05 de mayo de 2014
Colombia a surprising leader in high tech
In the past four months alone, a parade of foreign dignitaries has passed through the Bay Area: the prime minister of Israel, the foreign minister of Egypt, the governor general of Canada.
Publicado el 4 de mayo de 2014 en San Francisco Chronicle
Photo ops with Silicon Valley types seem almost a prerequisite for global diplomacy, especially for those who want to present their countries as centers of high-tech innovation.
But Luis Villegas, Colombia's ambassador to the United States, stands out from the international cattle call. As a career businessman and a key member of the government team trying to negotiate an end to Colombia's disastrous civil war, Villegas represents the pragmatic hope that pervades the South American country and longtime U.S. ally.
I say pragmatic because Villegas, like his Countrymen, is smart enough to know that negotiations with FARC - a Marxist-inspired insurgent group active for half a century - could collapse at any moment. But for the first time in decades, there is hope in Colombia, and not just the wishful thinking sort.
Last year, Colombia's economy grew a healthy 4.3 percent, thanks to energy, agriculture and mining. But even more surprisingly, cities like Bogota, the capital, and Medellin have emerged as legitimate hubs for tech startups. In fact, the Wall Street Journal and Citibank named Medellin the world's most innovative city last year. The city, perhaps best known as the hometown of drug kingpin Pablo Escobar, beat out New York and Tel Aviv.
"A lot of Colombians in America are coming back to their country," Villegas told me. "They feel that they have new opportunities there. Security has returned to the country and they feel safe. Perception has almost moved at the same pace as reality."
Villegas' remarks would have been unthinkable just a few years ago, when the country verged on collapse. The government was not only battling FARC but a host of other rebel groups in the pocket of major drug cartels. But, thanks to military support from the United States, Colombia has severely weakened FARC and pushed the group back to the bargaining table.
Colombia has made the most of the moment. So much so, other developing countries and even the U.S. can learn much from how it so effectively unleashed the energy and talent of its people.
After improving security, the country was able to better generate income from abundant supplies of coal, oil and minerals. Unlike other developing states content with petro dollars, Colombia immediately focused on building a high-tech economy.
"The government really cares about this," said Adeo Ressi, CEO of the Founder Institute, which provides advice and training to entrepreneurs across the world in exchange for equity in startups. The Mountain View group, which seeks to "globalize Silicon Valley," has opened chapters in Bogota and Medellin.
For the government, the first step was to spend on social services like education and universal health care.
"We need a dynamic middle class," Villegas said. "Enterprises know that those newcomers from poverty to the middle class are new consumers in a market that's still growing. And that's pretty uncommon in the developing world.
"But there was a missing ingredient," he said.
So the government created Live Digital, a $2.5 billion campaign to establish broadband Internet access throughout the country, even in remote jungle areas near the borders with Venezuela, Peru and Brazil.
The results have been dramatic. Global consulting giant A.T. Kearney recently ranked Bogota seventh in its Emerging Cities Outlook index, which measures the potential of human capital, innovation and business development in developing nations.
"Colombia is fast becoming a regional hub for technology startups," Ressi said. "Right now, I think Colombia and Chile are the two markets that are vying for leadership positions in Latin America."
Colombia has not only financially supported startups with grants, but also forged close ties with Silicon Valley. In 2012, Hewlett-Packard opened a global services center in Medellin to provide call center services and back-end tech support to customers.
Among Colombia's prominent startups are ComparaMejor.com, a website in Bogota that specializes in financial products and insurance policies, and LaBonoteca in Medellin, which has developed an application for smartphones that offers discounts and promotions.
"There are so many incubators sprouting up right now," said Brian Reale, CEO of Colosa Inc., a software firm in Colombia. "You hold anything with the word startup and people show up."
The tech world is famous for moving fast, but the ambassador said the most valuable lesson Silicon Valley has taught Colombia is patience.
"Something that takes 10 years is an eternity for any Latin politician or entrepreneur," he said. "We decided that time is needed for startups and that's what we learned from Silicon Valley. You have to accompany the people, finance them, give technical advice for longer periods of time."
Bringing skills back
What excites Villegas is the prospect of Colombians who live in the United States bringing their skills and passion back to the country. Between 2000 and 2011, the number of Colombian high-tech entrepreneurs in America jumped 247 percent, a faster growth rate than any other country in the world, according to report released in March by the Kauffman Foundation.
It's ironic. Colombian entrepreneurs may have learned the value of patience, but their lightning-fast progress suggests the opposite.
Thomas Lee is a San Francisco Chronicle business editor and columnist.
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