I first visited Colombia in 2009 with about 15 other young leaders from North and South America. We met with then-President Uribe, then-minister Manuel Santos (the current president), former president Gaviria, and various other economists, business leaders, and journalists from around the country. The hot topic at the time, as it had been for years, was security. FARC, the guerrilla group that at one point controlled huge swaths of land in Colombia, was in decline, though still causing problems. Then-President Uribe got much of the credit for the improving security situation. Riding this popular support, he was petitioning the country to amend the constitution in order to enable him to serve a third term and continue implementing hard-nosed security policies. It was an interesting time to be there. After we left, the people ultimately rejected Uribe’s plan (much to the relief of those who cared about Colombia’s democratic institutions) and instead elected Santos, his defense minister, to succeed him.
In the years since, Colombia has continued to thrive. I visited again a couple weeks ago. To my delight, discussion about amending the constitution to enable strong-hand security didn’t come up once. Sure, security and drugs are still part of the country’s story but less and less so. Instead, there are other, more uplifting themes to talk about: an emergent middle class of 15+ million people (out of a population of 48 million); an economy that benefits from market-oriented policies (unlike some of its neighbors); a substantial regional entrepreneurship ecosystem; tight relations with the hemisphere’s superpower, the United States. On this last point, a local paper I saw in Bogota had the huge headline “Colombia’s New Best Friend” above a picture of a smiling Obama and Santos. (By the way, I believe the U.S. Embassy in Bogota is one of the largest in the world after Baghdad, Islamabad, and Beijing.)
On my most recent trip, the itinerary was heavier on entrepreneurs. Based on both anecdotal meetings/conversations and more comprehensive statistics and trend lines, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Colombia has established itself as a top entrepreneurship ecosystem in the region. There are meaningful businesses being built there and, like Dubai in the Middle East, talented entrepreneurs are using Colombia as a base to serve a broader regional population. That’s a critical dynamic: because the individual country markets aren’t large enough to sustain large enterprises on their own, the country/city that becomes a hub for regionally-ambitious entrepreneurs becomes very powerful indeed.
As is typical with emerging ecosystems, lack of capital is an issue. As one local investor put it to me, Colombians understand Colombia but are not in general as familiar with early stage, high risk entrepreneurship. Tech people — Silicon Valley people, say — understand high risk entrepreneurship investing, but do not understand — and do not care to understand — Colombia. Too few people fall in the middle of that venn diagram. More on these themes, later.
For now, here are some other quick impressions from my handful of days in Bogota and Medellin:
- Gone are the days of being fleeced by a crooked taxi driver who sees Gringo Dollar Sign when you get in the car. Uber is a game changer: cheap, plentiful, safe, convenient. And talking to my Uber drivers revealed some of the more interesting conversations with locals I had during my stay. One driver was the local sales partner for Box. Another was an entrepreneur attempting to start the Kayak of Colombia. Another was a pop singer. They all knew Uber was based in San Francisco (“Where ya from?” “San Francisco” “Oh, where Uber is!”). They loved Uber as a force for good in helping them make ends meet.
- Colombia offers dollar holders predictable lifestyle arbitrage. I took UberX for 10 mins and it cost me $1.50 USD. A reasonably upscale hotel (24 hour room service, modern fitness center equipment) will run you $85 USD a night.
- There are five countries that drive the economic conversation in Spanish-speaking Latin America, it seems: Chile, Argentina, Peru, Mexico, and Colombia. (Brazil is its own category.)
- Speaking a foreign language that you’re not fluent in can be thrilling and depressing — sometimes within the same conversation. When I would complete a full conversation or transaction in Spanish, I beamed inside with pride. When the conversation or context switched out of a predictable hospitality zone or polite chit chat, and the other speaker realized my language limitations, it was depressing. The intensity of the depression depended on whether the other person’s English was better than my Spanish; so long as my mediocre Spanish was better than their English, I had some consolation. All in all, after Cuba for New Year’s and then Colombia the other week, my tourist Spanish is pretty proficient (I navigated some travel hiccups perfectly in Medellin airport, where no gate agents or airline reps spoke English!), and I suspect a couple months of focused study would get me to business proficient.
- Over the past decade, Colombia has benefited from Argentina’s political instability (and economic stupidity) in terms of talent, trade deals, and the like. I met and heard about several Argentines who had made their way to Colombia to build their careers. That said, with the new government in Buenos Aires, there seems to be something of a revival of hope about Argentina. We’ll see if some of their exported talent returns home.
- Why are Medellin women supposedly the most beautiful in the world? I asked a local that question and he gave me two reasons. First, breast implants. Like in Korea, teenage girls in Medellin are encouraged quite openly by friends and family to think about “enhancing” themselves. Second, Medellin was historically the base for some of the more powerful drug cartels. The drug kingpins imported the most beautiful women in the country (and region?) to Medellin to keep them company.
- The Mayor of Medellin is a charismatic fellow, and in a speech to an entrepreneurship delegation of the Global Entrepreneurship Congress, he reminded us of a pretty startling fact: in 1991 Medellin was the most dangerous city in the world. One year, Pablo Escobar killed 4 out of the 7 presidential candidates. Today, Medellin is an innovation hub. Anyone who thinks the fate of a city or country is pre-determined should visit Medellin. The end is not fixed.
- Travel is a constant learning opportunity. I love taking note of little cultural nuances. It’s a reminder of how arbitrary any one country’s norms are. Little of what we do in our native country is The Right Way to do something; it’s just the way somebody way back did it and generations since have copied it. In Colombia, as one small example, people send tons of audio messages via WhatsApp. Look around in a crowd of people and you’ll see somebody holding the phone to their mouth (but not to their ear) recording audio messages. I can’t remember the last time an American sent me an audio message; in Colombia, after 24 hours on the ground, I had already received three.