Jet Fuel Series: A conversation with Angelique Sina, Friends of Puerto Rico President and Chair and President Cafe Ama Love (interview by Jackie Brennan)
As part of the Jet Fuel Series we have consistently inquired about the future and the ways we, as a society, are planning for what’s next. Better understanding the role played by young people as entrepreneurs never ceases to be a timely conversation. When youth entrepreneurship is highlighted, there is no better resource than Angelique Sina, President and Chair of Friends of Puerto Rico and Founder of Café Ama Love, to learn about the strategies and tools we should implement to support and turbocharge young entrepreneurs especially in underserved communities and regions.
Angelique has spent the last few years around youth in her native Puerto Rico, building a support system that aims not only to teach them entrepreneurship but also to inspire them to become entrepreneurs. She approached the idea of entrepreneurship in a wider context, not limited only to the business sector as an entrepreneurial mindset is key whether it is pursuing a professional career or simply a personal pathway. Following a multi-million-dollar fundraising campaign that she launched and coordinated to support Hurricane Maria relief efforts, Angelique took a step back from her very successful career in Washington DC and reconsidered the way she was supporting the island and contributing to its uplifting.
Entrepreneurship Is the Way to Move Communities Forward
The growing reluctancy she has encountered when fundraising to support communities on the island triggered the adoption of a new approach. “I understood when people told me that they could no longer give money to the island”, Angelique shared. “I get that. You’re not always able to give. People are tired of Hurricane Maria and hearing about Puerto Rico and the devastation. But they drink coffee! We need to give people tangible things so that they get on the impact train. Giving people tangible things that they can contribute to, I think, can really impact or change our future, the future of our communities.”
Empowering people in Puerto Rico does not have to rely on donations, a reality Angelique has learned and fully embraced while witnessing the enthusiasm and determination of local young entrepreneurs. In 2019, she launched a social impact enterprise called Café Ama which along Friends of Puerto Rico is part of a broader and long-term strategy to create pathways out of poverty and provide opportunities to women and children in Puerto Rico.
“We give them something besides hope because hope is still vague. We give them the skills and the tools that they will need to overcome any other situations in life (…). Definitely supporting youth entrepreneurship on the island is a great way to build long-term resiliency.”
Angelique Sina, President and Chair, Friends of Puerto Rico
Young Entrepreneurs in Underserved Communities Are Ready
While the coffee made from Café Ama beans is delicious, Angelique’s priority has been to inspire local youth to become entrepreneurs using local resources and relying on what the island is offering. Her strategy is to provide them the adequate support start-up businesses need: proactive and experiential programs focused on life skills, STEAM education, and entrepreneurship training. By reinvesting the profit generated by Café Ama into these programs, Angelique’s work is about building an entrepreneurship ecosystem that empowers marginalized and underserved communities, investing in youth and guiding them towards building their own wealth journey powered by local products.
There is little doubt that “startup activity represents one of the highest correlations with strong economic performance”, as Alex Amari, an Ashoka contributor, noted not long ago. Yet, in a challenging environment like Puerto Rico, young entrepreneurs are not particularly favored. On the contrary. The support system they need to energize their creativity and boost their confidence is lacking. But Angelique and her team are demonstrating that things can change if teaching entrepreneurship becomes a daily routine, especially for youth.
The best example is the youth entrepreneurship program called SEEDS where kids ages nine-up are taught the basics of entrepreneurship. One of the reasons this program focuses on that age group is because it is the perfect age to learn about finances, how to manage and make money, and insert seeds of wisdom on how to make a sale and communicate better.
The curriculum used is implemented in other countries as well because, after all, “the rules of entrepreneurship are universal” as Angelique has learned first-hand earlier in her career as an entrepreneur. Yet, everything is tailored to meet the needs of the youth in Puerto Rico. The interactions are carefully designed and planned and equally entertaining as the curriculum and materials are very effective and practical. For example, parts of the programming include them selling a local product — in this case it’s coffee, which is found in most households regardless of income.
