Part of a CGTN special series on Cuba Millennials.
After decades of a Soviet-style centralized state-run economy, Cuba is slowly starting to open the door to private enterprise. There are more than half a million Cubans now either owning their own business or working in the private sector. As part of our Special Series on Cuban millennials, CGTN’s Michael Voss meets one of the island’s more successful young entrepreneurs.
Idania del Rio is a graphic designer and entrepreneur, a Cuban millennial who has opened a shop called Clandestina in Old Havana selling Cuba’s first clothing brand.
Del Rio designs and produces silk screen printed T-shirts, clothes and accessories. In four years, the business has grown to the point where Clandestina employs 27 people, no easy feat given Cuba’s limited resources and constant shortages.
When we met at her shop some of her team were silk screen printing designs onto a length of pink fabric. Given all the shortages in Cuba, flexibility is the key to Idania del Rio’s success.
“We find whatever we can, sometimes it’s this pink fabric, sometimes it’s a different one. We buy the inks in Mexico, sometimes we don’t have blue, sometimes we have only black,” she said.
Like many of her generation, Idania del Rio left Cuba shortly after graduating to find work abroad. But in 2013, as Cuba started to expand the private sector and allow people to buy, sell and rent properties, she and her Spanish partner decided to return.
“I decided to come back and try a little bit what was going on. It was like a really fresh, unknown opportunity,” she said. “We don’t have any business background. We didn’t have a single idea about how to do this.”
Another challenge she has is the lack of internet.
“Cuba is an amazing country, but it is really disconnected.”
Like many Cubans, del Rio’s only access to the internet is at the wi-fi hotspots that the government has set up in parks and other locations. She has to walk from the shop to the nearest wireless location, sit on a bench and carry on her business that way.
Her big breakthrough came during last year’s historic trip to Cuba by former U.S. President Barack Obama. She spoke at a meeting he organized between U.S. businessmen and Cuban entrepreneurs. Obama was impressed and wanted to buy some of her T-shirts for his daughters.
“Do you have any samples with you?” former President Obama asked del Rio. “I think Millie and Sasha might want a couple, and I still have some pesos to spend before I leave.”
Suddenly interest in her shop and the clothes she designs spiked. One cruise company now sailing to Havana from Miami started stocking her T shirts in the on-board shop and including her shop in their guide of things to see and do in Havana.
But times have changed and under U.S. President Donald Trump, fewer Americans are visiting Cuba. So del Rio decided the business needed to go to the United States instead.
They may not have any internet in the shop, but that hasn’t stopped Clandestina from becoming the first private Cuban business to open an international e-commerce site.
With the help of U.S. partners, Americans and anyone else around the world can now view and buy her clothes online. The designs are sent to the U.S., printed and shipped from there.
The website, clandestina.co was launched in October. Idania del Rio threw a street party inviting artists, designers and many of her young neighbors, with the sound of live music and DJ spilling out onto the street.
“I would love to think that we are kind of an inspiration to young people, to young designers, to any creative people, that, you know can see that it’s possible to do something like this,” she said.
Private business may be a relatively new concept in Cuba but the entrepreneurial spirit remains strong.
PHOTOS: Cuban millennials
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