Politics and tech do mix, when it’s eMerge Americas

eMerge Americas kicks off on Miami Beach

The annual show, which highlights the tech world, kicked off in Miami on June 12, 2017.
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The annual show, which highlights the tech world, kicked off in Miami on June 12, 2017.

Politics may not have quite trumped tech, but it was certainly a topic on many lips Monday as Miami’s homegrown technology conference opened its fourth edition.

Former Florida governor and president candidate Jeb Bush weighed in on President Trump’s tweets. Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes suggested completely reversing the relaxed Cuba policy would be unlikely. Media mogul Gustavo Cisneros proclaimed the president good for entrepreneurs. And human rights activist Jorge Castañeda Gutman called the Trump Administration’s deportation policy a human rights abuse because it separates families.

Still, the intentionally unconventional conference and expo really is about technology. A record crowd of more than 13,000 registered for this year’s showcase of trends, impacts and innovation at the Miami Beach Convention Center. The conference continues Tuesday.

Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, kicked off the conference with tales of Apple’s beginnings and the revolution he and Steve Jobs seemed to see coming. The world was very different then; computers were limited to mainframes, and the cost of memory to hold a single song was $1 million. “We needed to find a way to make computing affordable for the people – that was my role and the result was Apple 1 and Apple 2,” he told the packed room.

CNBC’s Melissa Lee interviews Steve Wozniak, co-founder of Apple, at the eMerge Americas conference. Nancy Dahlberg

The biggest innovation of the Apple 2 was turning arcade games from hardware to software, so that a 9-year-old could make things move on a screen for the first time. Some of those kids who got their hands on Apple 2’s are now CEOs of companies today, he said. “Young people being inspired to be entrepreneurs is the most important thing in the world, in my mind.”

The folksy, sometimes-rambling but often funny “Woz,” as he is commonly known, also offered his views of the present and future of innovation, admitting that he didn’t see ride-sharing coming. “When Uber came along, I thought it wouldn’t succeed – we already had taxis.” As to whether tech will eventually eliminate too many jobs, he scoffed, “I don’t think we will ever be the secondary species to machines. ... it will replace jobs ... but as one job category disappears, another comes along.”

Apple, Google (for its artificial intelligence) and Tesla are currently among the world’s most disruptive companies, he said.

In another keynote address, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure reminded the audience that a customer-first strategy is key for any stage company. Claure, a hometown entrepreneurial hero who founded telecom giant Brightstar and is a partner in the David Beckham soccer team, took over Sprint after SoftBank purchased Brightstar in 2014. At the time, Sprint was a troubled company with 60,000 employees who had “a legacy culture of being not used to winning.” His first move: turn the behemoth back into a startup, he said.

And part of the startup culture is talking to customers. On an early listening tour, Claure asked a woman what she thought of Sprint. “Does it still exist?” she said. That comment helped drive him to find the actor who starred in Verizon’s “Can You Hear Me Now?” ads. The result: an award-winning campaign that featured that actor switching to Sprint. “That was an iconic moment for Sprint.”

Regarding a potential merger of Sprint and T-Mobile, Claure said that possibility is still in discussions. But now that Sprint’s turnaround is well underway, many more partnership options exist, including with a cable company.

When he isn’t involved in running Sprint, Claure said he will help choose tech companies that will be funded by [Sprint parent] SoftBank’s recently announced $100 billion fund. “Our job is to find tech companies that will change the world.”

Regarding his effort with superstar David Beckham to bring major league soccer to Miami, he said, “We are this close. My only ask is for the politicians in Miami to work together on this last piece,” he said, referred to required zoning approvals for a stadium in Overtown. “We’re 90 percent there. If everything works out we will have soccer by 2020, which is our goal.”

CNBC’s Melissa Lee interviews Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure at the eMerge Americas conference.

References to politics became even more pointed in other Monday sessions.

