Culturally we’re obsessed with youth, but in business, it’s considered a liability until you prove yourself. Especially if you’re trying to execute an idea that’s never been done before. Faced with these circumstances there are those who retreat and those who push forward.
Twenty-eight-year-old Christine Souffrant Ntim, cofounder of Global Startup Ecosystem and a Forbes 30 Under 30, is among those who persist, and as a result she and her team launched the first-ever tech summit in Haiti.
I was among the group of 100 speakers to descend upon Haiti along with over 450 attendees, including more than 20 tech companies. (Google, Facebook and AirBnb were in attendance.)
Ntim is transparent about the fact that no one thought they could pull it off. Each person on the organizing team of eight is under 30, a symbol of the possibility and potential that lives within the population of Haiti; The average age of a Haitian citizen is 22.
It’s been seven years since the earthquake, and about 55,000 people still remain in displacement camps, according to the Huffington Post. Currently, Haiti is home to close to 10.5 million people, and the unemployment rate is slightly above 40%. In addition, 60% of the population lives on $2 a day. And while Ntim, who is Haitian-American, and her team are well aware of the current state of Haiti, where others see problems they see possibility.
“First and foremost we know Haiti can transform itself and be a new global case study for what happens when you get the right influences in the room to transform a nation.”
This is a 13-year initiative, she added. “This is not happening once. We’re going to be doing this until 2030. 2030 is going to be a revolutionary time for us to evaluate different countries and their standards for UN development goals. Haiti is going to be the case study that everyone is going to try and figure out. How can we replicate what happened in Haiti? You are part of that right now.”
In our interview, Ntim shared how she managed to create a summit to serve as a catalyst for disruption and innovation in Haiti, and offers advice to other young people looking to achieve what others deem impossible:
Rhonesha Byng: What challenges did you and your team face planning and executing the first-ever Haiti Tech Summit?
Christine Souffrant Ntim: There were so many challenges. First, no one believed we could actually source 100 speakers and host an international event in Haiti. As a team of eight people all under the age of 30, potential sponsors and partners could not believe that we had the media connections to source 100 speakers in Haiti. Since major corporations have been unable to do so in the past, our odds were slim. Despite sponsor/partner doubts, my international reputation and networks were strong enough to help me pull in global speakers-many of which – came to Haiti for the first time. Speakers included the President of Haiti- Jovenel Moise, Ben Horowitz and celebrities such as Vicky Jeudy from the Netflix series Orange is the New Black.
Second, no one wanted to buy tickets in advance. There’s so much skepticism around event fraud that people wanted to arrive and see if the event truly was happening. During the 2nd to last week of May we had about 200 RSVP’s- half of which were family, friends, volunteers and speakers. I did a series of media interviews on a Monday on radio, TV and in print. It finally clicked with locals that we were coming and the Whatsapp messages and word of mouth spread like wildfire. In two weeks we surpassed 450 in ticket sales and had to shut down the site. At a certain point people who didn’t take us seriously were trying to meet us directly to get tickets. We turned away hundreds on the day of the event because we were filled to capacity.
Byng: You mentioned in one interview that “Haiti is not open for business. Haiti is open for disruption.” What did you mean by that?
Ntim: What I meant by this now infamous statement is that when we look at emerging markets today we evaluate them based on the wrong things. We look at their capacity for formal industry development- like banking, communications, and commerce- despite the fact that formal industries are being overtaken by small startups almost every year. From Airbnb transforming travel hospitality, to Twitter transforming media communication, we should not evaluate countries on standards that are already being challenged.
I want the world to think differently with their approach in countries like Haiti. Don’t focus on what we don’t have today- focus on what we can create tomorrow. If we have issues with communication networks – how can your startup change that? If we have a poor transportation infrastructure – how can you think beyond Uber and create an entire new way of travel? And since Haiti has a proud history of resilient, entrepreneurial people, we are the best place to pilot and launch the startups of tomorrow. So come here to disrupt and scale in an entirely new way. The whole ecosystem is excited for it.
Byng: What was the main goal of the summit and was that achieved?
Ntim: In many ways, yes. Our three goals were simple: change the narrative around Haiti as a brand, spark local startup ecosystem collaboration, and engage international media, investors, tech companies and stakeholders.
Byng: Did your team’s age factor into the reception of the summit in any way?
Ntim: Yes, what started off as huge skepticism regarding our age turned into huge inspiration. At the end of the event I called the team to the main stage. The crowd cheered – not only because of what we done, but also because many of them jumped at the opportunity to network and connect with older people at the conference discussing the potential of the youth in the room – not realizing that the whole endeavor was the result of engaged youth. I even said “how many young people in your community do you overlook because they don’t have the age and titles that you thought were worthy of a conversation? Well, if you haven’t noticed, our generation is not waiting for tomorrow to make a statement. We are making waves today.”