Colombia’s best-known beach town is getting a makeover. Cartagena de Indias, known for its colonial architecture, romantic cobblestone streets, and intense tropical heat, is in the nascent stages of reinventing itself as a startup hub, driven by the efforts of determined entrepreneurs.
However, building and growing a startup on the Colombian coast is still an uphill battle; with most public and private capital focused on big cities like Bogota and Medellin, it can be hard for entrepreneurs in Cartagena to break through the bureaucracy.
Community Growth and Collaboration
In the past two years, there has been a concerted effort by groups like Gen E, Coworking Cartagena, The Biz Nation, and VamosA to create a robust, supportive entrepreneurship community in Cartagena to foster innovation and growth.
These initiatives are starting to show results. InnPulsa, the Colombian government’s entrepreneurship fund, identifies 17 startups as active in Cartagena, with several more in early stages of development.
Perhaps more notable, however, is the strength of the growing startup community in Cartagena.
Gen E, a Whatsapp group founded to connect the entrepreneurs of Cartagena, initially had seven members when Garcilaso de la Vega and Camilo Marrugo started it in 2016. The group now has 159 members, all of whom are entrepreneurs or aspiring entrepreneurs passionate about making a difference in their hometown.
Gen E has even gained the attention of the local chamber of commerce and, several members were invited to speak at an event in October, explaining how to cultivate new businesses in Cartagena. More than anything, stated De La Vega, “everyone in Gen E supports each other. We show up to each other’s events, we spread the word about our friend’s launches, and we raise funds for their causes together.”
Unique Startup Events
The strength of this community was demonstrated this November 2017, when VamosA, an international entrepreneurship training program operating out of Cartagena and Medellin, helped organize a Pitch Night alongside Gen E and Coworking Cartagena, a pop-up coworking space in the city that caters to Colombian entrepreneurs.
Pitch Nights are meant to be a low-stakes opportunity to practice a pitch in front of an audience both to receive feedback and to grow the network of local entrepreneurs. Despite the event coming only a few days after Techstars’ Startup Weekend in Cartagena, the venue at Cafe Stepping Stone in Getsemani was packed.
VamosA had also brought several students from the US to Cartagena to learn firsthand about the entrepreneurship community through workshops and networking events like Pitch Night. What they got was a clear picture of the supportive and inclusive entrepreneurial community that is budding in the city.
Inspiration from Experienced Pioneers
Even Cartagena’s most successful entrepreneurs are involved in helping this community grow. During its first year, Gen E was led by Karen Carvajalino, one of the three Carvajalino sisters who were some of the first from Cartagena to pursue entrepreneurship. The sisters have founded a handful of businesses together, including their current operation, The Biz Nation, an online education platform to teach entrepreneurship skills to a Spanish-speaking audience. They also run a K-12 private school focused on entrepreneurial and leadership education called the Cartagena International School.
While the Carvajalino sisters may have pioneered the current movement, it has now taken off on its own. The nascent tech scene in Cartagena is heavily focused innovating in the industries that make this city famous, namely tourism and shipping. As a result, Cartagena has produced startups like Soundwlkers, an app that provides on-demand audio guides to tourists based on their geographic location, and Nauty360, an app that allows for safe and secure boat rentals of any kind.
Furthermore, a Cartagena-based gaming company, Biinyu Games, has been awarded by the local chamber of commerce, as well as being recognized by larger software companies in Bogota as an innovative player in the country’s video game industry. While there is still very little localized support from the government for entrepreneurship, specifically in tech, Cartagena-based software company Solucion Telematica, is providing pay-as-you-go digital services for startups and companies on the coast.
Challenging the Status Quo
In many ways, Cartagena is still considered a challenging city for business, ranking 17th out of 32 cities in Colombia on the Doing Business report. Power and capital is concentrated in the hands of a few people who are centered around the import-export business coming out of the country’s biggest port.
Even so, serial entrepreneur and investor from Cartagena, Camilo Marrugo, said that status quo is beginning to change. Marrugo, who returned to the city two years ago after 20 years abroad, sees untapped opportunities everywhere in the city, making it a significant economic force that is still battling with severe inequality.
Last year, the government of Bolivar state launched a seed stage fund “Fondo Emprender” to invest between 40 million COP (US$14,000) and 115 million COP (US$40,000) in promising ventures in Cartagena. However, Marrugo thinks there is an opportunity for private investment to make a big difference in Cartagena’s entrepreneurial growth.
With the members of Cartagena’s scrappy startup community already helping each other to chase their dreams, a pool of investment might just set this coastal city on a path to become one of Colombia’s centers of innovation — especially for the tourism sector.
Cartagena is much more than just a beach town; it is a bustling metropolis in one of Latin America’s largest ports that is eager to start innovating.