The Returnees: An entrepreneur comes home to grow Cuba’s private business sector

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Just 29 years old, Marta Deus has founded three businesses in Cuba so far: an accounting and financial consulting firm; a courier service; and a digital magazine aimed at Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurs.

In recent years, hundreds of young Cubans have returned from abroad to open businesses, building on skills and market knowledge they gained overseas. Many have entered tourism-related fields and launched restaurants, bed-and-breakfasts, and art studios. Some have set up shop in information technology, accounting, and other services. This is part 3 of 3 in our “The Returnees” series.

She’s one of the most recognizable entrepreneurs in Havana, a business advocate who has spoken on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. and sent letters to U.S. leaders urging greater U.S.-Cuba links.

Just 29 years old, Marta Deus has founded three businesses in Cuba so far: an accounting and financial consulting firm; a courier service; and a digital magazine aimed at Cuba’s emerging entrepreneurs. Often quiet and understated, Deus never set out to become the face of Cuban business. But a love for her homeland and a gift for seeing opportunities propelled her to act.

Deus’ family moved to Europe when she was 12, and she grew up in Spain, where she earned a bachelor’s degree and a master’s in business administration in Madrid. In 2012, when Cuba changed its laws to permit more private ventures, Deus decided to start something in Cuba that could at least help pay for trips back and forth between Madrid and her beloved Havana.

At the time, Deus was working in Spain for a multinational telecom company, so the Cuba venture started as a sideline. She rented a small space in Havana from family friends, fixed it up as an office, brought in a couple of computers, and with longtime Cuban pals, in 2013 launched her accounting and business services firm – though she worked mainly from Spain back then.

The early months were tough: “People don’t know you. You have to build trust,” Deus told Cuba Trade. Young Cuban entrepreneurs starting out in restaurants and tech ventures were among the first clients. New to business, they liked the firm’s skills, its emphasis on efficiency, and “those who’d traveled outside Cuba knew of the need to subcontract services,” Deus said.

With business growing, Deus returned full-time to Havana in 2016. She bought an office and now runs her Deus Expertos Contables with four staffers. The differences from operating in Spain are many: Cuba has stricter rules for what businesses are allowed; there’s little financing available; and access to the internet is limited. And business takes more time, because it relies less on emails and more on face-to-face interactions – “which makes it more humane,” said Deus. “In Cuba, you feel people more. You really build relationships. You feel the spiritual side of things more, and that’s so fulfilling.”

While developing her firm, Deus found many fellow entrepreneurs hungry for support, advice and success stories. So, she and friends launched the digital magazine “Negolution,” named for a mashup of the Spanish word for business, negocios, with the word Revolution. It’s published four or five times a year via the Paquete, a package of digital entertainment and news distributed via flash drive.

More recently, as her business expanded, Deus saw the need for couriers to pick up and deliver documents. So she launched courier service Mandao Express, which subcontracts with messengers. It now delivers not only not documents but also food from restaurants and, on such holidays as Mother’s Day, cakes and other gifts. The fee in Cuba’s roughly dollar-equivalent convertible CUC currency unit: between 1 and 5.5 CUCs per trip.

Deus said living abroad has helped her identify opportunities that others may not see. “You know how things work differently elsewhere, so that lets you be more flexible in your way of thinking,” she said. To cope with the pressures, Deus looks for ways to unwind, from practicing yoga to salsa dancing. She’s also become active with fellow entrepreneurs in advocating for more open U.S.-Cuban links, even meeting with President Barack Obama during his trip to Cuba in 2016, then meeting with Congressional leaders in D.C. and, more recently, writing the Trump administration to urge stronger U.S-Cuba relations.

“Additional measures to increase travel, trade, and investment, including working with the U.S. Congress to lift the embargo, will benefit our companies, the Cuban people, and U.S. national interests,” said a Dec. 7, 2016 letter to then President-elect Donald Trump that Deus signed along with more than 100 Cuban entrepreneurs. She later joined more than 50 female entrepreneurs in a June 13 letter inviting the president’s daughter Ivanka to Cuba to see how expanded U.S. links have helped local women and bolstered Cuba’s emerging private sector. “A setback in the relationship would bring with it the fall of many of our businesses and, with this, the suffering of all those families that depend on them,” the letter said.

As Deus pursued business activities, her parents had remained in Spain. But in 2017, they followed Marta back to Havana. She sees opportunities for her parents in entrepreneurship, too. “My mom cooks really well,” said Deus proudly. “I’d like her to start up in catering.”

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