07/18/2010 10:06 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Entrepreneurship in Haiti

It is difficult for someone speaking from the comforts of Babson College where the lights and heat and air conditioning function perfectly, we have good food, water and shelter, we have convenient transportation and telecommunication, access to doctors and medicine, it is difficult for us to grasp the depths of tragedy that has befallen the country and people of Haiti. Our hearts go out to Haiti.

I listened to President Preval the other night on NPR announcing that the reconstruction of Haiti is starting. The emergency is not over -- there are still tens of millions of cubic feet of rubble to remove -- but the rebuild is starting to take place. I cannot pretend to be an expert in how to rebuild a devastated nation and people from scratch; I only know about how to build companies from scratch.

I am sure Haitians have heard from many well-intentioned people that there is opportunity in crisis, and I am sure in your hearts you felt, "that is an opportunity I would rather do without." So I do not want to gloss over the unmitigated pain. Nevertheless, as you rebuild your transportation, communications, health, and institutional infrastructures, a long process, I would like you to consider that Haiti will benefit tremendously from understanding that there is an infrastructure for entrepreneurship as well. Try not to forget that. Try to treat the entrepreneurship infrastructure as as important as all the basic ones.

What is the entrepreneurship infrastructure? In addition to what we normally refer to as infrastructure, it means building an ecosystem that is conducive to entrepreneurship.

  • It means turning entrepreneurs and their ventures into national heroes. In 2009 a Haitian venture, Alternative Insurance Company, won an international competition, Pioneers of Prosperity.
  • It means encouraging the development of an entrepreneurial culture, tolerant of risk and cognizant that honorable failure is the price of ambition. Perhaps Haiti already has this, I do not know. Usually media have a bias against the entrepreneur because they see entrepreneurship as the realm of the privileged, and not the great equal opportunity employer that it can be.
  • It means creating entrepreneurship education on all levels, especially in high schools and colleges. Financial literacy and empowerment should be a national priority.
  • It means developing the kinds of capital sources that help grow small businesses. Microfinance, although it has its place, is not the solution: it puts food on the table, but to build thousands of small, 5-10 person businesses, you need to build special capital institutions and intermediaries. Forget about venture capitalists. That is a completely different game. Forget about conventional banks. Good models for investing $5,000-50,000 have not been written about, but they exist and can be designed and delivered. This cannot be philanthropy--encourage entrepreneurs to turn it into a business. Give them incentives to do so.
  • It means recruiting the Haitian Diaspora, which should also be a regular part of this infrastructure. Use the millions of Diaspora in the US, DR, France, Canada, and Venezuela. Many of them are successful business people, have capital, expertise, contacts, not to mention many have a warm spot in their hearts for their homeland. Turn the brain drain into an asset to help pull more products and services out of Haiti, not people.
  • It means getting the entrepreneurship stakeholders to work together, to coordinate their activities. Usually entrepreneurship is developed piecemeal. But it should be holistic and systematic. It should encourage, engage, empower and enlist.

This is not an imaginary task: some countries, some as geographically small as Haiti, some islands literally or figuratively, have reconstructed themselves as entrepreneurial societies following tragedies of one sort or another: I am referring to Rwanda and Israel in particular, and to some extent Slovenia, which came out from under Soviet rule in the early 1990s. Taiwan came out of poverty to become a powerhouse. Ireland too. Tear a page out of Taiwan's history book and its use of the Diaspora Taiwanese to completely rebuild Taiwan's economy.

Unleashing the natural entrepreneurship potential that I believe resides among the Haitian population can be one of Haiti's most important resources. In some ways you are more fortunate than others in this regard: the historical legacy of economic self-sufficiency and self-employment of a large portion of the Haitian population is a hidden asset. Lurking in the ranks of the informal sector are dozens or hundreds or thousands of potential entrepreneurs. The entrepreneurship infrastructure will help them strive for more.