SAN JUAN: Puerto Rico's economic troubles offer opportunity for women

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SAN JUAN – Ten years ago, Sheilla Torres Nieves left her home of Puerto Rico to pursue her graduate degree in upstate New York.

Torres Nieves had chosen Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute to earn her doctorate in mechanical engineering. It was a long way from home, but she wasn’t scared.

With her husband, also an engineering student, the two created a renewable energy technology company around their studies. Last year they decided to relocate the startup and return to San Juan.

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It might sound like a strange choice considering the economic calamity Puerto Rico is currently facing. But Torres Nieves, like many women, is taking advantage of the ways the island’s hardships benefit female business owners.

“There’s a huge sector here that has seen the crisis as an opportunity to reshape what used to be the motor of the economy,” Torres Nieves said.

Puerto Rico is floundering under immense debt, which reached $72 billion as of July. The government has spent more money in the last decade than it has taken in, and much of the debt is in the form of municipal bonds that the Puerto Rican government issued to cover revenue shortfalls and expenses when businesses started leaving the island around 2006.

Although the island is a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico can’t file for a court-arranged bankruptcy reorganization like cities such as Detroit have done in the past. Puerto Rico also can’t go to the International Monetary Fund for relief without being a sovereign nation, like Greece did under similar circumstances.

So it’s fallen to local entrepreneurs like Torres Nieves to help turn Puerto Rico’s economy around.

Torres Nieves is the CEO and cofounder of Sunne Cleantech Lab, a clean energy startup designed to save energy. Their first product on the market is a solar water heater that saves 30 percent on energy bills.

Torres Nieves had always kept Puerto Rico in mind as a test market because of high energy costs, but the camaraderie among businesses throughout the island encouraged her and her husband to move altogether.

“I found a lot more movement in terms of the startup and entrepreneurial spirit now than when I left for the U.S.,” Torres Nieves said. “That certainly did not exist when I was an undergraduate student.”

Lucienne Gigante and Carlos Cobian are working to foster the tight-knit business community in Puerto Rico, especially among women. They’re the cofounders of the Animus Women’s Innovation Summit, which boosts mentorship and career development for Latina professionals.

This year the second annual conference in San Juan attracted more than 800 women and 40 speakers at the end of September. Since women are a huge component of island's labor force – 42 percent– Cobian said it was an obvious decision to support the success of such an influential demographic.

“If you’re looking into transforming an economy and you know you have great talent and it’s being empowered...you know you have great opportunity,” Cobian said. “Investing in women is investing in economic development, you know?”

The Puerto Rican government also offers several tax incentives to encourage entrepreneurship, investments and exports.

Act 22 aims to increase Puerto Rico’s population, offering exemption from all income taxes for residents who spent the past six years living abroad and now spend at least six months on the island each year. More than 500 people have applied and been approved for the exemption between 2012 and 2015, leading to more than $200 million in real estate sales on the island just in 2014.

Act 20 promotes exportation of services and goods to grow local businesses. More than 320 applications have been approved since 2012. In 2014 alone, Act 20 created 3,713 full-time jobs in Puerto Rico, and the legislation was responsible for 1 percent of the island’s $103 billion GDP that year.

Taking advantage of Act 20, Sofia Stolberg was recently able to expand her tech startup Codetrotters and export service to Connecticut. She said Act 20 helps local companies like hers get into the global economy, which is a huge boost for Puerto Rico in the international marketplace.

Stolberg started Codetrotters because she saw so many computer engineers leaving the island to find work elsewhere. More than 200,000 people left the island for the U.S. between 2010 and 2014 – 10 percent of the population. Stolberg created her online coding school to rebuild the local pool of engineers and encourage women to enter into STEM fields rather than opening a restaurant or salon.

Stolberg said there needs to be a “paradigm shift” to get women thinking about business ownership differently. Through her involvement with the Piloto 151coworking space in San Juan, Stolberg provides resources and information to help women see the entrepreneurship options beyond “mainstreet” businesses.

“There are plenty of [women entrepreneurs] here on the island. The problem, in my opinion, is many are lifestyle entrepreneurs,” she said. “We have to do a better job of motivating and inspiring them to scale their business and get into businesses that are inherently more scalable, like tech.”

When planning the Animus summit, Gigante said it was important to include women from a variety of sectors to illustrate the different avenues of success. Animus attendance doubled this year, showing increased interest in the impact of Latina professionals that Gigante only expects to grow.

“What happens in the next two, three, five years in Puerto Rico, for the first time in a long time, it’s going to move the country forward fearlessly,” she said.

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