Impact Hub is a global network of hubs and innovators, and each local office holds a distinct character and flavor. At Impact Hub Boston, we see various subgroups of entrepreneurs, with a cluster of folks coming from Venezuela. Given the history of Venezuela and its recent turbulence, I set out to learn a bit about the country and talk to a few of these now-local folks.
Since I didn’t know much about the country, by way of background, the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela is on the northern coast of South America, bordered by Colombia on the west, Brazil on the south, Guyana on the east, and the Caribbean Sea in the north, with the islands of Trinidad and Tobago to the northeast. In 1498, during his third voyage to the Americas, Christopher Columbus sailed near the Orinoco Delta. Amazed by the great offshore current of freshwater, he wrote that he must have reached Heaven on Earth (terrestrial paradise). He named the region the ‘Land of Grace,’ an often-used nickname to this day.
Venezuela has an estimated population of around 33 million with extremely high natural biodiversity (currently ranking seventh in the world’s list of nations with the most number of species), with habitats ranging from the Andes Mountains to the Amazon Basin rainforest via extensive plains and coastline. Unfortunately, however, Venezuela is also leading in deforestation. Between 1990 and 2005, Venezuela officially lost 8.3% of its forest cover. In response, federal protections were established for critical habitats such that between 20% to 33% of forested land is now protected.
In 1811, Venezuela became one of the first Spanish-American colonies to declare independence, although from 1819 it was a part of Gran Colombia and it wasn’t until 1830 that it gained full independence as its own sovereign nation. Since 1958, the country has had a series of democratic governments. View of Caracas and the Venezuelan Capital District — taken from Mount Avila (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons):
The discovery of massive oil deposits in Lake Maracaibo during World War I propelled Venezuela to become one of the world’s leading exporters of oil. Reducing its dependence on agricultural exports transformed the economy and prompted an economic boom such that by 1935, Venezuela’s per capita gross domestic product was Latin America’s highest. The collapse of oil prices during the 1980s, however, crippled the Venezuelan economy and led to a debt crisis in which the standard of living fell dramatically. 1994 also saw Venezuela experience a major banking crisis and the subsequent rise of poverty and crime, and increased political instability which saw inflation peak at 100% in 1996 and poverty rates rise to 66% in 1995.
The “Bolivarian Revolution” occurred in 1998, leading to the election of career military officer Hugo Chavez as President until 2013. Named after Simon Bolivar, the Latin American revolutionary leader prominent in the Spanish American wars of independence, the revolution maintained a socialist perspective on mass movements to implement popular democracy, economic independence, equitable distribution of revenues, and an end to political corruption in Venezuela.
In early 2013, Venezuela devalued its currency such that now, shortages are common in regulated products like milk, meat, chicken, coffee, rice, oil, precooked flour, butter, as well as necessities such as toilet paper, personal hygiene products, and medicine. Further, in 2015, Venezuela was considered the “most murderous place on Earth,” and violent crimes have become so prevalent that the government no longer produces crime data.
Intrigued by all this history, I spoke to a few Impact Hub Boston members about what makes the Venezuelan immigrant community unique, and why they might be attracted to Impact Hub.
Juan Perfetti (seen above with his family) is the CEO of the Comunicas Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes direct democracy, freedom of speech, citizen participation, and human rights in neighborhoods, with operations in Venezuela and Massachusetts. A serial entrepreneur on two continents, he immigrated to the US with his family in the fall of 2014. He sees the draw to Impact Hub and the innovation community as a natural fit. There is, after all, an Impact Hub in Caracas, home of the initial revolt against Spain. In his mind, Venezuelans are a creative, innovative, and entrepreneurial people. As examples, he cites the current president of MIT, Dr. L. Rafael Reif, who is “pursuing an aggressive agenda to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship,” as well as Gustavo Dudamel, the Music & Artistic Director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and Music Director of the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela, and is one of the most decorated conductors of his generation. The experiences with politics, governmental power, and revolution have created a generation of well-educated Venezuelan folks who are eager to engage on the world stage. They see their history, as well as their current reality, in the context of a more global perspective.
I next sat down with Victoria Graf, who immigrated to the US with her family when she was eight years old and was raised in Houston. She found herself at Impact Hub Boston while pursuing her university studies focused on mass media and the rise of social media usage in Venezuela and has also spent time at the Impact Hub in Colombia. She sees social media usage as increasing Venezuelan awareness of both the world at large as well as what is happening within their borders. She sees a Venezuelan consciousness of empowerment and wanting to create change based on their experiences of how difficult things can get in their own lives. Since they seek places to make change, the Impact Hub is a natural fit.
Andrea Ramirez (seen above sliding in a Venezuelan desert) came to the US only about a year ago to pursue her Master’s degree in Corporate Communications at Northeastern University. Her family decided to emigrate (her parents went to Barcelona) as they experienced increased violence, lack of resources and daily supplies, and salaries decreased time and again. She also described Venezuelans as creative, innovative, and social people, coming from a place where those traits are a requirement to survive. She sees the Impact Hub as a place to thrive and solve problems, be they local or global, and it gives her hope and opportunity to contribute to the creation of a better world.
All three also spoke of missing the weather in Venezuela, which might make anybody think about it as a prime vacation spot. Below is a picture of Kukenan and Roraima tepuis, in Canaima National Park in southeast Venezuela. The park is about the size of the state of Maryland:
I greatly enjoyed my conversations and learning from these folks, and look forward to more engagement with the local Venezuelan community. What is clear is that the Impact Hub is a local place for such an immigrant community to land, and these are only a sampling of their voices. We can no doubt expect great things to come from them!