The Bravo Family Foundation, led by founder and chairman Orlando Bravo, has become the lifeblood of Puerto Rico’s emerging businesses. The Foundation is a business acceleration initiative aimed at fostering the growth of high-potential technology and innovation start-ups with capital, mentorship, and a world-class curriculum. Bravo looks for potential, creativity, and ingenuity and rewards startups, emerging, and established companies seeking to go to the next level with solid strategic business advice.
In fact, the Foundation created its Rising Entrepreneurs Program specifically to give fledging companies the tools they need to succeed and grow in competitive business environments on and off the Caribbean island. Individuals are taught the rudiments of product development, finance, sales and marketing, operations, organizational design, software development, and fundraising. Not only are they tutored, they are required to show how these elements are incorporated into their businesses and are monitored through on-going support thereafter.
This year, three enterprises were selected to participate in this mentorship initiative: Arrecife, Equal Love, and Maranta Power. Caribbean Today had a chat with their founders.
DESIGNING CARIBBEAN CULTURE
Arrecife, a men’s swimwear company that showcases Puerto Rico’s vibrant Caribbean culture through its designs, was founded by Camilo Pulido and Raul Vazquez. When Colombian native, Pulido, met Puerto Rican-born Vazquez in New York in 2018, they soon recognized their common interests in Caribbean culture and the desire to showcase that intangible intellectual property. It took a year to germinate, but the seed was firmly planted. Pulido, the designer, and Vazquez the finance expert took the plunge and in 2019 opened Arrecife (Spanish for Reef) in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“I was looking around for new swim shorts for me in this tropical lifestyle in Puerto Rico and found there were no local swimwear brands. So, that’s how Arrecife started. We started with only ten designs and a small production, and we were sold out the first month we launched,” exclaimed Pulido.
But, it wasn’t too long before the pandemic hit that forced the temporary closure of the store. Indeed, it was a frustrating time for the young entrepreneurs, especially Pulido whose full-time effort was concentrated on this new enterprise.
“But we had done a good job of establishing an online presence. So even though we had to close the store, people were browsing the internet so we still had good sales,” said Vazquez.
The core principle Vazquez and Pulido have steadfastly held onto is their commitment to fair working practices. Determined to buck the industry trend of labor exploitation, the pair pay their workers a living wage for reasonable working hours in their manufacturing workshop.
“There is a lot of labor exploitation in the industry, in China, Hong Kong, Columbia, even the United States. So, to avoid that we started our own manufacturing and pay our workers above the industry norm to help them achieve their dreams,” Pulido explained.
“That’s the social component of our brand. We’ve always been staunch advocates of fair compensation, treating the people that work with us ethically and providing them an opportunity to grow. Obviously we are a business and want to make a profit. But, we don’t want to do that by having other people not be fairly compensated,” Vazquez added.
The result is garments made from high quality textiles with attention to design, styling, and workmanship. Celebrating the region, Pulido’s designs showcase the colours of the Caribbean with some specifically highlighting Puerto Rican cultural landmarks. Now a household name, the Arrecife brand has gone beyond beachwear and into daily wear, becoming statement pieces.
Said Vazquez: “it is thanks to the Rising Entrepreneurs structured program and access to mentors that have accelerated Arrecife’s growth and helped us diversity our product line beyond beachwear.”
Ana María Hernández founded her company, Equal Love in 2018. A line of personal care natural products, it is based on the desire to express herself, her healthy lifestyle, and to move away from stereotypical gender roles. Puerto Rican-born and bred, a lawyer, a vegetarian, part of the LGBTQ-plus community, environmental rights advocate, and animal rights advocate, Hernández wanted to bring her core values to her business.
“As a lawyer, I started to concentrate on very specific subjects. One of them was animal law. The other one is protection for breastfeeding and pregnant women, and also the rights of LGBTQ people,” Hernández explained.