Talk the Talk and Walk the Walk
While many similar programs might not go beyond “armchair entrepreneurship”, Angelique and her team made sure that the participants had access to the full experience and more. The funds raised or the profits made from sales are given to the participants. They can open their businesses or support their families. “We’ve had kids whose parents have been battling cancer. And they’ve gone out and opened their little shops and helped pay for their parent’s treatment. And that is something that is extremely powerful when you live on a small island in the middle of the Caribbean and at least 55% of the population is in poverty. For someone to do something like that, that has meaning and will help them build a better life. That’s why we are committed to entrepreneurship. But more importantly it is a commitment to the island and its people.”
“I always say it’s so easy to rebuild roofs and homes, but it is very hard to develop a generation that went through a hurricane and earthquakes in less than a year.”
Angelique Sina, President and Chair, Friends of Puerto Rico
For many of them – most of them girls, the idea of becoming an entrepreneur appeared to be possible only in movies and not an option available to them, on the island. But once they get the gist of it, start building a plan and make things happen, everything changes. “It is such a rewarding journey for our teams! They experience first-hand what an entrepreneurship journey looks like. They are getting a taste of its success when they close a sale, or of its bitterness when the outcome is less promising.”
Teaching Entrepreneurships to Young People Instills Skills for Life
The goal of exposing young people to entrepreneurship is not just about opening a business. At the end of the day, it is about learning and developing skills for life that will be useful regardless of their professional journey. “We want to empower them and put them in control. Just think how many young people graduate high school or college and still do not know how to open a bank account or what compound interest is!”
For somebody like Angelique who left the island to pursue her dream career in Washington DC but stayed connected to Puerto Rico, teaching the youth entrepreneurship is much more than providing a personal journey or financial gains. It is about uplifting everyone who lives on the island: “impacto colectivo” (collective impact) as Angelique highlighted. “And who better to lead this change if not the youth in Puerto Rico?”. While the adults might be in-charge now, exposing the young generation to entrepreneurship is about changing communities bottom-up and taking charge of their future. It is the ideal strategy to mobilize young people and give them a purpose. By changing their minds this change we are all waiting for is no longer transactional but transformational and holistic.
For Angelique and her young entrepreneurs, one thing is certain: the future is changing and the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated the process to a degree impossible to predict at the inception of the pandemic. “So many families that had losses are now much more open to doing radical and different things. And I think that’s amazing. I think we must continue supporting young leaders in our communities because this is the only way to generate transformative and irreversible change. There’s so much we could do. Teaching entrepreneurship is one of the simple and easy to implement tools that has long term impact on the future of our communities.”
Above all, for such a tried population like those in Puerto Rico, entrepreneurship is about building long-term resilience and developing a tool for a more secure future. “I always say it’s so easy to rebuild roofs and homes, but it is very hard to develop a generation that went through a hurricane and earthquakes in less than a year.” Teaching entrepreneurship to the Hurricane Maria generation — those that survived the hurricane — offers them something besides hope. Because hope is still vague. They gain skills and tools, are exposed to new ways of thinking, new experiences that will be needed to overcome any other situation in life or challenges they might face from economic hardship to other challenges. They will be prepared to face even another hurricane.
Angelique Sina is a social and coffee entrepreneur and President of Friends of Puerto Rico and Cafe Ama Love. After her career at the World Bank Group, she launched a multi-million-dollar philanthropic fund to support youth in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. As part of her efforts, she launched Café Ama, a social impact coffee that creates a pathway out of poverty for youth in Puerto Rico by teaching them entrepreneurship and farming skills. She is a graduate of the University of Puerto Rico, Johns Hopkins University and Stanford University Business School. In 2016, she was appointed as Commissioner for the Latino Community by the Mayor of Washington, D.C., and serves on AT&T’s Millennial Council. She enjoys exploring new coffee shops and is an avid golfer.
The Jet Fuel Series aims to bring different perspectives to the debate that currently dominates the mission-driven sector, addressing the needs of nonprofit or for profit entities alike. Caravanserai Project will publish a monthly blog based on conversations we had with various stakeholders such as futurists, community leaders, academics, entrepreneurs, captains of various industries, from different walks of life and locations whose unique experiences and views hopefully will help us and our network reimagine our efforts in order to increase our impact and advance our missions.
This blog was made possible in part by the generous support provided by the Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund. Caravanserai Project is the recipient of a Wells Fargo Open for Business Fund award aiming to provide programs and services that support small business viability through growth, expansion, innovation, and increased productivity. Read more about this award.