SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO -- It’s tough to see a bright future for debt-addled Puerto Rico as many of its younger residents flee its worsening economy. But a number of young entrepreneurs on the island are defying the doomsday projections, staying put and embarking on business projects in hope they will help regrow the island’s economy.
“There are still opportunities here, even though people say there are not. We just need to start seeing life in a different way," said business owner Paul Currán. "We have to focus on the solutions and not on how bad things are. If not, we’ll just be stuck in the same place.”
Currán is the founder of Bajari Chocolates, an artisanal chocolate business. He is convinced that his more optimistic mentality fuels business development, because people get more creative when they are in need and positive.
Currán is not only concerned about his own business success; he wants to be one of the pioneers in reestablishing the cacao industry in Puerto Rico.
“The chocolate movement is growing and the cacao industry is powerful. I think that we’re doing something good in Bajari and in the island, regarding this chocolate movement,” said Currán.
Puerto Rico is facing a more than $70 billion debt that the U.S. commonwealth’s governor has said it cannot pay. As a political tussle has ensued over what tools Puerto Rico can use to get control of its debt, hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans have been leaving the island for the U.S. mainland and other countries.
The population has declined by more than 5 percent in the last 10 years. The majority of the people who have left or are leaving are millennials, weakening the island’s workforce. Currently, about 40 percent of the population is officially participating in the workforce, compared to almost 63 percent in the U.S.
But like Currán, some young islanders are seeing opportunity despite the tough circumstances.
Christian Reyes is one of the founders of Resight artisan sunglasses, made of recycled materials. He and co-founder Felix Rodriguez are also third-year architecture students at Puerto Rico's Pontifical Catholic University. Reyes said he’s proud of providing employment opportunities locally.
”If you really want to do something for Puerto Rico, why would you leave? You might have to sacrifice certain things, but then you will see how your efforts make a difference here.”
Marcos Rodriguez founded the gourmet popcorn business Poskón, along his cousin Rafael Rodriguez, while still a college student at the University of Puerto Rico. He was looking for opportunities to make money so he would not have to graduate with onerous student loans. At the same time, he established a new family with his wife and 1-year-old daughter and refused to forsake his roots.
“We definitely start here because this is our home and we feel like we have a responsibility to contribute to our country,” he explained.
Isabel Rullán and Miguel Columna, two young Puerto Ricans who founded the think tank ConPRmetidos are even finding opportunity for economic development in the Puerto Rican diaspora.
Aside from the 3.5 million Puerto Ricans in the island, 5 million Puerto Ricans live outside the commonwealth.
“The interesting characteristic about them is that Puerto Ricans have a strong emotional and physical tie to the island,” said Rullán.
Through ConPRmetidos, Rullán and Columna launched the Puerto Rico Global Initiative, modeling it after initiatives from other countries such as Chile and Scotland that try to engage their expats in the country’s economic development.
“Puerto Ricans make up one of the most prepared work force in the world, and if we properly engage the diaspora we can transform that brain drain into brain circulation,” said Rullán. She is convinced that the initiative can help create a collaborative environment through technology and social media, and this can bring more business opportunities to the island.
Rullán says, “It’s easier to enter a new market if you have a Puerto Rican in the other side that can help you make the right connection.”
"Poskon's" Marcos Rodriguez says he refuses to see forging ahead as futile.
“Yes, there’s a lot of people leaving but we can’t just sit back and give up, no matter how the economy is doing. If we want something, we'll fight against all odds to achieve it.”