Antigua, Guatemala – The Final Day

My last full day in Guatemala can be summarized as such:  morning ritual, smog and traffic, bureaucrat sit-down, mentoring from “Guatemala’s Zuckerburg”, hardest lunch order ever, more smog and traffic, bed and breakfast owner visit and wind down at the Spence’s. I’ll go into more detail with pictures or you can skip to the bottom for the trip summary. 

Morning involved the normal light exercise (walking, yep I’m old) and stretching (only because the Whole Life Challenge compels me to do so. It doesn’t hurt when the rising sun mutes the fire and lava spitting from an active volcano in the distance. I did notice that most of the Guatemalan house builders or caretakers start showing up for work around 5:30am. For many this is their first of two jobs they will work today. After my walk, a cup of very good Antiguan coffee and an over-salted egg, rice and bean breakfast that I made for the house, I showered and prepped for the workday. 

At 9am sharp our driver arrived to bring us into Guatemala City.  A black car no less. A black mid-2000 Toyota Corolla with 260,000 miles. Guatemalan “Uber”. Our driver was awesome. He spoke great English and new the city and our multi-destination itinerary like  the back of his hand. After 90 minutes, about 40kms, endless chicken buses and more smog than I think I’ve encountered in a city (the record previously owned by Mumbai) we arrived at the American Chamber of Commerce or AmCham if you’re hip. Our host provided us with more high quality coffe and then told us a) we should join her club so we could get good benefits, b) they can provide lots of information and assistance with setting up a U.S.-based business in Guatemala and c) a chance for networking opportunities. Felt about like we expected it would. A resource if we need it nonetheless. 

From there we drove 5-10 minutes to what looked like a mall. After visiting the right address in the wrong building we entered the most high tech office environment I think I have ever seen. Every 20-something in the world wants to work in this office. I would have taken pictures of this but candidly I didn’t think it would look very cool but man, I wish I had!  Our meeting was with what felt like the ‘Guatemalan Zuckerburg.’  He told a fantastic story on how he worked his butt off to make nearly $10M as a 22 year old. I was worried we were in the wrong room…a room with a heartless capitalist.  He shared how he parlayed that $10 million into many companies over the next 10-15 years.  Still worried. Then he started the screenshow where he shared how all of this helped define his true goal and purpose: raise up Guatemala to a tech leading country competing with the US, India, China, etc.  He shared an interesting fact that makes me think he will get there in this ambition: the top 20 wealthiest families support this goal and furthermore back it financially because it has little to no competing interests with areas that could impact their respective wealth generators.  In fact, it probably ensures the growth of the wealth of the aforementioned families and their industries.  To ensure this buy-in he has spent considerable time meeting with these families to build support. Impressive. Even more fun is the fact that a single conversation with Philip from EcoFiltro on Tuesday led to this conversation. Candidly, Torrent being 164th on the Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company list helped open this door. Business is a funny thing. Nonetheless, this is a contact we will want to stay in touch with as our mission directly supports his greater goal. 

Afterwards we spent an hour interviewing a few tech candidates and then what seemed like an hour ordering lunch where English was clearly not going an option. I considered pulling the Google Translate app out it got so bad. Must. Learn. Spanish. 

Our last stop of the day was back in Antigua. We were meeting with the cousin of a colleague. Candidly, I’m not sure we knew why we were meeting with this person, nor did she. She owned a bed and breakfast in Antigua (which was also her home) and shared lots of fun stories. We toured her B&B which was rustic, grabbed some fruit from her internal courtyard (most homes have an open air courtyard in the interior) and left wondering if one day we will look back on that visit as the connection that made everything else come together. 

Our trip wrapped up with a nice dinner at the Spence residence, some reminiscing, repacking and then bed for a 3:45 alarm and 4am departure for Guatemala City. I’m grateful for the hospitality the Spence’s provided. While I’m sure it is not easy to live abroad, they surely have a great opportunity ahead of them. One I’m excited to play a small role in helping shape. 

Guatemala has been a fantastic trip. I’m lucky to work with great people who care about each other and humans in general.  I hope to get back down there often with both my family and other co-workers. While I can’t put my fingers on exactly what will come of this yet, I sense something bigger than me.  Something that I hope will result in raising others up, raising me up and raising our company up. What do I mean by ‘raising up?’  I mean helping give others an opportunity to emerge from the cycle of poverty. I mean helping my co-workers seek what I have wanted for 22 years of employment:  deeper purpose tied to my work. I am grateful and hopeful we can tie this story together where business profits can tangibly help raise communities up to higher educational levels and life quality. 

A tortilla maker – she seems to have a long day ahead of her. 

The courtyard, patio and pool area of our B&B owner meeting. 


