I knew I was in for a ride as soon as I arrived in Santiago and ventured out to the local neighborhoods to hunt for an apartment. It was not so much the huge language barrier, but rather, the non-stop honking and the playful wolf whistling that followed everywhere I went – a surprisingly warm Latin American welcome for an Indian-American girl. That was when I decided to put away my tight white shirt for the rest of my time in Santiago. But that’s a story for another time. Let’s rewind.
I am from New York City, a city bustling with all kinds of incubators but unfortunately, cost expensive equity. I wasn’t really looking for incubating opportunities as the city’s entrepreneurial spirit, diverse community and phenomenal resources were enough to nurture me. Reading the article on Start-Up Chile (SUP) in Inc. Magazine, however, had me intrigued by the equity-free offer of $40,000, access to international networks, and support from the Chilean government with just an agreement to relocate to Chile for six months.
On our part, the timing was fantastic. My company, SkyStem, recently launched ART — a month end balance sheet account reconciliation management system. The market was responding favorably, and I had just expanded my management team. A cash infusion and new networks were just what we needed to skyrocket the business. So we applied, thinking that our chances were slim as this program was open to Start-Up entrepreneurs from around the world.
We were accepted the day before my birthday and it was surely the perfect gift. The feeling of having SkyStem validated globally was priceless. As a bonus, six months in Chile meant that we’d skip winter in New York! I was exhilarated by the possibilities: the people I will meet, the diversity of the other teams, the idea of fast-tracking the company, and the excitement of the unknown.
Upon arrival in Santiago, we received the VIP treatment from SUP personnel who escorted us through the maze of immigration paperwork. Within days we had our residency ID cards, bank accounts and cell phones – if only it was that simple to immerse oneself into all countries! We also had a great orientation to familiarize us with the program and rules. But then we had to find a home, get Internet and figure out how to live in our new city. With the language barrier, it was a really tough few weeks trying to get settled in, despite the help from SUP – but there was some comfort in knowing that others were experiencing the same things.
Other than having monthly meetings to provide status and expenses updates, there seemed to be no input or interference from the program office. It is a very autonomous program. This kind of management style does not work for all. I wish that they had implemented more disciplined guidelines on reaching goals that varied depending on each start up’s maturity.
The program has also been struggling with getting the attention of investors because the local climate does not yet support a culture of tech investment. But after almost a year of hard work, SUP has made immense progress in this area. They are organizing and training entrepreneurs for demo day on May 23, 2012, which has attracted many investors.
If I could change one thing it would be access to more mentors and other entrepreneurs to provide guidance on the business side of things. In some ways SUP is a Start-Up itself – one that is flexible and fluid and only getting better each month. The previous director Jean Boudegar, and even the current one, Horacio Melo, agree that these changes need to be made. We have some great advisors from the US and Chile – such as Vivek Wadhwa who came here in March and Nicolas Shea who is from Chile and the founder of SUP. SUP is making great efforts in bringing in connected and relevant people. Like today (April 10, 2012) – Richard Branson is in Santiago and Start Up Chile is doing a Twitter and FB campaign to see if he can be convinced to come into SUP headquarters.
Reaching Beyond Expectations
Being a part of the SUP program forced me into a sense of community. Apart from my own business – I became motivated by the energy of all the start -ups here and I decided I, too, wanted to make a difference in the Chilean ecosystem. I came up with the idea of Santiago Se Atreve (SSA) – which is an event that unites the local and Start-Up Chile community through technology. Inspired by a popular tech event in New York called New York Tech Meetup, SSA brings entrepreneurs on stage to demonstrate their products without regard to business models or monetization.
The idea is to focus on innovation, creation and connecting people. I thought it would be brilliant to have the same sort of energy, passion and community in Santiago and maybe around the country eventually.
We had our first event on March 13th and it was a success – a true surprise ! I feel grateful for that sense of accomplishment that comes with having pulled it off, and that makes me a more confident entrepreneur. There are many others doing similar wonderful things for the community in the spirit of entrepreneurship. You see leaders, motivators, doers and the formation of international networks being created right in front of you.
I am surely a better person, a more connected person and absolutely a better entrepreneur after this program. I helped a lot of people fine-tune their business models, pivot their businesses and counsel them through tough periods, and this taught me patience and how to give without expectation. The loyalty for the country I feel now is something that money cannot really buy. Chile is definitely my first choice for my Latin American office!