabica coffee in the world. Just ask the Vatican!