When Andrés Moreno, the chief executive officer of Open English gets off the plane in Bogotá, São Paolo, Caracas or pretty much any other major Latin American city, people who recognize him from the company’s TV ads stop to ask for photos and autographs.
So why, with all this notoriety, did the CEO of a $350 million dollar company that specializes in teaching English online to Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking students move the company’s main office from Latin America to Miami three years ago?
“You can find people with a very special skill set here that makes sense for Latin America,” Moreno said at the company’s expansive and brightly decorated Coconut Grove headquarters recently.
Co-founder Nicolette Moreno, the chief product officer, is married to Andrés and also appears in Open English TV ads. At the Coconut Grove office, she elaborated on the Miami appeal for entrepreneurs.
Moreno said the city has a more international focus than Silicon Valley and a “mix of people that all want the American dream and are getting it.” Lower start-up costs also mean that Miami “lends itself to bootstrapping," she said.
Open English is an online language school that has taught English to 100,000 students in more than 40 countries since 2006. The couple founded the school as a less expensive, more convenient alternative to “bricks and mortar” language schools in Latin America.
Teachers lead live classes of two or three students 24-hours a day. Each student pays $85 dollars a month for unlimited access to classes.
According to Andrés, Open English has raised $120 million in venture capital in the United States. But it is not easy for early-stage entrepreneurs to raise money in Miami—at least not yet. Open English raised their angel round of funding in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Still, Moreno hopes that there’s “a change coming” to Miami and that Open English will be part of that change.
Since moving their operation to Miami, Andrés and Nicolette have been able to attract big names to the city.
Mario Cordon, the company’s chief marketing officer, was a vice president for marketing and sales for Kaplan Virtual Education. Cordon, who is Guatemalan, writes the Spanish-language scripts for Open English’s television ads.
Bart Catalane, who was CFO at Getty Images when it was sold to The Carlyle Group for $3.3 billion dollars, joined Open English this year.
Sam Peterson, previously the chief technical officer at Overstock.com, came to work for Open English in part to escape the cold, Nicolette said. There are about 70 developers in the Argentina office, but Peterson also has a core tech team in Miami.
Andrés believes that compared to the Bay Area and New York City, Miami tech talent is “easier to get on board and more loyal.” He knows that the people who approach him in Latin American airports, and his nearly 500,000 Facebook fans, aren’t simply excited about Open English. They want to start their own companies.
And this overwhelming interest in entrepreneurship inspired Andrés to join the board of Endeavor—a nonprofit that supports entrepreneurs in emerging markets around the world. Endeavor’s Miami office, which opened early this year, is its first in the US.
All this proves things are changing in both Miami and Latin America.
“For the first time, you don’t need the right last name, or to come from the right family to be able to reach success” in Latin America, Andrés said. “So, whatever we can do to encourage that and support that—we’re there.”
Nicole Pasulka is a Google Journalism Fellow with IRE/NICAR. Her articles have been published in Mother Jones magazine, The Believer, CBC Arts, and The Globe and Mail.