The heart of El Salvador’s entrepreneurial community weighs heavy with grief due to the sudden loss of Darwin Romero, Co-Founder of Applaudo Studios and one of the country’s most promising young businessmen.
Romero, 40, died in a car crash last weekend in San Salvador. The vehicle he was traveling in slammed into a roundabout and then flipped upside down. Mario Wilfredo Lopez, 45, a member of Banco Azul’s board of directors, also passed away.
Con profunda tristeza informamos el fallecimiento de nuestro socio Co-Fundador, Darwin Romero. Agradecemos todo el apoyo y sus muestras de condolencias ante esta difícil noticia. pic.twitter.com/CsCAYuCJAS
— Applaudo (@applaudo_) April 14, 2023
Romero was among the leading figures in Applaudo Studios, one of Central America’s most successful companies in the tech services export market. Founded in 2013 with just 15 persons, Applaudo now has 1,000 employees. Over the past nine years, the company has implemented over 250 technology projects for clients such as Walmart, FoxNow, Miami Heat and Rappi.
Applaudo has made a name for itself in El Salvador not only as a successful company, but also as a catalyst for change in the local labor market. On the company’s website, Romero wrote: “At Applaudo, our goal is not only to export world-class software solutions, but also to impact the lives of Salvadoran developers.”
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Romero began his career with TACA Airlines before moving to Dell Inc., where he led a team of professionals tasked with developing new products. At Dell, he assembled multiple teams of software engineers who worked remotely across Latin America. His work made him realize the tremendous potential in the region, which was mostly wasted by the talent pool being scattered and largely untapped.
After leaving Dell in the early 2010s, Romero met with Scott Kennyon, his former boss at Dell. At the time, Kennyon was working at Phunware, a small Austin-based startup in dire need of engineers to scale up operations. Romero saw the chance for business and seized it, getting his former colleague and long-time friend Jose Giammattei on board. The partnership with Phunware was successful enough that it led to more business, resulting in the eventual foundation of Applaudo Studios.
“We didn’t know the industry we were walking into. This nearshoring trend, back then in El Salvador, didn’t move beyond call centers,” said Giammattei, Applaudo’s current COO, in an interview with NSAM.
The gamble paid off handsomely not only for Applaudo, but for El Salvador and even Central America as a whole. The company’s success convinced several US companies of the quality of talent and services they can find in the region, opening paths for sourcing and delivery not only in El Salvador, but in other Central American countries such as Honduras and Nicaragua.
“Darwin [Romero] opened avenues where there weren’t any. He made El Salvador credible as a center for technology and software development,” commented Guillermo Valiente, Co-Founder of Excelsius Consultants and a former colleague of Romero. “If we can attribute El Salvador’s positioning in this industry –especially in the US– to anyone, that person is Darwin.”
Giving Everyone a Chance
Applaudo was built on Darwin Romero’s hopes for his countrymen. He understood the potential among his people and wished to make the rest of the tech industry aware of that potential. “Our purpose is to become a bridge for opportunities. We take these world class opportunities to places where the industry will not gravitate naturally in search of engineers,” said Jose Giammattei.
“Darwin was concerned about creating quality jobs at home so that Salvadorans wouldn’t be forced to go abroad for better opportunities,” added Guillermo Valiente. “I think Darwin had this idea in mind, and it was one of the many factors that led him to build Applaudo.”
As such, talent development became one of the tenets behind Applaudo as a company and of Romero as an entrepreneur. He said as much in a previous interview with NSAM, in which he compared his approach to talent to that of sports teams’ in the US.
“We really take care of the onboarding of our talent and the way we recruit, train and retain our talent,” Romero said. “We actually do a lot of what you guys [NBA’s Miami Heat] do; we are looking for the great talent out there. We are looking for the best players that we can bring to the team.”
A Serial Entrepreneur
Romero’s entrepreneurial spirit didn’t end with the founding of Applaudo Studios. He built one company after another. By the time he was 40, he had proven himself as a serial entrepreneur. In September 2020, he co-founded LUUK, a regional e-commerce platform; in February 2021, he partnered with Giammattei once more to launch Onlife, a digital pharmacy.
As an avid techie, Romero was an advocate for the use of technology as a key component of every business, as well as of the digital transformation of El Salvador.
“Everyone, each one of us, must become a digital leader […] Otherwise, we are going to end up being obsolete leaders in a very short time,” Romero said in an interview with magazine Estrategia & Negocios.
“A pesar de ser un país que parece de imposibles, desde acá podemos hacer muchas cosas memorables”: Darwin Romero, cofundador de @applaudostudios, durante la ceremonia de entrega de la #PalmaDeOro. pic.twitter.com/TZkm0a8Wfz
— Cámara de Comercio e Industria de El Salvador (@camarasal) November 11, 2022
Given his status in El Salvador’s industry, the country’s entrepreneurial community is still coming to terms with Romero’s demise. Several entrepreneurs expressed their grief in social media, remembering Romero’s achievements as a businessman and his social legacy. Alfredo Atanacio Cader, Co-Founder of Salvadoran BPO Uassist.ME, wrote on Twitter that the news was “difficult to process and accept”. María Luisa Hayem, El Salvador’s Economy Minister, characterized Romero as a “leader of the tech sector and a strategic partner in the edification of an innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem in the country”.
Nuestro más sincero pésame por la irreparable pérdida de Darwin Romero, líder del sector de tecnología y socio estratégico para el impulso del ecosistema de innovación y emprendimiento del país.
— María Luisa Hayem 🇸🇻 (@MariaLuisaHayem) April 14, 2023
Though sorely missed, colleagues and friends are already making sure that Darwin Romero’s legacy will live on, remembered for his impact beyond Applaudo.
Giammattei characterized his colleague and friend as a tremendous communicator and strategist who used his “super powers” to position El Salvador as a true player in the tech services game.
The most relevant aspect of Romero’s legacy, in his opinion, comes down to his belief in El Salvador’s capabilities to achieve greatness, even when the region struggles with defeatism.
“The legacy he leaves behind, I believe, is his way of thinking and of doing things,” Giammattei observed. “In our latitude, sometimes we have a conformist mentality. We say to ourselves that we’ll never be like Amazon.”
“Darwin believed that we should challenge ourselves to be better; that you don’t have to be born in Silicon Valley to meet their standards,” Giammattei added. “He believed in the importance of focusing on excellence, of leveraging every opportunity that arises, because limits are only in your mind.”