I had visited the White House before as part of a tour, but this time was different. I was there to participate in the Roundtable Discussions for the President´s Task Force on Puerto Rico´s Status (Task Force) in representation of Foundation for Puerto Rico. The Task Force was created in 2000. On October 30, 2009, President Obama signed Executive Order 13517, which directed the Task Force to maintain its focus on the status question, but expanded its responsibilities to include recommendations on policies to promote job creation, education, health care, clean energy, and economic development on the Island. While local government officials had participated in previous meetings with Task Force members, this was the first meeting since inception where representatives from other sectors were invited.
There were three separate Roundtable Discussions focused on subjects of critical importance to the socioeconomic development of Puerto Rico:
- Making Puerto Rico Open for Business
- Economic Competitiveness and the Knowledge-Based Economy
- Energy and Innovation.
Foundation for Puerto Rico is actively collaborating with the Task Force in economic development undertakings and we were invited to participate as part of the non-profit/civic society sector of the island.
As I entered the room, I saw many familiar faces of different sectors both from Puerto Rico and elsewhere.
The day began with an impressive presentation on the current status of Puerto Rico’s youth by Eduardo Carrero, President of Boys & Girls Clubs of Puerto Rico. I could see many members of the audience sharing my surprise when we learned the alarming facts. For example, did you know that 57% of all youth in Puerto Rico live in poverty? Eduardo masterfully linked the economic prosperity of Puerto Rico with engaging our youth at all levels in innovative ways.
With this framework, we went to our chosen roundtables where we were asked to provide insight and ideas on how to improve the respective areas and specifically express ways in which the federal government can be a facilitator to make those ideas happen.
I chose Economic Competitiveness and the Knowledge-Based Economy. This roundtable was moderated by Mr. Johan Uvin, Principal Deputy and Assistant Secretary for Career, Technical, and Adult Education at the Department of Education, and Mr. Antonio Medina, Executive Director of the Puerto Rico Industrial Development Corporation. The participants were key in shaping the discussions and at the end, there were some interesting conclusions about this important issue.
In the first place, there was no representation from the K-12 public education system at this event. It’s urgent that we include representation from the local public education system in these conversations, this system is the epicenter of our knowledge based economy and it needs to be shaken up. We all agreed that the curriculum needs to be strengthened by improving the quality and capacity of STEM courses because we need more talent in these areas. We need to spark the entrepreneurship spirit in our youth. Those that choose not to be entrepreneurs must be employable. These goals can be achieved only through partnerships between the public, private, and academic sectors. It’s important to highlight that this does not necessarily mean spending more money to fix the problem, it´s about focusing on quality, not quantity. If we create a long term vision for our economic development, we should start educating now with that vision in mind. If we are able to align the economic development vision for year 2025 with higher education and K-12 education, we will move forward.
The Boys & Girls Club made a good point in that the education system will take too long to change and we must act now by maximizing the after-school programs. We learned, for example, about a fab lab that the Boys & Girls Club is building in partnership with Infotech Aerospace Services at the B&G Club in Isabela. This is a model that can be scaled around the island.
Many other interesting ideas were discussed, like for example, enabling access for our local technology firms to technology federal contracting processes, developing in a comprehensive manner an entrepreneurial ecosystem, the need for access to capital (namely risk capital) to support entrepreneurship, becoming a hub for green technology and the need to develop institutional technology transfers, among other interesting ideas.
We learned from Rocío Pérez that there are only nine registered patent lawyers in the Island. This is alarming because intellectual property is a crucial component for developing a knowledge-based economy. This is a clear example of the importance of synching economic development with the education system.
We also learned what the IT Cluster is doing directly from its Executive Director, Alberto Cordero of e3 Consulting, and a member of its Board, Christian González of Wovenware. They have looked into a special program named Hub Zone, whereas an area declared as a Hub Zone would have priority for federal contracting opportunities. This is something we could pursue in collaboration to assure success.
A White House official recommended that we simply demand better education. This is easy to say but hard to do, if not practically impossible. Our reply was clear and to the point, let’s do this together! There are a number of areas where federal expertise and intermediation would be highly strategic in creating change in our local education system. Shifts in curriculum to promote innovation and entrepreneurship, creation of effective after-school programs, and leveraging access to federal funding for nonprofit organizations, are just some examples.
After the roundtable discussions, we went back to the plenary room where the roundtable moderators debriefed their respective takeaways.
The Making PR Open for Business Roundtable concluded for example, that there is great opportunity in improving the business permitting process, increasing contracting with the federal government, getting US businesses to locate in PR, enabling local companies to expand beyond Puerto Rico and improving connectivity with the world by increasing air traffic flow through Puerto Rico and creating an in-transit lounge for international to international flights.
The roundtable discussing Energy and Innovation concluded that there is an urgent need of reducing energy costs and that this alone could impact the economy greatly.
The White House Task Force officials were pleased with the outcome and expressed their commitment to keep these conversations going. Most importantly, there was a clear call to action for all participants – we all have a role that we can execute right now with our own networks, resources and passion.
One of the most valuable experiences I had at this event was being able to network with an impressive group of people from multiple sectors that are very committed to accelerating the transformation of Puerto Rico. We shared the initiatives we are each undertaking, best practices and lessons learned. I am happy to say that great opportunities for collaboration were sparked. At Foundation for Puerto Rico, collaboration is in our DNA and I’m excited to see that we are not the only ones. I look forward to working with this incredibly passionate group to promote initiatives for economic development in Puerto Rico. We’ll keep you posted!