On September 20, Hurricane Maria lashed the island of Puerto Rico with fierce winds and rainfall that led to waist-deep flooding, widespread power outages, and devastating infrastructure damage. Just three weeks later, President Donald Trump was already putting Puerto Ricans on notice that the federal government’s support would be limited. Despite all that, Lote23, a food park in the San Juan neighborhood of Santurce, has emerged largely unscathed. Surrounded by palm trees and colorful high rises on three sides, the park’s 16 food kiosks managed to stay standing despite wind speeds of up to 156 miles per hour.
“A lot of trees fell, but the structures were all in good shape, and we were able to open the Saturday after Maria,” says Cristina Sumaza, owner of Lote23. Running on generators and gas equipment, chefs changed their menus to account for the few ingredients to which they had access. “We had to adjust prices,” says Sumaza, since the storm damage made cash withdrawals from ATMs impossible for most. Some nine weeks later, harsh realities like these still characterize life in the U.S. territory. Many Puerto Ricans remain without electricity, daily tasks now seem like a mountain to climb, and access to fresh food and clean water is limited.
Now, women entrepreneurs like Sumaza are leading a push not just to advance post-Maria recovery efforts, but also to continue pursuing what they saw as their mandate even before the calamity: widening economic opportunity through innovation.
“What We’re Doing Now Is A Matter Of Survival”
If Lote23 is something of an anomaly for surviving Hurricane Maria more or less intact, it’s unusual for a second reason, too. It’s one of very few women-owned businesses on an island with a troubled business landscape. Puerto Rico faces over $70 billion in public debt, and since 2004 more than 400,000 Puerto Ricans have left in search of more stable livelihoods. Some analysts expect that wave of emigration to pale in comparison to the exodus likely to come, which is already under way. The New York Times reported earlier this month that over 168,000 Puerto Ricans have already left the island –whose current population is 3.4 million–for Florida since the hurricane, and that may only be the beginning.
With the natural disaster only exacerbating economic distress, some see an even greater need for post-Maria Puerto Rico to capitalize on the leadership of women, an under-leveraged demographic in a place that many say needs entrepreneurial talent more than ever before.
For Lucienne Gigante and Carlos Cobian, two Puerto Rican entrepreneurs, a key component to Puerto Rico’s economic development–and now, its recovery as well–is women. “We truly believe that every dollar we invest in a woman is actually an investment in a family, a community, a society, and Puerto Rico,” says Gigante, who is also the founder of Access Latina, a San Juan–based accelerator program for Latinas in STEAM (or science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematical) fields.
It’s hard to predict Hurricane Maria’s long-term impact on Puerto Rico, but the potential that Gigante and Cobian see for women to reshape its future is clearer. For one thing, the island is getting incrementally more female; according to census data, between 2010 and 2016, women increased their share of Puerto Rico’s population from 52.1% to 52.4%, while the proportion of women in the U.S. overall was lower, remaining flat at 50.8% over those six years. What’s more, the last 15 years have seen a bump in Latina entrepreneurship throughout the U.S. that Gigante and Cobian say has extended to Puerto Rico despite the island’s economic troubles. As of 2013, the Center for American Progress estimated that Latinas headed up one in 10 women-owned businesses in the U.S., together generating $65.7 billion in annual revenue–an increase of 180% from 1997.
Accelerating that trend won’t be easy; observers predict the economic fallout from Maria to exacerbate the already dire inequalities women face in Puerto Rico’s labor force. Writing in Slate, New America researcher Alieza Durana points out that “the Puerto Rican economy, and viable economic opportunities for women, had already been decimated for years” by the start of the Great Recession in 2008, which led legislators to slash education funding and social programs. “On top of these problems,” she writes, “the hurricane coincides with massive expected cuts coming on the heels of debt restructuring that Puerto Rico has been undergoing since 2016.” These pressures are all likely to put formal, full-time employment–to say nothing of entrepreneurial opportunities–further out of reach for many women.
