Entrepreneur and young visionary leader, Isabel Rullan presented at the Chamber Strome Business Series on April 10th. Co-founder and executive director of conPRmetidos Rullan shared the story of how an idea came to fruition.
Many good ideas start with a conversation amongst friends over dinner. Rullan recalled talking with friends in 2005 about problems facing Puerto Rico. “It was an election year and we could not pretend the government could solve all our problems we decided we needed to get people involved and make everybody conscious to change in Puerto Rico,” Rullan said. The initial vision of the non-profit organization was to find economic opportunity amongst the Puerto Rican diaspora and draw the fleeing youth and talent back to the island.
At 24 Rullan and her team of 4 friends researched other countries and regions who faced similar issues. “It began by listening. What were the problems people were talking about? They were in silos all over, they weren’t collaborating. We began to look at solutions and we started a movement,” Rullan said. Just one of two full time employees at the start of conPRmetidos, she began to identify the “opportunity gap between the youth that graduated and the lack of opportunity on the island. We met with company owners who said it was hard to acquire talent and we began to introduce internships and resume workshops with youth. Between 2005 and 2015, 4,000 Puerto Ricans left the island, we needed to keep talent.”
Not unlike some of the issues Hampton Roads faces in keeping talent in the region with our transitioning military and university graduates, Rullan knew that, “If we wanted to grow, we needed to bring people in key positions into the process. We launched a platform to connect entrepreneurs and mentors and were able to bring back talent and broker connections with business owners.
Rullan’s story might have gone on from here about the success of returning young Puerto Ricans to the island and increasing workforce development opportunities, but this concept to reality story changed abruptly with the devastating impact of Hurricane Maria to the island. Rullan presented a video which showed the almost total devastation of the region and spoke passionately about the shift in her organizations focus to the rebuilding and sustainability of Puerto Rico.
“In 2016 the government debt was declared to be 72 billion – the private sector had to turn to tech and entrepreneurship to revitalize the economy with tax incentives and other initiatives. In order to give hope to the younger generations, if your dream job doesn’t exist you have to create it.” Rullan’s and her team created an accelerator program that would do just that and that is when Hurricanes Irma and Maria hit the island.
With a renewed focus, Rullan created a crowd funding campaign and her office at conPRmetidos, amongst wrecked trees and shattered glass and powered by a generator was one of the only places on the island with internet service. It became a command center for the island and a hub of aid distribution. conPRmetidos and Rullan are a model for leadership and resiliency as her goals swiftly shifted to long term rebuilding.
“Over 5,000 small businesses have closed since the hurricane and we had to rethink the mission. We need to create a stable, productive self sustaining Puerto Rico.” Rullan said. “We believe in the power of network and I’m good at connecting people.” Her connections have linked entrepreneurs to business accelerators, talent to organizations, coffee farmers to agriculture sustainability experts, and Puerto Rican leaders to the leaders of New Orleans who survived their own devastating losses through Katrina.
Rullan acknowledged Puerto Rico has a long road ahead of them for recovery but she and her network are part of the solution. She shared lessons she learned from the New Orleans’ leaders, “Listen to people in the communities, be part of the conversation and solution. Local businesses and entrepreneurs are key to rebuilding efforts, and universities must play a role to bring students in to do community work and help in the transformation.”
Hampton Roads Chamber president, Bryan K. Stephens closed the afternoon by saying, “leadership is about making things happen. Here one resident is making change.” He addressed the Old Dominion University students in the audience directly. “You students can learn from that. It takes one person to make things happen in a positive way, think of the collective impact of Isabel and how she has created the change to an island.”
When Rullan was asked what advice she had for the students in the room she said, “make a lot of friends when you are in college, these are your real friends, when you are all struggling and don’t have money, put yourself out there. Go to these types of Chamber events, invite people with more experience than you to coffee, reach out to someone you look up to and tell them your ideas, don’t be afraid to ask for advice and surround yourself with people who are smarter than you.”
Stephens’ echoed that sentiment, “Success leaves clues, learn from those that have gone before you.” Rullan exemplifies the Chamber qualities of a bold leader and Puerto Rico will be better for it.