Start-up Chile and Understanding Brazil from a Different Angle

In May I visited Santiago in Chile, after being invited to participate in Startup Chile Demo Day by DesignThinkers Chilean partner Alfredo Osorio, who runs Bombacamp – a program that uses design thinking and lean approaches to enable the growth of start ups. I attended with Eduardo from Voël Design – this was a day when my world felt very small, as all my international connections were in one room!

I was looking forward to seeing Arne van Osteroom of DesignThinkers Amsterdam again, as he was flying in to present and facilitate workshops at the Startup Chile conference, which is part of a government initiative to stimulate economic growth. They had invited 40 startups from around the globe to base themselves in Chile and grow their businesses. The event was designed to connect these startups with new long-term investors following their first 6 government-supported months in Chile. For me, it was fantastic to see how the government in this emerging market was investing in entrepreneurial culture.

The event started with keynote speakers from companies including Hernán Kazah, co-founder at MercadoLibre.com, Bridgette Sexton from Google Ventures, Bedy Yang from 500 startups, Arne van Osteroom, DesignThinkers and Jonathan Nelson the founder of Hackers & Founders, a ‘geek network’ from San Francisco! There was a big focus on technology – each entrepreneur got the opportunity to present their startup to the audience, and there were 32 startups represented in total. Having worked with DesignThinkers and understanding the need to develop real value for people, that’s what I was particularly looking for. There were three startups that I found really interesting: one was VOZ, a sustainable fashion brand that originated in San Francisco. Their founder Jasmine Aarons’s drive to create ethical fashion was really evident when I spoke to her, and her clear focus meant that I could really see how the business would succeed. The other startup that interested me was a money transfer service called Regalii to help people in north America access funds from South America by using text messages as money. Tripku offer service for traveler to connect with people want to take simpler trips. Here is the full list of start-ups.

I overheard a conversation between an investor and a startup, and this is a world I have only been exposed to before through Dragons Den on BBC! It was an interesting conversation because the investor was really interested in the startup’s team and their credibility, but also in how much they could do with as little money as possible. The startup’s interest was in making as little environmental impact as possible while making a meaningful contribution to society – but the investor said that ‘nobody really cares about that’ as long as the product or service makes good economic sense! For me, I couldn’t help but think about how the investor has the power to make or break businesses but seemingly has no interest in the social good or creating human value. I found this scary – what kind of world are we making if this is how our investors think! I can’t help but think that making good social sense is good business sense. If you want to make a company sustainable in the long term, you have to think about the people involved.

After the initial Startup Day Demo, I got to work with Arne and the Chilean government on introducing startups to design thinking. Having recently interviewed the Movement Minas from Minas government in Belo Horizonte for the Design Transitions book, I was very interested in this opportunity to understand another government’s perspective on design thinking. I saw that the Chilean government had a big interest in the approach but possibly lacked the knowledge to apply it, and so they had sought out that knowledge from experts at DesignThinkers.

During my time in Chile I really got to know Alfredo. I had heard so many interesting stories about him, and it was great to meet him in person. He’s been so successful in founding companies and helping startups, and I really wanted to know: how does this guy do it? He seems to manage to fly into so many places and achieve quite crazy things! Alfredo has a real prototyping mindset, his whole life is a prototype and that’s how he sees it and for me, as I’m learning this mindset, I think it gives you a real chance to explore and let things go so you can move on to the new. I had heard a lot about how Alfredo was very crazy, but I discovered that craziness was about his passion for creating good service experiences. I also discovered that he really cannot tolerate bad service experiences! We were in a restaurant and ordered some food, and all of a sudden everyone got up to leave – and Alfredo left behind his business card, on which he had written: ‘Bad customer experience – call us’ (And this all happened in Spanish so I had no idea what had gone on until much later!)

Being in Chile gave me the chance to understand Brazil from a different perspective. People are very warm and friendly there too, and predominantly Catholic – abortions are illegal, and surprisingly (to me) divorce was only legalized in 2005. However Chilean people view themselves as being Latin Americans, with Brazil viewed as a very separate nation. The cultural diversity is very limited in Chile – as the geography of South America when the first settlers arrived they naturally congregated on the coastal regions of Brazil, where you can still see great diversity today but less so as you get further inland towards Chile, where there are a lot more indigenous people.

The amount of development inside Santiago was astonishing, with lots of new shopping malls being developed all over the place. But one thing that really shocked me was the amount of dogs on the street – I asked people, why hasn’t anything been done about this? One answer I got was that as it’s a Catholic society harming dogs is a no-go – but another person described it as being a sign of an emerging market, that they have other things to sort out like healthcare and educational systems, so the stray dogs running wild aren’t considered that important! I also learned that there is no social security system in Brazil or Chile, and the person I was speaking to believed that if there was people wouldn’t bother working.

At the end of my week in Chile, I began to feel that Santiago was a very organized city – but I was craving to get back to the chaos of Brazil! Because in chaos you see a lot of new and unique things happening, while in an orderly place like Santiago you see only the normal everyday events.

Reflecting on my time in Chile, it really gave me a chance to step back from Brazil and see it from a different angle. It was interesting to observe how their government was trying to stimulate growth through developing entrepreneurial culture. This is quite unique in South America as other places such as Argentina and Columbia have tried to develop healthcare and educational systems first. I also saw that everyone in Latin America looks to Brazil as the big place to aspire to: ‘If we make it in Brazil, then we will have really made it!’

Being in Chile and understanding growth in emerging markets as well as the startup culture was fascinating to me, as in a startup you have the freedom to explore to create what you want, while on the other hand you are always answerable to your investor and their requirements. I did feel that a lot of the startups we saw at the event were viewing design only in terms of aesthetics, and hadn’t yet come to terms with how design approaches could help their businesses in other ways. I thought the Startup Chile event brought a real buzz to the group, in the sense that they saw their government was taking a really courageous risk in order to help them.

Next stop: São Paulo!

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