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Church program helps Cuban entrepreneurs

HAVANA — Cuban entrepreneurs are learning the ins and outs of running a private business thanks to the two-year-old Cuba Emprende program in two Catholic dioceses.

The program was started in the Archdiocese of Havana after Cuba introduced economic reforms that allowed for private ownership of business. It has since expanded to the Diocese of Camaguey.

Since its start in May 2012, more than 700 people have completed the training.

Jorge Mandilego, Cuba Emprende's executive director, told Catholic News Service the program is based on a similar initiative developed by the ProEmpleo Foundation in Mexico. Mandilego and his partners were trained by ProEmpleo so they could bring the program to Cuba.

"Draft business incubation includes four key areas," Mandilego said, "but Cuba Emprende offers only three: training, counseling and linkage. The fourth area refers to the seed capital or initial funds to undertake the business, but we do not have the funds nor the legal conditions to offer it."

Classes last four weeks and involve 80 hours of classroom work. It includes modules on human development, marketing, business and management, accounting and finance, sales and customer service. Mandilego considers addressing human development useful because it gives attendees important tools to cope with failures and fears, maintaining self-esteem and resiliency.

Today, about 45 percent of those who attend Cuba Emprende are actual entrepreneurs running private businesses. Another 40 percent have a clear idea on what business they want to initiate. The remaining 15 percent come to be trained but have no specific plans, Mandilego said.

The vast majority of enrollees are women and six out of 10 students have a college degree. At the end the program, each student must submit a draft business plan that is at least 70 percent complete if they want to take advantage of counseling, which guarantees more individualized attention that may last several months and continue once a business is running.

Caridad Limonta had her own successful small business selling household linens before enrolling in Cuba Emprende. She started producing tablecloths and sheets that she sold to friends and friend of friends. Then she heard about Cuba Emprende and decided to explore what the program offered.

Limonta admitted being skeptical at first, but soon realized that she had found "something that would give me another sense of both business and life."

"I advanced so far in my business I was offered a closer and a more cooperative consultancy. With the help of my son and trainers of the program I could develop and put in practice a renovate idea of my business and created my own logo. Other members of my family who were working with me also came to Cuba Emprende," she said,

"People who live this experience start perceiving that things can be done in a different and better way," she added, "even here in Cuba where legal conditions are not the best (for private business)."

That is perhaps the mark of Cuba Emprende.

"Once the attendees get involved into program dynamic, they leave behind their entrepreneur way of thinking and become more cooperative to improve their businesses. They realize how important and necessary is the advice we offer to help them to move through legal paths, or how helpful is to improve the accountant work in their business," Mandilego said.

Finding the financing to open a business and overcoming instability in commodities markets are perhaps the greatest hurdles entrepreneurs face, Mandilego said. He also pointed out that the "legal environment" poses obstacles to the development of business markets.

"That is why we are pushed to go to the black market in many occasions," said one attendee, who asked to remain unidentified. "It is the truth that the government has enacted new laws to encourage people to become entrepreneurs, but the way to succeed is still quite awkward; therefore we are not so confident in our success.

"But this workshop proves a great truth," she continued. "Cubans want to work and to do right things for themselves and for the society, to do right things for others; all that we need is the opportunity, a real free environment to show what we are able to do."

Mandilego said the staff running Cuba Emprende is committed to the idea of entrepreneurship.

"We know it is good for Cuba. We have hope and we bet on this country," he said.

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