Thais Pinheiro runs a unique Rio de Janeiro tourism company, Conectando Territórios, or Connecting Territories. It gives guided, historical tours of Afro-Brazilian communities like quilombos – settlements founded by the descendants of slaves.
“I think it’s really important to show how we exist in Brazil as black identity, because we are really strong,” says Pinheiro.
“That’s why I started to study tourism, as a way to preserve that culture. It’s a way to create dialogue between people and those communities – and to connect our own culture as well, because Brazil is pretty diverse.”
Problem is, Brazil’s tourism industry – focused on beaches and bikinis, soccer and samba – doesn’t exactly go out of its way to foster innovative but nontraditional businesses like hers.
And that’s why this month Pinheiro was sitting in the Coral Gables office of Dragonfly Expeditions.
Dragonfly creates cultural tours too – in South Florida neighborhoods like Little Havana. And it has a lot to teach Pinheiro about building a successful business in that particular tourism niche.
“It was really important for me to understand how the tourism industry works here in Miami,” says Pinheiro.
It’s also important to the U.S. State Department.
Small and medium-size enterprises like Pinheiro’s employ about two-thirds of the workforce in Latin America and the Caribbean. But the region has a poor track record promoting them – and that drags down its population’s incomes, driving more people to emigrate, legally or otherwise, to the U.S.
Which is a big reason the State Department launched a new program last year called the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, which pairs emerging entrepreneurs around the hemisphere with U.S. mentors.
Pinheiro is one of the program’s 250 fellows this year – and one of her mentors here in South Florida is Dragonfly’s CEO, Charles Kropke. He says he gets where Pinheiro wants to go with her tourism campaign – beyond the beaches to tell a community narrative.
“I think that more and more people are looking to experience what’s different about a place, what’s the real history in the background,” says Kropke. “You just can’t leave out groups of people that are part of the landscape.”
But Kropke also counseled Pinheiro on how to more effectively monetize that interest – not just for her company but for the people in the communities she’s showcasing.
Dragonfly, for example, makes sure the tourists it buses into Little Havana not only learn Cuban heritage but eat and shop there too. And Pinheiro says she wants her tours to create a financial lifeline for the often overlooked families living in Brazil’s quilombos.
“This kind of tourism is a way to generate income for the communities,” she says. “They have their own restaurants and their own guides."
Generating income for communities is also at the heart of what Miguelito Gerome does. He’s a visiting fellow from Haiti.
“In Haiti there is a really high unemployment rate and it’s increasing,” says Gerome. “I have friends who have to leave the country because there are no more jobs.”
So Gerome created a web services platform called 500gourdes.com. (Gourdes are Haiti’s currency; 500, or “cinc san” gourdes are about eight U.S. dollars.)
For Haitian Mother’s Day, Gerome teamed up with florists in Haiti. They listed flower packages online and marketed them to the Haitian diaspora in the U.S. and elsewhere for delivery in Haiti.
“We took the flowers, we put them online, the person in the United States pays and we deliver the flowers for you,” Gerome says. “It went viral.”
But here’s another reason start-ups like Gerome’s matter. Many of his friends – IT professionals, business people with graduate degrees – are leaving Haiti for countries like Chile.
“It’s a brain drain, actually,” he says.
As a Young Leaders fellow, Gerome is being mentored here by fellow Haitian Donard St. Jean, who runs the Dade Institute of Technology in North Miami-Dade.
“There might be hundreds of people in Haiti that have the same strength, the same knowledge,” says St. Jean, “and they can’t find someone to partner with and get advice from in order for them to grow.”
As a result, the Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative hopes the partnerships the fellows find in the U.S. will bear economic fruit when they return home.