Women Entrepreneurs

3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria

The island has faced challenges since the devastating storm, but the startup community is focused on the future.
3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria
Image credit: Petra Urbath | EyeEm | Getty Images
Entrepreneur Staff
Staff Writer. Covers leadership, media, technology and culture.
13 min read

The Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority said on April 18 that all but 3 percent of its customers' electricity had been restored, nearly seven months to the day that Hurricane Maria hit the island. Later that day, when an excavator working to remove a collapsed tower accidentally pulled down a power line, the entire island was hit by a sweeping blackout.  

By the next day, those who had been affected were back online, but the incident was another example of the crises that have been weathered by Puerto Ricans -- who are American citizens -- as they have worked to rebuild from a storm that left nearly $95 billion worth of damage in its wake.

Amid the challenges and the uncertainty, the only choice for Puerto Rico's’ entrepreneurial community was to move forward. This meant doing whatever business they could without access to internet and electricity, scrapping original plans and pivoting to new initiatives, and taking the time to think about how they wanted their companies to grow.

Related: How Entrepreneurship Is Helping to Save Puerto Rico

While founders Angiemille Latorre, Yiselle M. Dipiní Andreu and Josie Edmée Arroyo have businesses in different industries and at different stages of development, common threads emerged from their experiences of the past several months.

They all spoke of the importance of collaboration and having a support system of fellow entrepreneurs. They shared an excitement about the potential for mentorships and partnerships between companies on the island and all over the world -- and their conviction that Puerto Rico is open for business.

Entrepreneur spoke to each of them about their businesses and their experiences since Hurricane Maria.

These interviews have been edited for length and clarity.

3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria

“From crisis comes opportunity.”

“From crisis comes opportunity.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Angiemille Latorre

Name: Angiemille Latorre
Title: Co-founder and chief button pusher
Company: Strategy and design firm Seriously Creative
Founded: 2006 

Why did you want to start your business? What problem did you want to solve?

Before we started our business 11 years ago, I was working in advertising. I was already at a director's level, and my husband was working for Red Bull. We kept coming home and talking about the same thing, that it was so hard to get our people to come up with ideas. We started reading and discovered design thinking. When we discovered that and put it into practice with our own teams, we realized it was so empowering, [and it] created change in our organizations. We said, "No one's doing this in Puerto Rico, so why don't we start our own company?"

What has it been like since the storm? What challenges have you dealt with? How have you navigated them?

We opened two weeks after the financial crisis. So to us that was like, "Oh my God, what have we done?" The truth of the matter is, from crisis comes opportunity. Everyone had to reassess how to move forward. For us, that was an opportunity because we were helping people get their strategy going for what was next. The recent hurricane is just a third or fourth hurricane we've had in 11 years of business. It is just another situation that we've had to navigate. It's one thing for people to be uncertain, and another thing for you to see people on the streets. I was very heartbroken.

With time and patience and collaboration, our space changed from being a brainstorming space to being a refuge. Even doctors that had no brainstorming to do, we had electricity so we had them all go and do a little work there. In Puerto Rico, things have been challenging for so long, people look for the small wins. We go one day at a time, one step at a time, and we're resilient that way. That keeps us going because we're also agile enough to be changing. We always have our north, but we can change direction and keep going.

When things are tough, how do you stay motivated?

Having a growth mindset really works for me. I'm very optimistic. For anything that you complain about there's an opportunity to fix it. An island like Puerto Rico, with so many problems and challenges, is full of opportunity for me. Taking a deep breath and taking a break every once in a while when things get really tough and unfocusing to focus again helps me, too.

I have a network of other entrepreneurs, and we help each other and we talk to each other about what our challenges are openly, and they give me a lot of inspiration. [I also look to] my family. It's never been about the money. It's really that I love what I do.

What is next for your business? What are your goals for the future?

At least in my home, electricity came back in January. Our internet and communications was horrible. So we had to look for a way to work while we waited to normalize. I don't think anybody has a plan of not being able to communicate properly for months, and having a business survive. The hurricane forced us to have the courage to start doing something that we have talked about for a long time, which is expanding into the U.S. and specifically D.C. So we started talking a lot more with our U.S. clients, and we've expanded.

What do you want people to know about the entrepreneurial landscape right now in Puerto Rico?

There's so many opportunities because Puerto Rico is a blank canvas now. Anything to do with technology, with energy or with services for the tourism industry, which will soon start back up again. In order for us to be key players in transforming the economy, the government in Puerto Rico has to facilitate a better permit process. I know of many people who have tried to start businesses and then had to quit because of a permit that's taken 180 days.

What can other entrepreneurs do to support Puerto Rico?

Mentor someone. There are organizations that can help with that match. Parallel 18 is an accelerator for startups not only in Puerto Rico but internationally. Or if you are an entrepreneur and you happen to travel to Puerto Rico, I would encourage you to go and see how you can mentor startups. Who knows? That can be an opportunity for some kind of partnership or alliance.

3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria

“My motto is perseverance.”

“My motto is perseverance.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Yiselle M. Dipiní Andreu

Name: Yiselle M. Dipiní Andreu
Title: Co-founder and CEO
Company: End-to-end solution for booking musicians StageBoom
Founded: 2016

Why did you want to start your business? What problem did you want to solve?

I have been a musician for over 20 years and one of the few female percussionists in Puerto Rico. My passion for music and knack for business led me to found StageBoom. Our story began in December 2015 when my co-founder Charlie Fuentes and I were working on our first business, which was an advertising agency. In the middle of the holiday season a client asked for two different parties in the same week. Because I was a musician, finding musicians was an easy task. But negotiating, dealing with contracts and the payment process was all fragmented. To fix this problem, we created StageBoom, a platform where you can search for and musicians all in one place. It's like Airbnb but for music.