Antigua Days 3 & 4 – Amazing People and Diversity

Processing what this experience has meant to me won’t happen in the short term. I’m confident that I will need time to think through what this means for Torrent as a company and me as a person. I’m learning more about my personality style too. I wear out during the day. Quiet time during the day to think and focus is important to me. Movement is important to me. Interaction is important but must be balanced with fun, not just all work. Fourteen to fifteen hours a day with the team here has reminded me of these traits that go dormant when I travel less or solo. For the most part I’m able to influence and tailor to these needs which in recent years has made group travel far more enjoyable. 

Common themes are beginning to emerge in Antigua after several days of meeting a very diverse set of people. These people come from all kinds of backgrounds and heritages but most importantly provide a hugely diverse set of thoughts and ideas. For a new growing company this might be the most important ingredient to achieving loosely defined outcomes. So far we have met with CEOs of large companies, founders of small businesses, teachers, university administrators, interviewees and digital nomads. Some of the themes:

  • Guatemalans need jobs, not handouts
  • The pool of educated resources reduces with age. 
  • It is not uncommon for Guatemalan university students to obtain full-time employment during school
  • Full-time employment can commonly distract students from completing university
  • Companies hiring talent attract schools – too few jobs available for even the small number of graduates
  • Many students return to their schools to teach and push the mission of education to more Guatemalans
  • It is important to find ways to encourage Guatemalans to bring earnings and the fruits of their work back to their towns. 
  • Kindness and work ethic seems to be national traits. 
  • We have not met with a single ex-Pat from the U.S. operating with anything but true and noble intentions
  • There is a strong theme of not being an arrogant westerner know-it-all when working down here. 

 Over the last two days these encounters have amazed me:

  • Ecofiltro – maybe the coolest business ever. Ceramic water filtration. We toured the factory. Incredible. Clay, sawdust, ceramic pots where the water seeps through. This process cleans the impurities from the water. Game changer for places where water quality is an issue (looking at you, Flint, Michigan USA). Meeting with their founder and CEO Philip was inspiring. 
  • La Azotea Coffee Farm – this coffee museum, farm and Green school for K-9 run by an influential ex-Motorola (Boynton Beach, Fl plant) man named Ricardo. He has a mixed-use community vision built around the concept of green space and recreational offerings. He sees a B&B, commercial property leasing, educational facility and recreation/entertainment model for the local community. He was very interested in Torrent taking on workspace and helping raise up the community with good jobs operating from his space. With 2 fiber lines into his property it could be highly attractive. We don’t even have fiber into our building in Charlotte!
  • Guatemala Conexiones – a group led by Dave Macdonald who travels to Guatemala for months at a time to provide educational support to a school in the hills above Antigua. We met with 6-7 of their students who were graduates and they were nothing short of incredible. All are now giving back to their school and community by teaching Spanish, English and other subjects. The lives they will impact and the lift they will give to the region is hard to describe. 

Other observations:

  • TaCool is a super tasty fast-food taco place. Could give Chipotle a run for their money in the states. 
  • Best I can tell, the average speed in Guatemala is roughly 22 mph. We haven’t eclipsed 40 mph this entire trip. 
  • Clean air really matters. Wood stoves and awful vehicle exhausts are big contributors to the poor air quality down here. 
  • There is money in motorcycles/mopeds. Apparently they have exploded in Guatemala in the past five years. 
  • Chicken bus – a school bus that has been elaborately decorated and is privately operated to transport people. Theft can be high on these. 
  • They have Costco down here.
  • Lots of these too (they will be Tortillas) 
  • Chispa (“spark”) – this is similar to the chutzpah. 
  • This was apparently a celebrity…in TaCool…with a Dutch group of tourists…

My writing is less than Skimm’d like but that’s mostly due to the busy schedule. The trip has been outstanding.   A few more pics for you.  A quick pic of my new business idol (sorry Daniel 😬).

An odd person to quote in a work environment…the venerable Don Draper. Hmmmm.

Day 2 Antigua, Guatemala

Our first full day was even more eye-opening.  The agenda:

  • Visit the Impact Hub – this is a co-working facility where our folks would potentially work from similar to the WeWork model in the US.
  • Meet with Myra and Benecio from Kairos – a K-9 education center.
  • Meet with Mark and Gina from Centro Educativo Deepstream in Buena Vista.
  • Birthday party for Brian’s middle child – 4 YO today.

Walking about Antigua isn’t far from walking around certain parts of Charleston.  Historic, cobblestone streets, colorful buildings, pedestrians galore.  Antigua is quite a nice place with a much higher safety factor than the surrounding areas.  The impact hub is a great facility, lots of wifi, lots of nooks and crannies to work from and well-populated with a high variety of knowledge workers.  Positioned near universities and some of the nicer hotels it provides a great home base for future visits.  Apparently the Hotel Casa Santo Domingo, the nicest hotel in Antigua hosted Bill Clinton during his presidency.  This hotel is a former convent and is built directly into the ruins from many centuries past.

