Youth transform Southern Cone into ‘region of makers’

Gustavo Rodríguez used to earn a steady salary trading commodities for international companies in Montevideo, Uruguay. But it was unsatisfying work. He watched a flood of cheap products flowing in from China and elsewhere slowly drown domestic craft industries that had once put his small South American country on the map.

“So I quit my job with the intention of creating something that makes me proud,” said the 30-year-old entrepreneur, owner of a leatherwear label called OTRA Vintage Style Goods.

Rodríguez’s move might seem obvious to someone looking for a business opportunity, but it was fairly countercultural in the financially risk-averse Southern Cone, a region of Latin America that includes Uruguay, Argentina, Paraguay and Chile.

Three participants in a workshop speaking to one another (Daniel Durazo/State Dept.)
Gustavo Rodríguez (center) speaks with other participants in a workshop led by 3 Day Startup CEO Cam Houser. (Daniel Durazo/State Dept.)

Entrepreneurship is not typically considered a strong career choice in the Southern Cone. A history of cyclical economic crises can sometimes inhibit startup aspirations. Families encourage students to pursue stable professions in medicine and law, creating a glut of doctors and attorneys in an already saturated labor market.

Rodríguez is one of a small but growing crowd of young entrepreneurs in the region spurred by unemployment and a desire to address the economic problems facing their communities.

Tatiana Podliszewski, a young Argentinian businesswoman, did not realize she was an entrepreneur until she was “surrounded by so many” in the inaugural class of the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative.

“[It is] because of what we have in common,” she said. “We want to see changes in society, and we work for those things.”

The Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative is a professional exchange fellowship for social entrepreneurs from Latin America and the Caribbean that places them within companies in the United States.

Cam Houser, founder of 3 Day Startup, led the Entrepreneurship Institute, a hybrid business course that this year’s cohort of fellows undertook through a combination of virtual and in-person dialogues.

Man speaking in front of a screen (Daniel Durazo/State Dept.)
Cam Houser, founder and chief innovation officer of 3 Day Startup, leads a workshop at the 2018 Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative conference. (Daniel Durazo/State Dept.)

Houser encouraged fellows in a workshop at the 2018 conference to incorporate their countries’ unique attributes into their business plans, even if conditions don’t resemble Silicon Valley.

“We want to celebrate entrepreneurs in your ecosystem,” he said. “It’s less important that you do something perfectly and more important that you do it at all.”

Rodríguez, who attended Houser’s workshop, was impressed by the community of young “makers” he met in Portland, Oregon. He wants to set up an exchange with that city’s entrepreneurs to show young Uruguayans that, “in Portland, these kinds of things are happening,” he said. “These are young people working in old-school craft, and they are successful.”

Other entities are eager to build up a supportive environment for startups in the Southern Cone, one of the most prosperous regions in Latin America.

In September, the U.S. Embassy in Buenos Aires partnered with the American Chamber of Commerce in Argentina to launch Network Joven, an event series for young professionals. At each event, leaders of commerce, government and successful startups speak to entrepreneurs on business ethics, best practices and strategies for growth.

Podliszewski, who spoke at an event about her venture, Social Innovation Warehouse, said Network Joven is for aspirational entrepreneurs. “Its role is to connect these people so they can learn and do together.”