Five Enterprising Women Who Succeed in Cuba
Five Enterprising Women Who Succeed in Cuba
The opening to private businesses meant a great opportunity for the Cuban women, who have taken advantage of this promising context to develop new ideas. Panamericanworld spoke with five entrepreneurs who reveal the genesis and perspectives of their businesses. Tania Góngora Molina, Neptuno Colonial house leaseholder; Maribel Rodríguez Márquez, owner of a café in Centro Habana; Sandra Aldama, founder of the D'Brujas project, dedicated to handmade-soaps manufacture; Cristina Vives, curator and creator of Estudio Figueroa-Vives; and Marié Alvarez Torres, Confecciones Marie designer, tell us what it’s like to be an entrepreneur in Cuba today.
Sandra Aldama inherited from her grandmother the taste for the handmade-soaps manufacture. It is one of the motivations that triggered the D'Brujas project, where she shares with seven other women the idea of producing handmade-soaps, with natural products in unusual and attractive combinations.
“The project started four years ago and we are mostly devoted to making soaps in an artisanal way. That means we don’t use any type of chemical. We use a base of neutral soap, which we enrich with certain natural ingredients. We also try to make them Cuban typical, without having to totally depend on having to import some kind of material”. “Since 2010, with the opening to the private sector, I considered that it could be a good field to exploit here, because it really is something new. In Cuba, we have several types of businesses, but it was like trying to find a space within the cuentapropista (private sector) that wasn’t being exploited. But until 2013 it was just that: study, study to know: What could I use? What could I do it with? How could I do it? And how can I take it in a legal way? That's how the project came about”.
What is it to be an enterprising woman?
“It takes a lot of time, effort, dedication and, sometimes, you get into working a lot and you forget other things and you have to learn to balance certain things. In the end, you face the challenges of any entrepreneur, no business is easy, but being a woman implies home, children. Luckily, my husband has been my total support. I have an eight-year-old boy and since we started in the project, he has always supported me in everything. It's almost nine o'clock at night, he’s in the house with the child, and I'm working. If I had another situation maybe, but not in my case. However, over time, it's been almost four years, we've adapted”.
All the workers are women. Why?
“It's not because we're looking only for women. Precisely it is a more delicate work, that is, it’s not necessary to work with strength. We have tried to establish a work schedule that also favors the family. At some point, we will have brujos, because we need to load a lot of soap. But really yes, right now it's a women's project and business”.
What is the newest thing in D'Brujas?
“We have just taken out three lines of soaps with different characteristics. One for sensitive skin, which are soaps made without fragrance and are designed for allergic people, children, and pregnant women. We have another line of soaps with special oils that aren’t as aromatic as we Cubans like, made with natural cosmetics ingredients. Its importance is not in the smell, but in the skincare. The third line are aromatic soaps enriched with natural oils, they are more decorative and work very well as a gift”.
From the eastern part of the Island to her most recent location in Havana, Tania Góngora has been sharing her daily life with guests from all over the world. “A few years ago I started a national-currency house for rent in Holguín, and I began to gain experience in this type of business. During the process when I am moving to Havana, many possibilities for private businesses began to open up. Thus, I decided to use the house I live as a house for rent to foreigners. It has two bedrooms and each with its own bathroom. A beautiful building from 1925 requires constant maintenance, because it has the original constructive elements, and that has been a challenge. Its decorated ceilings, floor and columns are the originals that were used in the last century, and I prefer to keep it because it attracts and appeals to tourists. Considering these conditions, as well as the breadth and location it has, is that I decided to open the house for rent to foreigners”.
What have been the main challenges you have faced?
“One of them is to make the business fruitful, that is, to be placed on the market, compete and have a good position, especially considering that there is a lot of competition and the business has to be profitable. In addition, I led a whole working life in the state sector, and it has been very complex to face change. On the other hand, I have achieved a warm treatment with the clients, as we Cubans are. Many of them end up in love with Cuba and appreciate our kindness, our values, our culture, even our food; but there is also the communication challenge, with the purpose of communicating with people who speak other languages and come from different countries, each with his or her own culture and very personal traditions”.
Maribel Rodríguez Márquez
Maribel Rodríguez Márquez, owner of the Tu Tiempo (Your Time) coffee shop, started her business after 20 years of experience at the Meliá Habana hotel, and feels that she has achieved good results and loyalty from a greater number of clients every time. “Today we recommend by Tripadvisor, and we received very good comments from customers, which pleases me a lot, not only for the economic benefit it can mean, but because it gives you the measure of a well-done job. I always wanted to have my own business and it has been open for a year and three months now. Many of the clients are satisfied with the products: Creole food, pizzas and spaghetti, sandwiches ... Because of its location, we can say that it is a neighborhood café, where both Cuban people in the area and foreigners who come from visit consume. Breakfast is also offered, and in the mornings it is a very requested service, because there are many rental houses around here”.
