How innovation is bridging the gap between Puerto Ricans in the island and the diaspora

Leaving Puerto Rico seemed like a natural decision back in 2007. The move was less prompted by economic hardships or a lack of opportunities and more due to a longing for a larger stage. Having started my career right as the Internet exploded, the world seemed smaller, full of possibilities and influences that I wanted to experience firsthand. And the way my career has advanced in step with my life makes me glad I did.

I’m not the only one. There are many young Puerto Ricans who left the island in similar circumstances and are now working in innovative fields, living seamlessly between “aquí y allá,” here and there.

More: Young Puerto Ricans don’t care about status, we care about opportunity

As I accumulated experiences, travel and connections, Puerto Rico remained my true home in my heart and mind. For this reason, I never disconnected from my network there. I’ve followed the island’s political stagnation and economic downturn from afar. I’ve observed the bubbling up of new movements — especially those strong, culturally creative ones that I am most passionate about — like the slow but persistent revival of Santurce, San Juan’s urban center, with events such as Santurce Es Ley.

Similarly, I have compared these evolutions in Puerto Rico with emerging ideas in cities like New York, where dynamic conversations about the creative economy, sustainability, innovation, entrepreneurship, technology and local- and community-driven initiatives are abundant. This broad perspective helps me look back at Puerto Rico and understand that, like so many other societies around the world, we too are enduring dramatic social, economic and cultural changes driven by local and external forces.

I truly believe that Puerto Rico has the resources and the capacity to align our future development with the efforts underway in other cities, states and countries around the world by embracing the rising influence and potential of creative professions (such as design, music, digital media, games development) to add value and growth to Puerto Rico’s economy.

More: Fusion’s Jorge Ramos one-hour special on Puerto Rico

Meaningful solutions matter. For me, this meant earning a master’s degree in sustainable business practices from New York City’s Pratt Institute, where I delivered my thesis on sustainable creative economies (I am now a faculty member at Pratt.) This area of study naturally complemented issues being addressed and debated by friends and colleagues back on the island, an informal alliance of entrepreneurs and creative professionals looking to make a difference.

Dyanis De Jesús in San Juan.

So, in 2011 I co-founded Puerto Rico Creative Economy (PRCEI), a non-profit organization that aims to spark conversations about the role of creative industries (the arts, media, architecture, technology) as principal drivers in Puerto Rico’s socio-economic renewal. PRCEI serves as a platform to foster exchange and collaboration at multiple levels, from the creative community on the ground, to forward-looking business and government executives, and like-minded creative economy leaders around the world.

Our most recent initiative came to life through an exciting partnership between the city of San Juan and a group of private sector organizations. The resulting strategic plan, called “San Juan se pone Creativo” (San Juan gets Creative), aims to embrace the potential of creative industries as catalysts for social, cultural and economic growth in Puerto Rico’s capital. This has set the stage for active citizens from academia, small businesses, industry groups and the city government to maintain a collaborative conversation that is driving forward with various tangible projects, including the development of the Center for Innovation and Development of the Creative Industries (CIDIC). The idea is to house services in a public setting to help entrepreneurs and allies best leverage the talent and capabilities of San Juan’s robust pool of creative talent and thinkers, while making it accessible to the creative community.

With the CIDIC project in the works, and my ongoing, first-hand experience leading projects and conversations towards real progress in the island, I know better than to believe the steady drumbeat of negative stories and social media memes about Puerto Rico’s various crises. I am an active participant in and witness to amazing things happening across Puerto Rico. I know that I alone cannot change our political or economic reality, but I know that the more of us who do believe and act for changing things for the better, the bigger the impact.

Today I believe that Puerto Rico can be an ongoing epicenter of creativity, innovation and development in line with the most exciting creative centers in the world – something more akin to that large stage I was looking for. Of course there’s work to do, “aquí o allá”, so we better get to it!

More: Fusion’s Jorge Ramos one-hour special on Puerto Rico

Dyanis De Jesús is a creative entrepreneur and independent design consultant working at the intersection of culture, creativity and business. She splits her time between New York and San Juan, and is also a visiting professor of the Graduate Program of Arts, Cultural & Design Management at Pratt Institute Manhattan.