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Can a country change its entrepreneurial culture? Nicolás Shea, Sloan ’09, thinks so. And he’s returned to Santiago, Chile, to prove it.

In February 2010, Shea was in Palo Alto, Ca.,  working on expanding his e-learning company, eClass, when he received a phone call from Chile’s minister of the economy. The minister knew that Shea, who grew up in Chile, had experience with both entrepreneurship and policymaking. He asked Shea to come home to help.

Two days later, an 8.8 magnitude earthquake hit Chile, killing more than 500 people. Shea made up his mind. He recruited his longtime friend Cristóbal Undurraga, Stanford MBA ’08, to join him.

Today, Shea runs Start-Up Chile, a pilot program that offers foreign entrepreneurs $40,000 and a system of supports to nurture their fledgling business ideas. The money has one string attached: Participants must spend six months living in Chile. Undurraga runs Innova Chile, a government agency that promotes entrepreneurship and innovation through various programs, including Start-Up Chile.

Shea expects many foreign entrepreneurs to leave after that time is up. But he hopes others will stay or, down the road, create companies with Chilean branches.

Traditionally, Shea says, Chile’s culture of innovation has been weak. He has no illusions about the country becoming the next Silicon Valley. But he believes he can help Chile strengthen its ties to businesses and entrepreneurs here. While he realizes that government can be a slow vehicle to foster entrepreneurship, he nonetheless envisions Chile becoming a hub of innovation in Latin America.

Charles Holloway, director of the Center for Entrepreneurial Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Business,  and chairman of Start-Up Chile’s advisory board, says he’s never heard of any other country following this particular model. But he’s been impressed by the Chilean government’s commitment and has strong confidence in Shea, his former student.

In the next few years, Shea hopes to recruit about 1,000 entrepreneurs. In August, the program welcomed its inaugural class of 25; in February it began accepting applications for the next 100. Among the first group was 30-year-old Amit Aharoni, Stanford MBA ’10, and his friend Nicolas Meunier, MS ’10 in electrical engineering. The pair met Shea last spring while searching for funding to start a company that helps Americans find deals on cruises. He urged them to apply.

In a few months Aharoni developed a network in Chile. In the long term, his company will need to do marketing and sales in the United States, he says, but he can imagine someday returning to Chile to pursue other business endeavors.

“Chile would not be a question mark,” he says. “I know people already here. I have friends, and I can pull resources. …From that perspective, Nicolás Shea is doing something very smart here, for the long term.”

— Jocelyn Weiner

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One Response to “Pilot Program Offers Cash and Support for Entrepreneurs in Chile”

  1. Great article, thanks! As a young entrepreneur myself, this story intrigues me to no ends. I read this a few days ago, and now I’m constantly wondering if I would pack up my bags and go to Chile for a, as-far-as-I-know, temporary position for $40,000 to help rebuild a city in need? $40,000 is a not a small amount of money, and any entrepreneur knows the value in money that doesn’t need to be repaid either. I just read on their StartUpChile site that they are taking 300 participants in 2011 … imagine the possibilities with this opportunity.