It was a little less than a year ago when I received Endeavor Chile’s offer to spend a year working with some of the best entrepreneurs in South America. I accepted and was given the choice between offices in the Atacama Desert, Santiago, and Patagonia. Since I couldn’t stand the heat and I wanted a break from the city after four years in New York, the choice was pretty obvious. It didn’t hurt that I had recently watched 180 South, the 2010 documentary that put the mythological Patagonia front and center. Like magazines I had flipped through years earlier, it showed a Patagonia filled with dreamy mountains and endless forests; it was enough to tempt any sane human being.
But something gave me pause. On screen and in print, attention was primarily given to the increasingly urgent environmental concerns facing the region. Conservationists like the late North Face founder Doug Tompkins and the local group “Patagonia Sin Represas” were fiercely rallying against Patagonia’s exploitation by outside interests in an effort to preserve the region’s natural and cultural heritage. Some gringo flying down to the area for a year to help foster economic development was probably not on anyone’s list of solutions. I was conflicted, but the desire to work for Endeavor won out.
Six months later, my tune has dramatically changed. True, the conservation movement and Endeavor’s mission may still seem at odds—after all, we’re pushing for high-growth business in the region they’re fighting to conserve—but beyond the core goals of ecosystem development and economic growth lies one of Endeavor’s great, if circumstantial, values, and one that has proven itself a hallmark of regional offices: the preservation and promotion of natural and cultural identity. By supporting local entrepreneurs, we are creating a unique economy by and for the community; call it an economy of place.
This unspoken tenet holds true especially here, where the entrepreneurs are distinctly Patagonian. Our first—one of Endeavor’s finest—was born on the Carretera Austral, grew up as a fisherman in the southern fjords, and now oversees one of Chile’s largest maritime logistics company. He is omnipresent in the local community, funding cultural works, supporting charities, and passionately expanding the entrepreneurial ecosystem. Our newest entrepreneur—part of that expanded ecosystem—began a revolutionary biotech company with the waste created by industrial aquaculture in the region (a sustainable value he learned from his father). He now is a leading mentor to the young biotech community responsibly utilizing Chile’s abundant resources.
Even in our small-scale acceleration programs, this ethos persists. An American and his Peruvian wife are producing Chilean superfoods but refuse to sacrifice their commitment to indigenous tradition and environmental preservation. A young engineer selling industrial cleaning services to fish farms uses his business to support his impoverished community in the heart of Patagonia. The network of entrepreneurs here proves that when businesses are connected to the people and the places where they operate, economic growth no longer occurs at the expense of preservation, as many conservationists have feared. In many cases, the very opposite has proven true, and locally driven economic growth has lead to a resurgence in conservation efforts.
A week after arriving last July, I rented a car and drove down the infamous Carretera Austral, a two-lane highway that runs almost the length of Chilean Patagonia. It was the middle of winter; the weather was grey and the road was empty. Looking out the windows, I found myself face to face with the two disparate Patagonias I had heard so much about. Eastward towards the Andes, forests and glaciers stretched all the way to Argentina, virtually untouched. Westward towards the Pacific, industrial fish farms dotted the fjords while ocean liners chugged by. It didn’t sit right.
Now, whenever I get the chance to drive through Patagonia, such qualms rarely surface. Sure, there is still concern over outside investment exploiting the area, but momentum is beginning to move in the other direction. The barges aren’t just barges; they’re transporting local wool, they’re using locally developed software, and they’re even owned by local mentors. The fish farms aren’t just fish farms; they’re testing grounds for local entrepreneurs to try a new oxygen diffusion system, a new aquaculture management platform, or a new net design. After 6 months on the ground with Endeavor, the scene has ceased to be foreboding; now, it is inspiring.
But we can’t get too complacent—there’s still work to be done.