By Stevie Borrello
Yamina Vicente risked leaving her steady job as an economics professor to open Decorazon, a party planning service.
Nidialys Acosta used her experience as a government expert on imports and exports to help make her and her husband’s dream of NostalgiCar, a vintage car service, a reality.
Niuris Higueras previously helped run a private restaurant, known as a paladar, before turning to Cuba Emprende, a nonprofit training service for Cuban entrepreneurs, to gain the knowledge to build her own licensed paladar, Atelier, from the bottom up.
A growing number of women are seizing the opportunity to become entrepreneurs, or as the Cubans say, cuentapropistas. Many of them are leaving low-paid state-run institutions in a bid to better their incomes.
While definitive statistics are not available, signs suggest that the new private sector is attracting women at a faster rate than men. One reason may be that women dominate many professions in the shrinking state sector. Then, too, many new opportunities are in areas traditionally favored by women. “There are many different options thanks to all of these new businesses that didn’t exist before,” said Magaly Rodriguez, who recently started a private catering business.
John McIntire, a founder of Cuba Emprende, added: “Women aren’t having a lot of babies in Cuba. The fertility rate is below the replacement rate. So women are either postponing or maybe having one kid, and so most of them are trying to get ahead” and make more money in the private sector.
The rise in women entrepreneurs can be seen most clearly through the lens of Cuba Emprende, which has graduated more than 1,000 entrepreneurs since its founding in 2012. The ratio of women to men has significantly changed. It was “originally was 60 to 65 percent men and has now shifted to about 60 percent women” in the program, McIntire said.
The program, which is funded by U.S. philanthropists, began in Havana, and is now active in two other cities, Cienfuegos and Camaguey. Cuba Emprende receives about 100 applications each month, and the majority continue to be from women, said Jorge Mandilego, director of Cuba Emprende, who quipped that he is not surprised by these numbers because his wife proves to him “every single day, women are better administrators.”
Perhaps more importantly, women dominate many professions that are poorly paid in the state sector. Jorge Mario Sanchez, an economist at the University of Havana, explained that women account for approximately 60 percent of the professions, especially law, research and academia. The early cuentapropistas were either those who were not in the work force or who worked at illicit businesses that were eventually legalized. Now many women are leaving their respected positions to seek better financial opportunities in the private sector. State-sector jobs that have been cut were heavily populated by women and, therefore, more women lost their jobs, said Margaret Crahan, a senior research scholar at the Institute of Latin American Studies at Columbia University.
Yamina Vicente, 31, for example, was an economics professor at the University of Havana, but left to open a party planning service, Decorazon. During the early stages of her business, Vicente kept her job as a professor to make a little extra cash. Now, she makes more than she did as a professor. The average pay of professionals employed by the state is 20 to 25 Convertible Cuban Pesos, or CUCs, (the equivalent of $20 to $25) per month.
Vicente has seen the number of women increase in the private sector, as more business options become available. “At the beginning the different jobs that were offered privately were more male jobs, like paladares and shoemakers,” she said using the Spanish word for privately run restaurants. “But now there were a number of professions introduced like interior designer or sewing or more female jobs, which is also why the number of women is increasing in the last three years.”
The emerging entrepreneurial sector gathered strength in 2011, with new regulations introduced by President Raul Castro that eventually authorized more than 200 types of businesses to be run by entrepreneurs. These included everything from locksmith and carpenter to party entertainer and animal caretaker.
Nidialys Acosta was able to capitalize on both her state-business connections and the new regulations when she and her husband, Julio Alvarez, expanded their company, NostalgiCar, which operates a vintage car service and refurbishes vintage automobiles.
Acosta studied chemistry at the University of Havana and worked in import/export for the government for 11 years. She used her contacts and her knowledge of finance to run NostalgiCar’s logistics and its car service. When new rules recently allowed government agencies to contract with private companies, she signed contracts with almost all the tourist agencies in Havana.
Recently, new regulations allowed Acosta and Alvarez to rent their own garage.
But the pressures of being cuentapropistas are manifold. Taxes are high. Credit is scarce. Government regulations are constantly changing. And juggling work and family is often difficult. The couple’s son calls them “liars” because they said they would have more time to take care of him once NostaligiCar was opened.
Rodriguez, 47, is a single mother of three teen-age boys, 19, 15 and 13 years old, who said she also felt the constant stress of running her small catering business while taking care of her children and her dog. To her, a 12-hour day is an easy one.
“It’s really difficult and I feel like work doesn’t ever end, because I’m working and then the kids get home and they want to eat and then I have to take care of the dog’s food, and it’s all really complicated,” she said.
The falling birth rate, which was exacerbated during the post-Soviet years of scarcity, the so-called Special Period, continues to decrease, causing serious demographic problems. Only 17.2 percent of the Cuban population is under the age of 14, according to Sanchez, the economist. Close to 65 percent of the population is aged 15 to 59. And 18.3 percent are over 60. Many Cuban families, he explained, are composed of five people – two grandparents, two parents and one child; 1.6 people, he said, have to take care of five.
Many women entrepreneurs are determined to move into traditionally male-dominated fields. Take Niuris Higueras, a Cuba Emprende graduate, who recently opened her own paladar, Atelier. “The majority of paladar owners are men, so you can say about 20 percent are women and 80 percent are men,” Higueras said.
While she had years of previous restaurant experience, it was not until graduating from Cuba Emprende that she felt ready to open her own. Atelier is housed in an old mansion in the Vedado neighborhood. Today the mansion is adorned with crystal chandeliers, wood-beamed ceilings and expensive artwork, but it was not always in such good condition. Higueras traded a modern four-bedroom apartment for the mansion, which was, at the time, a wreck. She and her family renovated the building.
However, Higueras’s real estate gambit illustrates how the opening of the economy is leading not only to growing income disparities in Cuba but also to another social divide. What little capital cuentapropistas have – whether men or women – comes from property or automobiles their families were able to hold on to from before the revolution or from remittances, which alone make up 70 to 80 percent of the funding for new businesses, according to McIntire. And the entrepreneurs with those resources are mostly white.
Still, all cuentapropistas – men and women, black and white – are counting on more reforms to ease the still difficult environment in which they operate. High on their wish list are: the establishment of wholesale markets, greater access to credit and faster Internet service.