Jim Barrood, head of the New Jersey Technology Council, is organizing a trip to Cuba for business leaders. The voyage to the embargoed country may not have been worthwhile a few years ago, but with relations between the U.S. and Cuba thawing, Barrood sees Cuba as a recruiting ground for doctors and high-tech workers as well as a partner in trade.
Although free trade between the two countries is yet to come, Barrood wants to investigate the possibilities of doing business between New Jersey and the underdeveloped island nation.
“I think it starts with building those relationships at this early stage so that when free trade is allowed, we can sell our products to them and they can sell whatever exports they have to us,” Barrood says. Barrood noted that Cuba already has export products, such as cigars, that are appealing to the American marketplace, and that the country is itself a ripe market for telecommunications infrastructure. Only five percent of Cubans currently have Internet access, he says, so there is a lot of work to be done to bring the country into the information age.
The trip is scheduled for April 12 to 18. Barrood is hoping to recruit several dozen business leaders for the voyage, and already has signed on venture capitalist (and citizen astronaut) Greg Olsen and other businesspeople including Scott Megill, CEO of Coriel Life Sciences; James M. Golubieski, president of the New Jersey Health Foundation; Monica Smith, founder of Marketsmith Inc.; David Shulkin, CEO of Morristown Medical Center; Gene Waddy, founder of Diversant; and Venu Myeni, founder of Radiant Systems.
The proposed trip is not the first attempt to make the Cuban connection for the local business community. The Mid-Jersey Chamber of Commerce also had a trip to Havana in 2013. Barrood says he got the idea for the new voyage last year when he visited Cuba for his previous job at the entrepreneurship center at Fairleigh Dickinson University.
“I was looking to build ties with the entrepreneurial community and educational community,” he says. “It was obviously a fascinating trip, and I made some connections.”
The university delegation met with Cuban academics, state officials, and business people. While historically, Cuba’s socialist government has discouraged free enterprise, they have recently loosened restrictions and allowed some private businesses to operate in competition with state-owned businesses. Barrood said he met with some Cuban entrepreneurs including a woman who had opened three restaurants.
Barrood’s take on Cuba’s business climate was that it had a long way to go before becoming competitive, but also had a lot of potential. “What was surprising was the amount of Internet access is so low,” he says. “They do have cell phones, but they are expensive.”
The average wage in Cuba is only about $20 a month, according to the National Statistics and Information Office. Barrood says he found it troubling that people were living on so little money. He saw people using government-issued ration books to buy food, but they told him the rations only lasted a few days each month.
However, on the upside, Barrood says the population appeared to be well educated and had access to healthcare. He believes the highly trained workforce could be a good resource for American businesses. “One of the things we have is a talent shortage. There are more jobs than there are qualified people, so we want to make sure that as things open up, we attract the smartest Cubans to collaborate with us,” he says. He also hopes Cubans can be encouraged to immigrate to New Jersey, open up businesses, and become doctors.
“We need thousands and thousands of doctors,” Barrood says. “Their talent is very important for the health of our economy going forward.”
If Cuba’s economy opens up, it will not be the first time a country has come out from under the thumb of a state-controlled economic system. Barrood visited Yugoslavia in the late 1980s and then visited some of the Balkan countries after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and saw how the different places managed the transition to capitalism, some more successfully than others.
“The good thing is that there are enough case studies from Eastern Europe and other places that hopefully government officials in Cuba will take the insights from those transitions and manage their transition in the best way possible,” he says. “Because it’s a poor country, suddenly opening up to capitalism, it’s going to be a challenge.”
Barrood hopes that both countries can benefit from Cuba opening up to trade.
For more information and to sign up for the trip, visit www.njtc.org, call 856-787-9700, or E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.