What has been the most complicated thing to face?
“Despite my experience in the kitchen, it's never the same when you have to take care of everything and not just the kitchen. It was difficult to start the procedures as cuentapropista (private-business owner). Furthermore, the perspective of several years working for the state sector and suddenly, having to face to carry out my own business. You are learning along the way and don’t stop working”.
Short term plans?
“I want to establish the home-delivery service, which is something that customers ask a lot. For that, you have to evaluate the transport, the dynamics in the kitchen, many things. I also want to open another coffee shop, maybe smaller, another Tu Tiempo, to be dedicated solely to pizzas and Italian food specialties, to diversify and at the same time specialize the offer to the client”.
On 21st Street in Havana, the curator Cristina Vives has, along with her husband, the Figueroa-Vives Studio, where they design exhibitions, curatorial projects and books publications.
"Since the early nineties, I decided to undertake this project with my husband, photographer José Alberto Figueroa, he as an artist and I as an art curator. At that time, I had no structured purpose, but what we wanted was to work with an artist, independently and with the most contemporary ones. Thus, we started with a project that was born from the house itself, which is the family private space: meetings with artists, exhibitions —some that were done outside the house—, but that were thought and cured from here, and others that were made in Cuba or on international circuits”.
"We are happy, because in all the exhibitions there is a lot of public; and not only at the inauguration, but in the following days. The people who pass by the street say “Let's go in, let's see the exhibition”. It has nourished us to see that they come here, not only the artists or the specialized public, but neighbors, people who pass by or are in the park. We realized that we really had a commitment far beyond the one we make with art, but also the one we make with society. That is why we are doing events, meetings, that concern many and that demand from us results, quality and consistency”.
To what do you attribute the success of the Figueroa-Vives Study?
“We began to receive visitors, international institutions, museums, collectors, galleries (both Cuban and international) in the house, at the same time, I started making books about art. Actually, the study work since the early nineties, between 1993 and 1994, begins with this characteristic, to relate and independent cultural management. This is one of the reasons that has allowed the international prestige of the Figueroa-Vives Studio within the Cuban and international cultural scene”.
What is it like to be an enterprising woman?
“As a woman, I cannot tell you anything different than what Figueroa would say to you as a man, or what our daughter would say to you, today as part of the project. Never for me has the feminine issue or the gender issued, neither in the creation, nor in the cultural debate, nor in my life experience, been a difference. It has to do more with the people’s character and my personality is entrepreneurial, it always was”.
Marié Álvarez Torres
Marié Álvarez Torres, confesses that her interest in sewing comes from childhood, and then she began to arrange her own clothes to find a suitable wardrobe and with which she felt comfortable. It is also attractive to make designs for women, where they don’t follow the clothes’ commercial trends or the strident colors that currently enter Cuba.
"I entered the costume design world since the university time, because we all wanted to dress differently and express who we were through the costumes, but we didn’t find what to wear, because in Cuba there were almost no clothes and we didn’t like what we had . That is why, when private businesses in Cuba open, I begin to consider having my own project, where, in addition to my interests in sewing, I could carry out my ideas and where I could express my opinions”.
When did Confecciones Marie start?
“I started processing cloth purses, and that gave me the basis to found the project this year, focusing on offering women's clothes with an aesthetic identity, away from commercial fashions, and at the same time be elegant, sober, functional clothing, that adjusts to the climate on the Island and serves many schedules and spaces. I think the way we dress also says who we are, I'm inspired above all by people I know, who don’t want to dress like everyone else, when everything is stridency and brightness, and that's why I think I found a niche in the Cuban market”.
“The first challenge I had was to learn business. The experience that I obtained through CubaEmprende was useful when organizing the business and knowing the ways in which I should do things. The second was to establish a business in Cuba; because there is a reality that all entrepreneurs face, from locating and obtaining the raw material, to the means to market”.
“I want to create my own clothing brand. A Cuban clothing brand that has its own identity and aesthetic that the public recognizes. This is more in the long term, because first I intend to position the business. I also want to create a line of men's clothing, expand to that sector; and by 2018, I intend to have a store outside the space of my private home, because that helps to make the business more visible”.
Article and photos: Beatriz Rosales