If Adriana Heredia had been asked three years ago about the possibility of becoming an entrepreneur, she would have rejected the notion. This economist, a professor at the University of Havana, was focused on her academic career; but everything began to change when she decided to embark on the adventure of creating an Airbnb experience. She called it Beyond Roots and today her project is recognized as a vehicle to spread Afro-Cuban culture.
PanamericanWorld went to the first Afro-style store in Cuba, located in the heart of Old Havana, to talk to this woman who does not hesitate to acknowledge that becoming an entrepreneur allowed her to dream and do bigger things.
BEYOND ROOTS IN GUANABACOA: THE CRADLE OF AFRO-CUBAN CULTURE
Adriana Heredia tells us that she founded Beyond Roots with José Luis Corredera on December 4, 2016, “when we identified an increase in the number of visitors arriving in Cuba. The tourist offer designed for them focused on the history of the country, but not on the way of life of the people in Cuba”.
As to Afro-Cuban culture, she perceived a lot of fear in visitors. “It was widely associated with voodoo and negative practices, and that was precisely what drove them to change the criteria. I’m from Guanabacoa. All Cubans know that this place is the cradle of Afro-Cuban culture, of Santeria. I was very struck when I talked to people and asked them why it was the cradle? And they could not make that connection from the historical point of view”, she said.
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BEYOND ROOTS HAVANA
From there on, she decided to create a series of experiences so that visitors to Cuba could understand what Afro-Cuban culture is in all its dimension. “We take visitors out of the big tourist areas and take them to the Guanabacoa community. We turn the neighbors into the main characters of these experiences. That’s how Beyond Roots started”, she explained.
The experience through Airbnb had a big impact. “When talking about Afro-Cuban culture, drumming and dancing like the orishas are obvious things, but we began to focus more on the human component. A curious thing happened: many of the people in the community began to see that with pleasure, they offered help, they were motivated by the idea of making Guanabacoa visible and they wanted to be part of the project,” Adriana clarified.
Then they decided to expand the experiences and created a community project in Guanabacoa. “In one year, we grew from 3 to 22 people, and from 1 experience we went to 6 on Airbnb. The most popular one is the AfroCuba Culture Guide that runs for five hours. Then we designed particular experiences, one about music, dance, visual arts and culinary traditions, to try to cover each of the aspects”, said the entrepreneur.
BEYOND ROOTS: A LIVING RECOLLECTION OF AFRO-CUBAN CULTURE
One of the questions that Adriana constantly asked herself was what would people remember or take away as a living memory of Afro-Cuban culture? “I don’t want visitors to walk away with a stereotypical painting from the stores of San José, the image of the mulatto or the lady with tobacco in her mouth, but to go deeper,” he said.
“At the Museum of Guanabacoa there were only very old postcards. At Casa de África, in Old Havana, there was no shop where they could find souvenirs. So, we took on the task of designing a range of souvenirs that would enhance Afro-Cuban identity. That is how the idea of the store was born”, she clarified.
“We started with a portable store to place graphic designs on t-shirts and bags. We carried our store in a suitcase. It had an impact, but we got to a point where we said to ourselves, we’re doing this for foreigners, but what about Cubans? I noticed, as a black woman who decided to wear her natural hair from the age of 15, that it was a challenge to find products for curly hair, and it was also difficult to wear something that would make me feel as if I had three thousand ancestors walking behind me and would enhance my identity as a black woman and an Afro-descendant person”, added Adriana.
This was Beyond Roots’ third big step. “We started designing for Cubans and offering products to our Afro community. I couldn’t do that alone. I always thought that we could function as a platform, bringing together entrepreneurs with the common goal of promoting Afro-Cuban culture. I found Erlys Pennycook, from Ciego de Ávila, who has the Que Negra line, a natural hair product made in Cuba. It is important for young people to learn to accept the way they look as Afro descendants. We supported Erlys in making her brand visible and gave her a platform so that she could market her products”, she explained.
Other entrepreneurs approached Beyond Roots, and Adriana started to work on identifying projects to collaborate with. “I love D’Brujas soaps, so I proposed the making of Afro-Cuban soaps to Sandra Aldama. We were inspired by the Orishas of the Yoruba pantheon, we identified the ingredients that each soap should have under the motto “clean your skin, cleanse your spirit”, and this is how the design of a soap for each orisha came about. Beyond Roots owns the intellectual property and D’Brujas is in charge of the production process”, she said.
“We found the girls from Reforma Estudio and I suggested making colorful jewelry. We did the design and they completed the production process. We also found Barbara’s Power who made the afro line and we inserted her products into our platform. This is how we have been creating alliances with suppliers to create the first Afro-style store in Cuba”, said the entrepreneur.
CHALLENGES OF AN ENTREPRENEUR IN CUBA
Adriana Heredia recognizes that, as an entrepreneur in Cuba, she faces several external and internal challenges. “I have always been motivated to empower people. I don’t see myself as the boss. I try to make the people who work at Beyond Roots feel entrepreneurial and that they can generate value from their abilities and their training. I also do it in Guanabacoa, with the people of the community, who have no advance professional training, but whose know-how comes from their own history and experience”.
“For me the biggest challenge is to integrate the 34 people on the team, almost all of them women. 82% are under the age of 30. Training people in a disruptive work culture in Cuba is very complex. We have a large and very multidisciplinary team, with different training levels. I have to coordinate and integrate all those people and give them a space to perform, while maintain a standard of quality. This is what educating people is all about and that is Beyond Roots’ greatest goal: to educate. We are educating people who come to Cuba about Afro-Cuban culture, and we are educating Cubans about their culture and to accept themselves as Afro-descendants.”
“The second challenge concerns supplies. We are creating products from scratch. Maintaining stability in supply is complicated. I suffer every time I get to the store and see gaps or empty spaces on the display shelves. The third major challenge is the legal framework. We find it restrictive and unstable. There are many things we cannot achieve in Cuba. How to get quality fabrics in the country? I wake up every day wondering what’s going to happen to us tomorrow. This does not allow us to see ourselves in ten years”, he explained.
TIPS FOR OTHER CUBAN ENTREPRENEURS
Adriana shared several tips that are valid, not only for Cuban entrepreneurs. “I advise them to always try to think outside the box. Do not stop just because you face a few roadblocks. Do not let stress bring your down. Overcome barriers with creative thinking. There is nothing more beautiful than doing business in your country. We have a country to defend and young people are going to build a better path for Cuba. Our entrepreneurial efforts will have a social impact. You can move forward with your own venture, but never forget about the community. Being an entrepreneur is not easy, but when you manage to overcome the challenges, you feel more empowered and you grow as a human being”, she concluded.