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Cuban teens intern in New York to create Silicon Island back home

Cuban teens intern in New York to create Silicon Island back home
By Alyssa Bereznak, Yahoo Tech

Gabriella Rodriguez remembers the moment she first heard there was a
tech internship opportunity in New York. Details about how to apply were
posted on the U.S. State Department’s Facebook page, but like the
majority of Cubans, she didn’t have regular access to the .
Luckily the news spread by word of mouth in Santos Suárez, the small
suburb of Havana where she lives. Her friend called and explained the
process: All she needed to do was answer a set of 15 questions, do a
little writing in Spanish or English, and find a way to submit her
application via a Google doc.

A few days after she applied, Rodriguez got a call inviting her to join
a monthlong program at the New York-based incubator Grand Central Tech.

“I literally jumped when I found out,” the 16-year-old told Yahoo News.
“I screamed a little bit.”

Rodriguez is one of three Cuban interns who participated in the
internship program, Innovadores, which ended Monday. Sponsored by angel
Miles Spencer’s nonprofit company, the program aims to take
advantage of America’s newly relaxed restrictions regarding Cuba. The
self-described “explorer” began negotiating the exchange in May, and
within 100 days — just after the U.S. and Cuba resumed diplomatic
relations on July 20 — the interns arrived in, naturally, Brooklyn.

That Rodriguez and her colleagues were recruited to intern at a tech
company was no . In its years of isolation from the U.S., the
Cuban government has neglected to build an infrastructure for public
Internet access. Only about 5 percent of the population has private
online access, and for everyone else, an hour of local-area-network
connection can cost between $6 and $10 at a government-run Internet
café. To improvise, residents sometimes sit outside international
porches to grab a free connection or pass around online information via
an external hard drive called a “Paquete Semanal” (weekly packet).

In conjunction with Cuba’s newfound relationship with the United States,
the country has taken steps to make online access more widespread. Last
month, almost three dozen government-run computer centers got Wi-Fi,
cutting the price of Internet in half at those locations. In a statement
released in January, Obama said that strengthening diplomatic ties to
the country would allow American telecommunications companies to build
the infrastructure necessary for widespread, affordable wireless access.

In the case of the Innovadores program, Rodriguez and her fellow interns
— Raul Perera and Gabriel Garcia — traveled to the United States to
learn what it takes to build successful tech companies. Considering the
limits of their access to Internet back home, their arrival in late July
was quite a whirlwind. It began when they touched down at LaGuardia
. Spencer picked them up and drove them to Williamsburg AirBnB
lodgings off the Metropolitan Ave. L stop. There, they were introduced
to their Brooklyn digs, a bunkhouse they’d be sharing with students from
Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious private high in Connecticut
that Spencer himself had attended.

“Brooklyn can kind of fall off from one block to the next,” he told
Yahoo News. “Their particular block falls off: There’s garbage, there’s
a cat fighting a rat over there, there are windows broken. I’m like,
‘I’m a s—ty host, this is horrible. I wouldn’t stay here.’ Until we
pulled up, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, is this for us?’ These kids
were so grateful.”

Also included in their unofficial orientation: distribution of the
average American teen’s basic survival tools.

“The kids come in and it’s like: Here’s your burner phone, here’s your
tablet, here’s your candy bar, here’s your MetroCard, here’s your
Yankees hat,” Spencer said. “We’re going to dinner.”

When they weren’t getting a crash course in New York culture, they
commuted by subway to GCT’s Madison Avenue office, a towering skyscraper
with a marble-clad entrance that was once home to Facebook. The loftlike
incubator is furnished with bean bag chairs and inspirational quotes on
its walls. It’s currently home to 18 startups, including a personalized
nutrition label company called Sage, and Maven, an app that allows women
to schedule clinic appointments. The interns took their pick of which
groups interested them most. Rodriguez was drawn to Maven and a
nonprofit startup named Code to Work that helps evaluate nonprofit
programming camps. Perera chose Sage and spent the rest of his time
taking courses in HTML and JavaScript. Garcia joined a care data
company named Innovatively to learn Web design.

When I first met them at the GCT office, they were sitting at a long
open table, typing away on the Microsoft Surface tablets that Spencer
had bestowed upon them on their first day in America. I asked them how
they hoped to contribute to their country’s tech sector.

Perera grinned: “To have a tech industry,” he said. “That’s the most
accurate answer I can give you.”

Grateful that they’re in a place where the Wi-Fi runs (mostly) free, all
three said they were determined to learn whatever they could to help
their home county. But keeping up with basic digital communication in
the U.S. has required some adjustment.

“Here, if you don’t respond to a text in, like, two seconds, you
probably get fired,” Perera said. “In Cuba you can’t even check your
emails at home.”

This, Rodriguez says, creates a fundamental difference between how
people interact in their country and in New York.

“We have actual real friends,” Rodriguez said. “Not virtual ones.”

Ultimately their goal is to use their newfound skills to build an
“innovation factory” in Havana, for which Spencer’s company has
partnered with an NGO.

Last week, the team presented its full plan to launch the organization
to a group of about 300 people in an auditorium at Goldman Sachs.
Dressed as business professionals, they stood in front of a large
projector screen, outlining a PowerPoint presentation that detailed how
they planned to create a technological community in their home country
and urging innovators in the crowd to participate. The center, Perera
explained, would be an “open space” like GCT made up of experts and
apprentices, who would work together to solve problems in Cuba with

“We’ll be in Havana in September,” Perera said to the audience. “We’ll
be pleased if you are there, too.”

Source: Cuban teens intern in New York to create Silicon Island back
home – Yahoo News –

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