Ivy Kuperberg was in New York when she heard the terrible news. She had recently returned from Malawi, a small African nation where she worked in healthcare, and was eating ice cream while surfing the web. “I remember the exact day it happened I was in New York, and I think I just refreshed the New York Times screen and it came across as a headline that there has been a devastating earthquake that impacted Haiti,” she said.
The scope of a tragedy that killed more than 220,000 people in an impoverished nation affected everyone as soon as they heard of the devastation, but Kuperberg was especially touched. One of her best friends from college, at Rice University in Houston, was from Haiti, so Kuperberg’s dread immediately focused on the fate of the family. It was difficult to find out any information because the phones were down.
“We just kept trying to call her relatives, and it was just hard,” said Kuperberg. “I’m from California originally, so I lived through the Northridge earthquake, but even that in comparison was much easier. You went under the table for 10 minutes and then picked up a bunch of broken glass in the morning.”
She decided she wanted to help. Her studies had focused on bioengineering for global health, so Kuperberg was confident her skills could be useful rather than simply making her one more body in a crowded sea of aid workers.
She flew to Port au Prince and ended up working with the national hospital in disaster recovery. It was severely underfunded and staff hadn’t been paid in months. So in addition to the humanitarian crisis, they had to overcome logistical hurdles like payroll and supply chain inefficiencies.
Later on she transitioned to a more stable hospital where it was easier to do more good. She spent a lot of time helping kids in the pediatric wing. They were providing care not just to disaster victims, but children with serious diseases.
It was rewarding work, but it was also frustrating because she realized that many families were still facing desperate times even after their health improved. “Even as we’re giving all these really innovative and really cool health solutions, it doesn’t seem to solve the larger issue of poverty.”
Driven By Need
It was depressing, and the sad reality is what motivated Kuperberg to move into the business sector. She realized that humanitarian efforts could only do so much. For Haitians to make long-term progress, they would need a more-dynamic economy that is sustainable and able to create good jobs for skilled workers. She worked with Digicel, a telecommunications company, on mobile financial services and saw this first hand.
Unexpectedly, her passion for job creation led her to start working for the government. Now, as director of promotions for the Center for Facilitation of Investments (CFI), the investment promotion arm of the nation’s Ministry and Commerce and Industry, she focuses much of her attention to attracting the BPO and IT outsourcing world to Haiti.
Targeting the sector is one of the agency’s key priorities, and she thinks recent developments will help evolve what is now a nascent industry. The key message is informing the world about what Haiti has to offer. One aspect of promoting Haiti as a BPO destination comes with a bit of a double-edged sword. People do know Haiti, so there is a “brand recognition” for the nation so to speak. But they don’t know it for the right reasons, so Kuperberg is working to change that. “The local staff and the local talent is sometimes a bit underestimated,” she said.
She boasts about the country’s tri-lingual talent pool that can speak French, English, and Spanish in addition to the native Creole, which sets up the country to potentially service the United States and Canada very well. Up to 75,000 speak fluent English and some 45,000 study in Spanish at universities in the Dominican Republic and Cuba, something that will only increase the numbers who speak Spanish.
As far as tech education, Kuperberg says people are often surprised at how many good coders there already are in Haiti, and CFI hosts events like hackathons and the Digital Jam in June along with leading tech school ESIH (École Supérieure d’Infotronique d’Haïti) to get the younger generation thinking about the career potential in technology.
And of course salary costs are a huge advantage for Haiti. While competitors like Jamaica and the Dominican Republic have average annual salaries over $6,000, Haitian wages in the industry come in at just $3,000, according to CFI. That’s lower than even the Philippines.
Burgeoning BPO Infrastructure
The infrastructure now in place for BPO firms is another factor she says isn’t well known. Port Lafito, Haiti’s first Panamax-sized port, opened in July and includes a very large industrial park equipped with luxuries like a residential facility, cinema, and planned golf course. Caracol, a $300 million industrial park designed to create 60,000 jobs in the northern part of the nation, was built in 2012, and Kuperberg says there are at least another six major parks and economic free zones that companies can leverage to hire talent in a nation of 10 million.
They have power plants, competitive connectivity through underwater fiber optic cables, and emerging data centers for companies of all sizes. “When we’re talking to businesses, we really try to make sure that…we’re also giving them a business reason to come to country. And that comes down to infrastructure, like what the industrial parks have to offer,” she said.
CFI is also incentivizing companies to come, with a 15-year income tax exemption, easy fund repatriation, and duty-free import for items like office equipment and vehicles. The organization also offers high-priority status to BPO sector companies while helping to facilitate investment and startup services and assisting to navigate all legal, and regulatory issues.
More To Do
Kuperberg never expected to be in Haiti this long. Even when she came to the country, she certainly never thought it would lead to a career promoting the BPO industry. But it aligns with her overall goal of helping a nation help itself, whether that means doing triage healthcare work after a disaster or pushing the private sector forward.
She saw a lot of jobs come into the country after the earthquake. Unfortunately, too many of those left after the crisis subsided. And through nearshore, she sees a great opportunity for companies to enter the market and reap benefits both for themselves and Haitians who need jobs. “After a disaster, you do have an influx as jobs come in,” she said. “On the downside, they can be very temporary. On the positive side, in terms of specific focus on the BPO, you then have a lot of people getting trained up in technical systems.”
The Haitian nearshore market still isn’t attracting the type of attention she believes it should. But that’s one reason she goes to work everyday, and even though this isn’t an industry or a country Kuperberg planned to make a living in, here she is. Now, she just hopes others will follow her lead into Haiti’s BPO world.
“For me it was not necessarily as much about the place but the job and the activity,” said Kuperberg. “I don’t think I would have been able to tell you in 2010 that I would still be here five years later. But I would have said that, as long as I’m in a job where I’m able to develop professionally for myself and also have the impact that I want to have, then that would be the most important aspect.”