In November 2011, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. was pledging $100 million to support Latino entrepreneurs through a public-private partnership dubbed La Idea. The effort, Clinton said, “brings together diaspora communities, the private sector, and public institutions to work on some of the toughest issues we face.” She noted her excitement about one of the central elements of La Idea: a pitch competition calling for “ideas for new businesses that will create jobs and promote trade and investment” in Latin America.
Similar to other entrepreneurship programs backed by the U.S. government in Africa and the Caribbean, the La Idea contest revolves around the idea that the more than 2.3 million Latino entrepreneurs in the U.S. have plenty to teach their counterparts in Latin America, and vice-versa. The big idea is to encourage them to form partnerships and expand their ventures across the Americas to spur economic development, says Jane Buhks, a marketing and communications specialist at New York-based Accion U.S. Network, which is handling the contest’s administration.
Participants have to describe their businesses and explain how their partnerships will work. In addition to business services, one winner will get $50,000 and two runners-up will each get $25,000. One of the La Idea partners, nonprofit development group FHI 360, will monitor the businesses that receive the grants to make sure they’re using the money to benefit their partnerships, says Buhks, instead of, say, splurging on vacations.
So far, participation has been underwhelming: Fewer than 200 people have applied since the contest opened in May. On Monday, the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development extended the application deadline, from August 1 to September 20. “The goal is to try and reach between 500 and 1,000 applicants with this new extension,” Buhks says.
Despite its spirit of inclusiveness—with entrepreneurs based in more than a dozen Latin American countries and the U.S. encouraged to apply—there are restrictions. Businesses that provide abortion services or equipment, sell luxury goods, or make military gear, among other things, aren’t eligible because of USAID restrictions, Buhks says. In addition, entrepreneurs in a handful of Latin American countries, including Argentina, can’t participate because of State Department rules, she says.