Hardly blind to these challenges, Gigante and Cobian set out to mitigate some of them in 2015 by launching the Animus Summit, an initiative anchored by an annual conference designed to equip Latinas–both in and outside Puerto Rico–with the tools and skills they need to start and run their own businesses. Last year the conference drew roughly 1,000 attendees, up 400 from its inaugural year. The goal, says Gigante, is to “open doors for capital and resources for women to not only make their ideas come true, but to scale those businesses.” Animus hasn’t changed its mission since Hurricane Maria swept through the island, she explains. But with so much property destroyed and many Puerto Ricans struggling just to survive (let alone spend money at local businesses), the organization has had to meet more urgent demands.
“Imagine an economy in financial distress for so many years being hit by this kind of natural disaster,” says Gigante. Since Maria, Gigante and Cobian have changed the summit’s agenda to incorporate disaster relief and emotional support for those affected by the hurricane. “If [before Maria] our job had meaning and purpose, now it’s a completely different ball game,” Cobian adds. “If what we were doing was purposeful, then what we’re doing now is a matter of survival.”
The organization recently launched an initiative called Animus Rebuild, which would be easy to write off as a cynical effort to keep registrations on track for the third annual Summit, which kicks off on December 2, were it not redirecting funds toward the recovery effort. Participants now have the option of purchasing either a ticket at a 30% discount ($148) or else a full-price ticket ($211) from which 30% will be donated to a “Pay It Forward fund” dedicated to rebuilding local women-led businesses in Puerto Rico.
Optimism Against All Odds
Other businesses are finding their own ways to help out. Lote23 “has actually served as a space for [residents] to think about other things or recharge their batteries,” owner Cristina Sumaza explains, “because every day is now a challenge.” She adds that the space has also held larger community events, free yoga on Sundays, movies on Tuesdays, and concerts featuring local artists since the hurricane hit. In late September, just days after Maria, Lote23 hosted several nonprofits that were organizing relief efforts and connecting community members with volunteering opportunities. There was music and food, people danced, and it was more packed than ever before, Sumaza says.
“I’m trying to look at how we can engage the creative industry while also creating a space that allows people to think through things and manage stress,” says Sumaza, conceding that that’s a tall order. But some of the efforts that were under way long before Maria to support women entrepreneurs like her have made it possible to rise to the challenge in its aftermath. Sumaza herself participated in a startup pitch at the Animus Summit last year and found her last investor there. And this year, Lote23 will be featured in the A+ Marketplace, a new space set aside at this year’s summit to showcase women-led companies on the island.
Sumaza says she’d originally planned to use that opportunity to boost Lote23’s profile as a leading San Juan event space, but after Maria, that’s changed. She wants to focus now on “strategic collaboration that can help us move the island forward.”
These wider ambitions–to think creatively about how to not only recover but come back stronger than before–is shared by other Latina business owners in Puerto Rico. Jossie Edmée Arroyo, founder of Bien Cool, a greeting-card line sold in local Walmarts, says she’s had to pivot her business model as a result of Maria. With stores closed and more pressing needs superseding demand for greeting cards, the company’s sales have dropped.
“When you have 85% of your sales coming from Puerto Rico but the island has no electricity or water or internet, you have to figure out what to do,” says Arroyo. Yet despite these obstacles, she sees new opportunities for keeping Bien Cool afloat; Arroyo soon plans to start exporting to the Dominican Republic and the U.S. Hurricane Maria, in other words, forced her to take her local business into new markets out of sheer necessity. If the move succeeds, Arroyo hopes the revenue will help her company come back as an even stronger force–and a truly international Puerto Rico-based business.
In the meantime, Gigante and Cobian are working to keep up morale. “One of the biggest problems we have is people have lost hope and are very negative. The first thing is changing mind-sets,” says Cobian, who hopes that next month’s lineup of Animus speakers and examples of women leaders rebuilding will inspire others to take action in their own ways. Both acknowledge it will be a long road. “We need so much economic development,” Gigante concedes, but she nevertheless remains adamant about one thing: “We believe that women are key to the rebuilding of Puerto Rico.”