Former Obama advisor Ben Rhodes told attendees at a session on engagement with Cuba that it was unlikely President Trump would “completely” reverse the Obama era relaxation with Cuba because of its popularity. “Nothing that I have seen seems to indicate that it will change completely,” reported the Spanish-language site But he said he was concerned that the Trump Administration would tighten travel policies and restrict business relations that, he said, would adversely affect Cuban entrepreneurs.

Speaking to an invitation-only group during a private lunch, Bush said declined to speculate on changes Trump might announce Friday during a visit to Miami.

According to CNBC, which moderated the event, Bush criticized Trump’s tweeting habit. He also said he did not think last week’s testimony by former FBI Director James Comey provided evidence of obstruction of justice by the president but also said Trump’s actions hurt the country.

In a session on human rights in Latin America, Castañeda, Mexico’s Former Secretary of Foreign Affairs, decried efforts to deport Mexicans who have lived in the U.S. for many years, saying “It is a fundamental right to preserve the unity of the family.” Panelist José Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, called Venezuela’s human rights scenario “difficult and dangerous” as he talked about ways technology can help combat human rights abuses.

In eMerge’s typically unconventional style, Day One ended with the unlikely duo of financial guru Suze Orman, known for her directness, and Mr. 305 himself, Pitbull. And though there was little singing, the pair put on quite a show, with plenty of one-liners and Pitbull’s signature moves.

“What do we have in common? We had a dream; we had desire; we had poverty. We didn’t have a great educations, but we followed our dreams. If it happened to us, it can happen to you,” said Orman.

“We never took no for an answer until ‘no’ became ‘yes,’ ” added Armando Christian Perez, aka Pitbull. “I stopped the paper chase and started creating things. The best advice I can give you, is you got to have fun because you don’t want a billion-dollar business with a trillion-dollar headache.”

Pitbull, whose worldwide brand spans entertainment, fragrances, restaurants and voda, made his fourth appearance at eMerge, mixing music and business bits. “He is the bridge that attracts the world to Miami and Miami to the world,” said Melissa Medina, executive vice president of eMerge.

READ MORE: Hatching a tech future: South Florida startups are gaining strength

True to form, Orman delivered straight talk, telling the crowd: “You will never be powerful until you are powerful over your own money. While you are busy building the next Facebook, you are not paying attention to your own money. Debt is bondage, people.”

Said Perez, “I grew up all around entrepreneurship, it was called cocaine dealers, and all the people starting companies to try to get out of that life that was all around them. One thing I think I need we need to teach these kids today is how to manage all this information around them. The phone is the new dope. We have to teach these kids that they have to run the phone, not let it run them.”

eMerge Americas opens with discussion panels, vendors, and technology and runs June 12-13 at Miami Beach Convention Center. CARL JUSTE

But for many of the attendees, the conference won’t be judged on speakers or gee-whiz tech demos at the exhibits, it will be judged by meaningful connections.

“I’ve made a few,” said John Hall, executive director of 10,000 Small Businesses at Miami Dade College. He said he ran into some executives he has been meaning to connect with, and met a number of interesting startups.

Entrepreneur Antonio Otalvaro, CEO of RawShorts, a how-to video platform, said he was able to connect with some of his investors. Sure, they get regular reports from him, but face time is valuable – in two days he can see them all at one time. At Citizen, which eases the process for student aid, co-founder and CEO Guillaume Lellouche said the startup brought 10 team members to eMerge. “We have made some university connections and also talked to some potential investors.”

Xavier Gonzalez, CEO of eMerge, said about three dozen startups stopped him to remark about the connections they made. “Overall, the conference so far has exceeded our expectations once again,” said Gonzalez. “eMerge’s mission from the beginning was to be a platform to connect the Americas and we are doing that,” referring to the busy expo floor Monday afternoon.

eMerge continues Tuesday with keynote talks by Waze’s Uri Levine and Magic Leap’s Rony Abovitz and a startup competition.

READ MORE: Why international startups are making Miami their home base

Nancy Dahlberg: @ndahlberg. Miami Herald Business Editor Wooldridge contributed to this report.

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