For Spanish speakers, Miami increasingly seen as Silicon Valley of Latin America

For South American entrepreneurs, Miami’s annual Unbound conference represents a chance to make connections in what they increasingly call the San Francisco of Latin America.
For South American entrepreneurs, Miami’s annual Unbound conference represents a chance to make connections in what they increasingly call the San Francisco of Latin America. Unbound

For many ambitious Americans, a handful of cities are seen as the only destinations where they can imagine advancing their careers.

For Samuel Urquijo, a Medellin, Colombia, resident, that city is Miami.

“Miami is becoming maybe more strategic than Silicon Valley,” said Urquijo, whose startup, Nipu, provides an artificial intelligence life coach for young people. “You can find money [in Silicon Valley], but not talent — all the good people get taken right away. Miami has both — and understands Latin America.”

Urquijo was visiting Miami for the second annual Unbound conference, hosted at Mana Wynwood. Billed as an innovation festival, the two-day conference has all the hallmarks of a Silicon Valley confab: flying drones, a WeWork outpost, a speaker from Burning Man and turtlenecks galore.

But for startup founders like Urquijo, the conference is all business. Increasingly among Latin Americans, Miami is seen as the go-to option for connecting with investors. Urquijo said he has already met with Miami Angels, TheVenture.City, and Rokk3r Labs about putting together financing to keep his startup growing.

Urquijo was one of approximately 80 Colombian entrepreneurs attending as official delegates of the Colombian government, a conference sponsor. The country is in the midst of boosting its “orange sector” — the name it has given its information technology and digital creative sector.

Putting down roots in Miami represents a key part of its ambitions.

“Miami is very strategic,” Jehudi Castro Sierra, Colombia’s vice-minister of digital economy, said in an interview. “It’s the perfect link for Latin America with the biggest clients in the U.S.”

Though the Kaufman Foundation has named Miami No. 1 in the number of startups, some American analysts still see Miami as an up-and-comer in the broader digital economy. South Florida did not make the top 30 in a recent CBRE report measuring tech industry impact on North American office markets. An earlier CBRE report ranking tech talent ranked Miami 50th out of 50.

But while Miami may seem like the B league to a U.S. analyst, South Americans see it as an entrepreneurship mecca.

500 Startups, a prominent Silicon Valley early-stage venture fund, made headlines earlier this year when it announced it would open a Miami office. From the start, the organization made clear it was just as interested in looking at Latin American companies as it was ones born in Miami itself. The 10 finalists 500 Startups announced for its first Miami-based pitch competition hail from Brazil, Mexico, Argentina and Colombia, in addition to Miami and Dallas.

South American talent also plays key roles in many prominent South Florida tech companies. Alfredo Vaamonde, chief operating officer of Papa, the grandkids on-demand app, hails from Venezuela. Papa just closed a $2.4 million funding round led by Ashton Kutcher and reddit founder Alexis Ohanian.

And the chief engineer at Sunrise-based virtual doctor platform MDLive is Nakort Valles, who also comes from Venezuela. MDLive just closed on a $50 million investing round led by Cigna, the insurance giant.

Valles said Miami is now ground zero for high-achieving South Americans. When the opportunity to take the MDLive job came up four years ago, his wife, whose family still resides in South Florida, championed the move from Charlotte, N.C., to Miami.

“She missed our Latin roots,” he said.

But Miami still has a way to go, noted other Unbound attendees. Valerie Lopez grew up in Colombia and Miami, where she founded Shoot My Travel in 2015. Like other entrepreneurs, she has found raising investment dollars in South Florida a challenge. Her funding has instead come from groups based out of San Francisco, Japan and Hong Kong.

“You do have quality of life here. It’s more affordable for some employees compared with some other places,” she said. “But then there’s the bitter part: There are not many investors. You have to go out and look for what you need to bring it back home.