A little more than 10 weeks ago, Hurricane Maria ripped through the island of Puerto Rico. The island’s 3.4 million residents faced devastating losses. Homes and businesses were destroyed. Lives were drastically changed.
But as many Puerto Ricans try to get back to life—and business—as usual, Lucienne Gigante sees hope and opportunity in the current crisis.
Gigante is co-founder of the Animus Women’s Innovation Summit. It’s an annual conference on women’s entrepreneurship and empowerment. This year’s event was scheduled to take place in San Juan on October 6. That didn’t happen. But less than two months later, the summit is “on” again with a slightly different message.
The goal of the Animus Summit, says Gigante, is to gather female entrepreneurs, investors and small-business owners to connect, trade resources and figure out how they can pull up their collective boot straps on a island where people have been struggling for years.
“It’s been tough for many, many years.” she says. “But we need to think in terms of how can we not waste this crisis,” she says.
Old problems, new challenges
Puerto Rico’s economy has been battered and beaten down long before Hurricane Maria hit its shores. It’s been in a recession for the past 11 years. In May, Puerto Rico, holding $73 billion in public debt, filed for the largest municipal bankruptcy in U.S. history.
An estimated half million people have left the island for the mainland United States in the past decade seeking better opportunities in jobs and education. Prior to the storm, unemployment in Puerto Rico was just above 10%, compared with 4.1% on the mainland. Gigante calls it brain drain, one that economists are saying is accelerating in the aftermath of Maria and hurting businesses and the broader economy.
“You are going to see a new normal,” says economist Heidie Calero, president of H. Calero Consulting Group based in San Juan. “Retail and other small- and medium-sized businesses are going to be faced with new challenges.”
Calero points out fewer residents means fewer clients and fewer people to hire. And many of those leaving are young, leading to an aging population.
A second chance
To stem the tide, Calero says a full rebuild of infrastructure is needed, as part of an overall economic plan that focuses on restoring and strengthening the island. That, she says would boost agriculture, tourism, telecommunications and technology while protecting manufacturing.
“Without resilient electricity, water, ports, and telecommunications,” she says. “We cannot be competitive.”
Governor Ricardo Rosselló said last month the island will need $94.4 billion to rebuild after Hurricane Maria. Congress has already approved nearly $5 billion in aid.
“With Maria, we have a second chance to reform our economy, to get a new focus,” says Calero.
A new focus is something Gigante hopes Animus attendees will develop at this year’s summit. “We need to start looking at the future: What Puerto Rico looks like five years from now, 10 years from now,” she says. “We have a blank canvas to create real change.”