What has it been like since the storm? What challenges have you dealt with? How have you navigated them?

The hurricane put Stageboom in a tough spot. The bookings that we had in that moment were canceled. I still remember those first days when Charlie and I didn't have a clear answer of what's going to happen with StageBoom. I didn't know when I would be able to hear music again, and that made me very sad and worried. Seeing family, friends and especially so many musicians leaving created a need for us to do something about it. Less than three weeks after the hurricane devastation, even with the lack of electricity, [we held an event] with one of our clients called ¡Bembé en Lote 23! The event was dedicated to giving relief to Puerto Ricans after the hurricane. The musicians who performed in that event were paid. It was an economic boost to help move forward.

When things are tough, how do you stay motivated?

I love that question because my motto is perseverance. When I wake up, I think, This is a new opportunity. This is a new day for me. I love creating a positive and enthusiastic working environment. Seeing people motivated and happy with work is important for me. I want to be a role model for other women so she understands that she can follow her dreams.

Startup life is hard and requires more hours than a normal day of work. So the hurricane, in terms of creating [a feeling of] resilience for me, I look at pressure as an opportunity to go out and prove myself. I'm a true believer of teamwork. Without the team, Charlie and I would not be at the stage we are now. We can get organized and analyze the market and execute, but without the team we cannot achieve any of it.

What is next for your business? What are your goals for the future?

This platform could be used by people from other parts of the world, for example in Miami and in Latin America, like Colombia and Guatemala, so our goal is to go to the next market. We are working on our expansion plan.

What do you want people to know about the entrepreneurial landscape right now in Puerto Rico?

It's hard to be an entrepreneur in Puerto Rico, but you can meet the right people if you begin to get involved with [an entrepreneurial community like Parallel 18]. That for me is key. Hard work and persistence are the key for building your own company and to follow your dreams. [Networking] and the people you surround yourself with [are key]. Right now we are in an interesting situation because a lot of investors see the island as an opportunity. This is a perfect opportunity for us to show that we can create a startup that can scale to the world. Not only for Puerto Rico, but from Puerto Rico.

What can other entrepreneurs do to support Puerto Rico?

In addition to Parallel 18, there is a program called Colmena 66, it's a program to help people in Puerto Rico to begin to understand what a startup is and how to be an entrepreneur. Mentorship for me and Charlie was very key because the person that mentored me helped a lot to see a different point of view. In other words, if I didn't have a mentor, it would be difficult for me to be here today.

3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria

“The future keeps me motivated.”

“The future keeps me motivated.”
Image credit: Courtesy of Josie Edmée Arroyo

Name: Josie Edmée Arroyo
Title: Founder
Company: Greeting card and lifestyle brand Bien Cool
Founded: 2013

Why did you want to start your business? What problem did you want to solve?

The project was born because I needed to pay my student loans. I went to Miami to get my master's degree at Florida International University. Even though I got a job right after graduating and there were other excellent opportunities, my student loans were something that I couldn't afford. So I started looking for a second income, and that was how the brand was born.

We saw that traditional companies like Hallmark and American Greetings are now failing to cater to a new generation's needs. Most of the greeting cards don't speak the way we do. And also English greeting cards are being translated to Spanish and the real message is always lost. Those messages and poems that you see in the traditional brands is not the way we communicate our feelings to our families, friends or significant others.

Bien Cool is short, funny and sometimes risque messages to express what we want to say, the way we actually say it. I can give you the traditional example. For "I love you," we have [cards that say] "te quiero," "te amo" and "te adoro," depending on [what you feel about] that person.

What has it been like since the storm? What challenges have you dealt with? How have you navigated them?

The last two weeks of September and October, we had a few sales, but I don't even count them because it was almost nothing. Everybody was concerned about trying to reach their family, trying to get gas for the cars, the lines in the supermarket and trying to get cash, so greeting cards and agendas were not the priority for obvious reasons.

When things are tough, how do you stay motivated?

Doing the process after Hurricane Maria and being surrounded by other startup founders helped me a lot. When you are going through the same problems in a group, it's always easier than when you are alone. The way we were helping each other and helping other people around Puerto Rico was something that I learned from. The future keeps me motivated.

Even though I've cried almost once a week since the hurricane, I know we're going to be struggling for a little bit more, but I see our future and it looks really good. We have done collaborations with brands such as T-Mobile and Kellogg's, and a few others are already in the pipeline for this year. We're also partnering with other big brands to expand our product portfolio. I have family, brands, customers and even vendors that are supporting me every day.

What is next for your business? What are your goals for the future?

Our plan is to expand to other territories, expand our product portfolio and definitely raise capital. Here in Puerto Rico we have a few startup accelerators, and through those accelerators you can get seed funding.

What do you want people to know about the entrepreneurial landscape right now in Puerto Rico?

Most of us are bootstrapped because we don't have the investment culture here other than friends or family. We were raised to get a degree in a traditional job, to pursue a boss position at a good company. So the startup ecosystem is so new and it's small. If you want to do a global business, you have to raise a lot of money.

What can other entrepreneurs do to support Puerto Rico?

This ecosystem is really new, and we're learning from the startup accelerators and mentors in Puerto Rico, but we need to have global-minded mentoring from other entrepreneurs around the world. We need to actually learn how businesses have been done in other countries in order to learn from them. You can help by trying to find businesses in Puerto Rico where you can partner with them or have any kind of collaboration or expansion opportunities.

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  • 3 Women Entrepreneurs Share Their Stories of Courage, Community and Innovation 8 Months After Hurricane Maria
  • 1. “From crisis comes opportunity.”
  • 2. “My motto is perseverance.”
  • 3. “The future keeps me motivated.”
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