“The land was barren. It didn’t produce anything. It was just dirt and rocks.” Cuban farmer, entrepreneur, and scholar, Fernando told us. “My mentor and
I dug the (40 foot) well by hand. It took us 7 months. (Pointing at the top of the barn) The electricity is provided by the solar panel…soon we will
install a wind turbine because that breeze you feel is constant for us year round.” His voice projected the physical juxtaposition of confidence, expertise,
and HOPE. We have been fortunate to witness this paradox many times the world over. Through iNvictus Forward Outreach’s (http://www.invictusoffice.com/invictus-forward-outreach)
EMERGE (Entrepreneurship, Mentoring, Economic Development, Research, Growth in Business(es), and Education) program, we focus our efforts on minority
entrepreneurs. Many times these venture leaders have their beginnings in low resource communities. These communities are often viewed by many as economically
barren, but not just the land; unfortunately, the indictment is castigated on the people as well. Yet time and time again, through relationships with
the entrepreneurs and communities, we find this similar mixture of sentiment: part confidence, part expertise, and a whole lotta HOPE.
We witnessed it while serving on the Durham Innovation Council as a part of the Forward Cities Initiative (www.ForwardCities.org)
in Durham, Cleveland, Detroit and New Orleans. We see it through our service on the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Community Leadership Council (https://www.zsr.org/content/leadership-council)
in small and medium size cities across the state of North Carolina. It’s prevalent in often overlooked neighborhoods in Durham, NC like East Durham,
the West End, MacDougald Terrace, the Cornwallis Community and countries across the globe, many labeled “emerging markets,” where we serve or are laying
the foundation to serve, like Rwanda. It’s an interesting dynamic of paradigm change to see, hear, feel and experience.
We were recently invited to participate in a delegation to serve in Cuba. The delegation brought together by Mickey Bergman, Director of The Aspen Institute
Global Alliances Program (https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/global-alliances-program) and the Founder of Fringe Diplomacy (http://www.fringediplomcy.com)
combined twenty persons from varying (and we would soon learn, impressive) backgrounds. We met in Miami and together boarded a flight to Cuba with
a very broad charge: to serve in whatever capacity our knowledge and expertise would allow. I soon realized there wasn’t any gift more suitable to
have on this trip than a strong desire to listen, learn and experience.
Cuba offered us so much. Let’s begin with the obvious of a Caribbean island. The sites were breathtaking. The culture permeated
our every inhale. And, the pride was pervasive. The people we met continuously discussed how fast things were changing and how excited they were, filled
with the anticipation of these continual changes. They were relatively aware and insistent that these changes should still come riddled with patience.
Their love for Cuba was relayed in their every word. Owners of cooperatives (business owners) explained to us how exciting it was to be a business
owner in a country that didn’t always present that option as a profession. Like all entrepreneurs, they shared their successes and pain points with
equal vigor. Those successes and pain points were not foreign to us, nor were they innate to Cuba. Textile (clothing) manufacturers, construction companies,
farmers, restaurateurs, you name it, not only did the people of Cuba have it, they were good at it! We witnessed the results firsthand of the inclusive
(competitiveness) innovation that Johnathan Holifield of Scale Up Partners (http://www.scaleuppartners.com/approach/) has detailed with me over the
past couple years.
College professors, who work with student entrepreneurs at the University of Havana, shared their expertise with us. Personally,
I found this meeting very impressive and forward leaning. They weren’t thinking in small terms at all. They saw Cuba and its future economy in a very
macro way. Admittedly, the path ahead of them was a difficult one. However, very similar to what we hear from entrepreneurs in low resource communities
all over the world, the future, from their perspective, is remarkably brighter than was the past. Did the sixty plus year embargo (or blockade as the
Cubans refer to it) the United States initiated with Cuba adversely affect the Cubans and the Cuban economy? Sure, in a myriad of ways. Many of which
aren’t much different from the unofficial, but just as intentional, embargo most majority dominant culture financial institutions within the United
States have enacted on minority communities for centuries. In fact, much of the poverty, limited networks and access to technical support and funding
for entrepreneurs was eerily reminiscent of what the majority of communities of color experience globally. Yet, HOPE was there at every stop of our
Fernando went on to inform our group that they currently employ dozens of farmers and are farming 5 different farms now.
They also have a bee farm that produces honey ten months of the year. His business sells its produce to many of the best restaurants in the country.
In fact, to inject a personal testimony, before our arrival at Fernando’s farm we unknowingly had lunch at a restaurant that carries his produce and
I had already told those at my table during lunch that it was by far the best salad I had eaten in my entire life. At a loss for words to adequately
describe the efforts we witnessed and experienced in Cuba, the word hopeful comes to mind. In so many cases, I was inspired by the forward leaning
perspectives of the Cubans. Given the hurdles they’ve faced, quitting was a very viable option. Some might say it was expected. They never met Fernando…
mentoring and civic service since 1993. While remaining very active mentoring entrepreneurs and serving on for and non-profit boards and volunteering
with organizations dedicated to lowering the prison recidivism rate, increasing minority representation in STEM fields, and addressing the generational
wealth gap, he serves as Chief Strategy Officer of iNvictus Group Holdings, LLC. iGH is an investment group he co-founded in 2010 to address the inequities
that adversely affect low resource communities and minority populations, using entrepreneurship and education as vehicles of change. Ed also serves
as board chair of iNvictus Forward Outreach, the 501(c)3 federally tax-exempt non-profit arm of the iNvictus brand. He is a member of the second cohort
of the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation’s Community Leadership Council, a group of 20 diverse leaders selected from across NC.