After the hub visit, we moved on to visit with Myra and Benecio from Kairos.  This is an amazing school located in Cuidad Vieja just outside of Antigua.  Established in 2009 and accredited in 2010, this school is one of the few schools devoted to raising children in education from K-9th grade.  Upon graduation at 9th grade this school intends to push their graduates to high school where they can prepare for university.  We found out some astounding facts:

  • Less than 1% of children in Guatemala attend university.  Far fewer complete it.
  • Kids typically need to be sponsored to get their high school education.  This can cost between $1,000 and $2,000 per student per year (typically 2 years).
  • Many parents are NOT supportive of their children being educated past 6th grade – the typical year where kids can start working alongside of their family (usually the father).
  • Clearly the barriers to getting an education are vast yet somehow, Myra and Benecio found a way to graduate 29 students last year with 28 proceeding to complete their high school education.

Our meeting was remarkable.  The connection for Torrent is real and viable yet not based in the offshoring principles. While a benefit, it is quickly overshadowed by the concept in investing in people. Hopefully we can hire graduates as interns until university educated and then as full-time resources for the longer haul.  This school realized that attracting kids at the youngest age (kindergarten) makes for better students and better graduation rates. Myra and Benecio believe strongly in the model requiring payment which invests their parents in the value of an education (a Poverty, inc value). 

At the end of the meeting Myra called a friend who supplied us with beans and rice and corn tortillas for all of us for 60Q or about $8. The food was spectacular and made even better by picking it up from a random corner in Antigua less than five minutes after the call was placed. 

Our next stop was to El Centro Educativo Deepstream, a school in Bueno Vista started by Daniel’s friends Mark and Gina. Bueno Vista is an extremely poverty-stricken village located 30 minutes and 1500 meters above Antigua. This school is an Oasis of hope. The school contains a public and private school in a three story building and part of the mission of two people called to serve the people of Guatemala. The conversation reconfirmed many of the same themes we heard in the 1.5 days of meetings.  Their energy eclipsed any we have seen so far. 

Tomorrow we visit Ecofiltre, a school, hold an interview with a marketing firm we may partner with in the future and our impact hub contact. Another full day. 

Guatemala Antigua Day 1

Let’s get this out of the way up front:  there’s a volcano, scratch that, 3 volcanoes within 10-12 miles of where we are staying and this grainy zoomed in shot shows you one that is currently spilling lava daily. Occasionally it thunders and shoots magma into the air. Baby eruptions. But eruptions and mind blowing nonetheless. 

Yesterday a co-founder of  Torrent Consulting (and my boss although he’d hate me calling him this) and also a friend and I traveled down to Guatemala City to explore the region and understand how we and/or Torrent can make a difference to a region where 63% of the people live in extreme poverty. A region where people are hungry to learn and hungrier to work but there are not enough good paying jobs even if they self-teach themselves the trade. Torrent has the people with the passion to help but not just through food, medical and clothing drives but by finding ways to raise people up with new good paying jobs that can also help Torrent and our clients. This would be a great time for me to plug a documentary called Poverty Inc. it explains this much better than I ever could. If we crack this nut, great things will happen. This trip is all about cracking that nut. 

Yesterday we met with a great man and entrepreneur named Alejandro. He’s started a few businesses with strong ties to Guatemala and was a wealth of information. He shared the do’s and dont’s of business in this country. I took two scrolls of notes in Evernote. His passion for helping a country he loves was evident. 

After this meetingswe had lunch at a touristy restaurant called CaCow in district 10 of Guatemala. I was reminded that we eat meals way to fast in the US and that outside of the US the bill will not just be presented. We paid 700 ‘Q’ for the meal which I think is around $85-90 feet for 6 people including our cool driver Felix. I can’t stop thinking the ‘Q’ stands for Quan. Thanks Cuba Gooding Jr in Jerry McGuire.  Have I mentioned how insanely kind the people here are?

After lunch we took the 40-45K drive to Antigua. I think we passed 15 Taco Bell restaurants. This strikes me as odd. But it isn’t the biggest nor the national fast food chain. Pollo Cabenos is. Apparently the KFC of Guatemala. We passed maybe 30 of these. We are staying we a co-worker at an unreal home in a gated community in Antigua. Floral. Courtyards. Nice flow. Quiet area. Volcanoes in the background. Lava. Brian and his wife are such gracious hosts to have us. I’m looking forward to what the week ahead brings. 

A few things are clearer in only one day:

  • Guatemalans LOVE their country. Pride for their land and people oozes from them. 
  • Poverty is a tough, tough problem to solve. Cyclical. The obvious answers like donations and money will not solve the problem. 
  • Jobs are only part of the answer. Supportive families, education and setting a vision play big roles too. 
  • But jobs are a big part of the answer. 
  • US roads are smooth. No matter how rough we think they are. 
  • US school buses go to Guatemala when we are done with them. They become private city buses. 
  • Metallica plays Guatemala City on Nov 3rd – or at least every city bus tells me so.

Until tomorrow.