Google Fiber Inclusion Innovator Dr. Angelique Johnson on ‘Belizean Entrepreneurship: Maintaining Cultural Legacy in a Tourism Economy”

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Belize for world entrepreneurship day as part of a Global Citizenship & Human Service Delegation. The delegation was tasked with understanding the entrepreneurial journey, best practices and needs of Belizean founders. We visited a broad range of businesses from resorts and spas to essential oils and art. Each founder shared his or her story and the innovative product(s) they sell. In many ways, Belizean experiences are similar to those in the US. Michelle Irving, the owner of POWA, a manufacturer of bath products and essential oils, commented that funding was one of her biggest challenges. She and others also emphasized that lack of access to product packaging and materials is a huge hurdle. While funding is often the number one concern of entrepreneurs in the US, we have much greater access to international distributors of materials and packaging without the pains of high tariffs and restrictive shipping costs. Other similarities reside in the innovative spirit of the entrepreneurs and the desire to do good for their community.

However, doing good comes with the added challenge of maintaining native culture while working to appeal to the tastes of tourists. At Belize Boutique Resort and Spa the owners, Melanie and Merickston Nicholson, have built stunning spa rooms and cabanas amidst a jungle backdrop.  As you walk to your treatment room you can spot lizards skipping round coconut trees and a walkway full of native plants and flowers, but the room itself has many familiar touches that would remind tourists of their home country. It is places like this that help to ensure the Belizean beauty is not white-washed by the influx of foreign investment dollars. They make tough decisions to keep the integrity of their homeland, and they create innovative solutions to increasing sales from tourists.

Perhaps, the greatest example of this innovation is The Image Factory Arts Foundation & Gallery. Like many galleries they showcase artists and host events, but their true ingenuity is in the art incubator side of the business. Although they don’t refer to themselves as an incubator, owner Yasser Musa and coordinator Gilvano Swasey work with local/rural artists to turn their art/craft into functional products that can increase profits. Many times in tourist economies you’ll find vendors selling the same variety of art souvenirs. Swasey  helps the artist reimagine the familiar Belizean souvenirs into unique creations that are just as practical to use as they are beautiful to look at. In one project, a widely sold wooden bowl is reimagined with a light bulb to turn it into a one of a kind lamp. As I listened to Swasey describe the process I couldn’t help but think of all the artists in the US that could benefit from this type of incubator.

There was much to adsorb from the Belizean entrepreneurs, but also an opportunity to share entrepreneurial knowledge and training developed in the US. The delegation is currently planning collaborative small business development efforts that could include a multi-week incubator in Belize for both Belizeans and US entrepreneurs. The challenges faced by Belizeans are not that far off from the challenges of gentrification in the US and the desire of residents to participate in the growth of their community, while preserving its cultural identity.  I believe both countries could learn well from each other.