Following her passion for advocacy, Hernández found opportunities to translate her ideas into products beginning with T-shirts to spread awareness. Equal Love then evolved out of the idea to step away from labels.
“Labels don't matter, just be yourself, that’s the primary message because the rest is just socially created constructs. Equal love for your body however you want to present yourself, love your body, love your skin,” said a passionate Hernández.
Vegan and cruelty-free in recyclable containers, the products range from body lotions, body wash, shampoos, bar soaps, candles, perfume, and more. And importantly, they seek to be genderless because it’s not about floral scents for women and woodsy scents for men. With essential oils such as rosehip, hemp seed, sunflower, jojoba, the company’s genderless exclusive blend scents are neutral, hydrating, and stimulating.
Asked to define genderless, the lawyer noted:
“There is no such thing really as genderless because our society is built around those two binaries. So, to say something is genderless it’s about a balanced aroma. Our products are made from our exclusive essential oils that it is created by me, so it's exclusive to us.”
Equal Love has also benefited from the Bravo Family Foundation’s Rising Entrepreneurs Program, said Hernández, explaining that it has given her the business tools and knowledge to help the business become profitable. Her focus now is expanding Equal Love, with sights into the United States.
Laura OM (Laura Teresa Feliciano-Cruz) has been a hairstylist for more than two decades. It’s what she loves, it’s what she’s good at, it’s what she was born to do. Passionate about natural beauty, Feliciano-Cruz has been Puerto Rico's major voice in the curly hair movement.
Lovingly dubbed “The Queen of Curls” her research into clean, healthy products for natural curls led to the creation of Maranta Power 5 years ago. Simply put, they are professional-grade, natural-based curly hair formulas that celebrates individuality. In colloquial terms, Maranta means ‘big bushy hair’ and has always had a negative connotation. The hairstylist has turned that meaning into a positive, encouraging women, and men, to embrace the power of what is naturally theirs. Now servicing more than 60 clients a day at her San Juan OM Studio, the hairstylist is revolutionizing Puerto Rico’s hair industry.
“Maranta Power started first as a movement. Many people were straightening their hair, and I was the only one on the island that was provoking people to embrace their curly hair. So, I started using the word maranta in a way to change the significance or meaning. I always wanted my clients to feel beautiful in their own skin and with their natural curls,” Feliciano-Cruz explained.
The first product she launched, Maranta Power Curl Enhancing Cream, is still one of the company’s best-selling lines. With ingredients such as aloe vera, argan oil, shea butter, carrot extract it proved a perfect formula for loose, medium, tight, or afro curls. Now with the addition of hair masks, conditioners, shampoos, and gels, the product line is testament to Feliciano-Cruz’s belief in the power to self-love.
She did point out that it took a lot of hard work to reach a populous that, like other cultures, have been bombarded with the European standards of beauty. With 90 percent of the island’s population graced with curly hair of some king (from loose to afro curls), the hairstylist was determined to create products that could help them manage their curls.
“I show my clients that you can have both styles. Yes, you can have European styling, but you have to love and be able to manage and take care of your curly hair too… It's a combination of good products, good ingredients, clean products, and the styling. We have a lot of videos that teach people how to style their hair.”
Lauro OM is well known in Puerto Rico for her advocacy, her natural hair products, her creativity. And, as a recipient of the Rising Entrepreneurs Program she is ready to rise to the next level.
“I know I have a good product, and I'm ready to scale. I needed the education that the program provides to scale in the right way, with a purpose. It’s not just about money, it’s also about the impact that I'm going to have around the world. The amount of input and information that the program has given me is priceless.”
Feliciano-Cruz spoke about the profit and loss spreadsheets, market sizing techniques, and the valuable mentoring from Orlando Bravo himself that changed her ideas about business, and even her mentality.
“What I’ve learned has been so powerful. And, as an entrepreneur I’ve been able to share that knowledge with others. So, what the Bravo Family Foundation is doing is going to impact the whole island,” said an inspired Feliciano-Cruz.