Gabriella Rodriguez remembers the moment she first heard there was a tech internship opportunity in New York. Details about how to apply were posted on the U.S. State Department’s Facebook page, but like the majority of Cubans, she didn’t have regular access to the Internet. Luckily the news spread by word of mouth in Santos Suárez, the small suburb of Havana where she lives. Her friend called and explained the process: All she needed to do was answer a set of 15 questions, do a little writing in Spanish or English, and find a way to submit her application via a Google doc.
A few days after she applied, Rodriguez got a call inviting her to join a monthlong program at the New York-based incubator Grand Central Tech.
“I literally jumped when I found out,” the 16-year-old told Yahoo News. “I screamed a little bit.”
Rodriguez is one of three Cuban interns who participated in the internship program, Innovadores, which ended Monday. Sponsored by angel investor Miles Spencer’s nonprofit company, the program aims to take advantage of America’s newly relaxed restrictions regarding Cuba. The self-described “explorer” began negotiating the exchange in May, and within 100 days — just after the U.S. and Cuba resumed diplomatic relations on July 20 — the interns arrived in, naturally, Brooklyn.
That Rodriguez and her colleagues were recruited to intern at a tech company was no accident. In its years of isolation from the U.S., the Cuban government has neglected to build an infrastructure for public Internet access. Only about 5 percent of the population has private online access, and for everyone else, an hour of local-area-network connection can cost between $6 and $10 at a government-run Internet café. To improvise, residents sometimes sit outside international hotel porches to grab a free connection or pass around online information via an external hard drive called a “Paquete Semanal” (weekly packet).
In conjunction with Cuba’s newfound relationship with the United States, the country has taken steps to make online access more widespread. Last month, almost three dozen government-run computer centers got Wi-Fi, cutting the price of Internet in half at those locations. In a statement released in January, Obama said that strengthening diplomatic ties to the country would allow American telecommunications companies to build the infrastructure necessary for widespread, affordable wireless access.
In the case of the Innovadores program, Rodriguez and her fellow interns — Raul Perera and Gabriel Garcia — traveled to the United States to learn what it takes to build successful tech companies. Considering the limits of their access to Internet back home, their arrival in late July was quite a whirlwind. It began when they touched down at LaGuardia Airport. Spencer picked them up and drove them to Williamsburg AirBnB lodgings off the Metropolitan Ave. L stop. There, they were introduced to their Brooklyn digs, a bunkhouse they’d be sharing with students from Choate Rosemary Hall, a prestigious private high school in Connecticut that Spencer himself had attended.
“Brooklyn can kind of fall off from one block to the next,” he told Yahoo News. “Their particular block falls off: There’s garbage, there’s a cat fighting a rat over there, there are windows broken. I’m like, ‘I’m a s---ty host, this is horrible. I wouldn’t stay here.’ Until we pulled up, and they were like, ‘Oh my God, is this for us?’ These kids were so grateful.”
Also included in their unofficial orientation: distribution of the average American teen’s basic survival tools.
“The kids come in and it’s like: Here’s your burner phone, here’s your tablet, here’s your candy bar, here’s your MetroCard, here’s your Yankees hat,” Spencer said. “We’re going to dinner.”
When I first met them at the GCT office, they were sitting at a long open table, typing away on the Microsoft Surface tablets that Spencer had bestowed upon them on their first day in America. I asked them how they hoped to contribute to their country’s tech sector.
Perera grinned: “To have a tech industry,” he said. “That’s the most accurate answer I can give you.”
Grateful that they’re in a place where the Wi-Fi runs (mostly) free, all three said they were determined to learn whatever they could to help their home county. But keeping up with basic digital communication in the U.S. has required some adjustment.
“Here, if you don’t respond to a text in, like, two seconds, you probably get fired,” Perera said. “In Cuba you can’t even check your emails at home.”
This, Rodriguez says, creates a fundamental difference between how people interact in their country and in New York.
“We have actual real friends,” Rodriguez said. “Not virtual ones.”
Ultimately their goal is to use their newfound skills to build an “innovation factory” in Havana, for which Spencer’s company has partnered with an NGO.
Last week, the team presented its full plan to launch the organization to a group of about 300 people in an auditorium at Goldman Sachs. Dressed as business professionals, they stood in front of a large projector screen, outlining a PowerPoint presentation that detailed how they planned to create a technological community in their home country and urging innovators in the crowd to participate. The center, Perera explained, would be an “open space” like GCT made up of experts and apprentices, who would work together to solve problems in Cuba with technology.
“We’ll be in Havana in September,” Perera said to the audience. “We’ll be pleased if you are there, too.”