Cuba 2018
Monday, April 23, 2018

Over spring break, 12 University of Iowa students traveled to Cuba to further their entrepreneurial and cultural studies by working with Cuban businesses and participating in local culture.

“This trip to Cuba was in the works for two years,” says Dimy Doresca, Director of the UI Institute for International Business. Although this was Dimy’s third trip to Cuba, this was the first faculty-led student trip. Doresca led the trip with James Dreier, University of Iowa drum set-latin based percussion specialist and educator.

Because this trip was the first of its kind, the 12 students were required to take a class to help them prepare for their venture to Cuba. They learned about Cuban culture, the places they would be visiting, and local businesses they were going to be working with.

Sean Conrad (Business Management, Spanish) says he couldn’t pass up the trip because of the opportunity to learn about Cuban culture and global business perspectives. “I thought this would be an excellent way to build my strengths as a business minded individual and Spanish speaker,” he says.

The first day in Cuba, the UI group spent their morning in Marianao, a part of Cuba that tourists don’t often see. Marianao is an Afro-Cuban community where many marginalized groups live.

Doresca says it was good for students to visit Marianao so they could realize how fortunate they are to have the resources they have in the U.S. “I think it was the most impactful part of the trip, very eye opening,” says Doresca. Music students who attended the trip made it their mission to put on a performance when they arrived back in the U.S. to raise funds to give back to the Marianao community.

The group spent most of their time in Havana where they stayed with host families. Once settled, the students got to work helping local businesses.

One business the students consulted was the Giganteria Theatre, a private enterprise and street performing group located in Plaza de Armas in Old Havana. The theatre was founded in 2000 and the members are self-taught artists and entrepreneurs. Theatre director Susana Gil Padrón explained to the students that the main issues the group faces are space and supplies. As far as brand awareness, the theatre group had not been aggressive in marketing tactics. By researching the theatre and understanding their artistic goals, the students were able to identify ways to increase the theatre’s revenue with effective low maintenance marketing strategies. In exchange for their help, the students were offered a chance to participate in a dance and music street performance with the theatre.

“Music is in the Cuban people. They dance, play and sing any time,” says Doresca. “Music is a part of every Cuban’s life.” The group often enjoyed the evening music ambience and embraced Cuban culture by studying the music and dancing.

The second business that students worked with was Cooperativa Vitria, a co-operative founded by Irena Martĺnez and Adriana de la Nuez that specializes in creating stained glass artwork. Cooperativa Vitria operates out of an abandoned convent, which makes sales difficult because they do not have an open and inviting storefront. Before visiting the co-operative, students researched the organization and performed SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and PEST (Political, Economic, Socio-cultural, and Technological) analyses to brainstorm ideas that could improve the co-operative’s business model. Ultimately, the students decided to focus their efforts on growing the cooperative’s online presence in order to gain more tourist traffic. Martinez and de la Nuez wanted to help the students learn about their business as much as they could, so they allowed each student to try their hand at cutting glass. As the students began to understand how the artists worked, they were curious to explore ways in which the co-operative could incorporate a do-it-yourself experience into their business.

“Overall the Cuban businesses were very willing to learn new ways of doing business, and receptive to learn what the students had to say,” says Doresca.

Conrad says that the most valuable part of the trip was how many different perspectives the UI group was exposed to. “Every day we had a chance to meet and learn from Cuban citizens in a number of different settings,” he says. “From local religious leaders to college professors, our exposure to life in Cuba was as diverse as it was informative.”

Yifan Zhu (Interdepartmental Studies, International Business) agrees. “I enjoyed the time without internet access. It was good to see something different than the world we live in”

“I think being in Cuba made them appreciate how fortunate they are here (in the U.S.),” says Doresca. “And it gave them an understanding of how entrepreneurship is handled in a developing country.”

When asked why studying entrepreneurship abroad was important, Conrad said it allowed him to be exposed to new ideas and experiences that he wouldn’t have otherwise had the chance to explore. “Understanding oneself from a global standpoint is important for a number of reasons,” he says. “I believe that global experiences allow you to better appreciate the ways that cultural diversity enriches all of our lives, and it changes many preconceived notions and biases we may hold.”

“Studying entrepreneurship in a foreign country is important because students get to share their knowledge, and have knowledge shared with them,” says Doresca. “They get to see how other cultures are doing business and compare it to how the U.S. does business. Studying entrepreneurship in developing countries is a valuable experience because students can see challenges both similar and different to challenges in the U.S. and think about ways to solve and learn from them.”

The next student trip to Cuba is scheduled for Spring 2020.