Hurricane Irma further imperils Puerto Rico's economy. How entrepreneurship could save it

It's good news that President Trump opened up federal assistance for Puerto Rico by declaring a major disaster on Sunday, but disaster aid is only a temporary solution to the island's economic woes.

Even though Puerto Rico fared much better than what most others in the Caribbean endured, the hurricane underlined how economically vulnerable Puerto Rico is, given that the island's public-sector debt and pension fund obligations combined add up to $120 billion.

As we prioritize recovery from Hurricane Irma, we should not forget the importance of long-term economic planning. Encouraging entrepreneurship is critical to helping Puerto Rico build a brighter future.

Many people on the island are accustomed to looking to traditional jobs in sectors such as manufacturing, pharmaceuticals and government — and that is where our education system has steered them — but that is not where the island's future lies. Nor is it where career opportunities will be found, as those jobs fade. That is why so many of our young people leave the island and move to the States after graduating from college.

Where we should be putting our emphasis is on fostering programs like Parallel 18, a business accelerator in San Juan that selects and supports 40 start-ups from around the world every six months.

Most of the start-ups in the accelerator are forward-looking technology-related businesses. They include Gasolina Móvil, which developed a popular app that lets people pay for gasoline at the pump via their mobile phones — an important advancement on an island where you only have prepay at the cashier before pumping.

"You now have a Puerto Rican entrepreneur who is suddenly sitting in an open-space floor with people from Brazil, Chile and Argentina — all with very exciting global business plans," said Cyril Meduña, a mentor in the program and president and managing director at Advent-Morro Equity Partners. When exposed to talent from around the globe, he found that local entrepreneurs in the program say, "Why not me? Why can't I go out and do that?"

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But exposure to other entrepreneurs is not enough to fuel the level of entrepreneurship we need. Entrepreneurial thinking needs to be taught very early, comprehensively and systematically to take hold.

Julia Keleher, Secretary of Education of Puerto Rico, has been moving ahead to contribute to this in a big way. As a part of her education system overhaul, she is implementing ambitious plans to spread entrepreneurial thinking throughout the public school system. "We're trying to create a focus on entrepreneurship where students have a chance to see themselves as creators of new enterprises," she said.

One new initiative she has championed is Escuelas Faro, which is launching in two municipalities this year to encourage entrepreneurialism through project-based learning. It includes elements such as idea engineering workshops, coding classes, a Youth Startup Experience club and MakerSpaces in several schools.

"Puerto Rico has the minds and the talent to be a Caribbean powerhouse, and with these ... efforts, the dream will become reality."

Escuelas Faro is part of Echar Pa'Lante, a program run in collaboration with Banco Popular focusing on helping young people develop the skills needed in the 21st century. Echar Pa'Lante has provided training to teachers in economics, finance and entrepreneurship and offered them guidance on how to develop students as entrepreneurs.

To further its goals, Echar Pa'Lante recently helped bring new Massachusetts Institute of Technology Launch (Entrepreneurship) Clubs to 34 public and private schools on the island. The addition of these clubs in September means that more than 50 percent of public high schools and more than 10 percent of schools in Puerto Rico now offer an entrepreneurship program.

There are a number of other worthy initiatives that are starting to build momentum around entrepreneurship, but we need to keep expanding our thinking. Many local entrepreneurs have traditionally focused on serving the local economy but we need to look beyond our borders for ways to provide our products and services to other economies, too. For a healthy economy to take root we must become a bigger part of the global economy

As Keleher puts it, we need a strategy that connects all of these dots so we don't just see a series of small wins. We need an island-wide strategy to foster the kind of thinking that produces real economic results for Puerto Rico. It is huge step forward that the education system is pivoting in this direction. The private economy and the rest of the government need to continue this push as well. Puerto Rico has the minds and the talent to be a Caribbean powerhouse, and with these continued efforts the dream will become reality.

— By David Bogaty, owner of WorldNet, a voice, data, cloud and internet services firm in Puerto Rico and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

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