(Not quite) Coming Back Home
7 years, 5 months and 1 week, the time I spent living abroad, not that I was counting, but I can still remember the moving dates. During that period I visited my native Chile often, but those visits never felt like being back. I always described them as emotionally refreshing but physically exhausting. Filling in the schedule with weekday night drinks to catch up with as many friends as possible, weekend family gatherings, while still working remotely (I only took real time off in one of those visits) and trying to respect everybody else’s lives that off course could not stop or revolve around our visit.
Now it’s been over 2 (edit: 6) months of actually living here again, and it has being a strange process. I had low expectations based on all the stories we heard from people walking down this path, some told us they just couldn’t adapt and went back, leaving behind their mother land feeling it was now too foreign to them. In our case that hasn’t crossed our minds at all, so it has definitely been much better. A key thing has been to see this as a new stage in the journey, a step forward, as opposed to a difficult step back where a much changed person is trying to fit into an old known place. Santiago has made keeping that perspective quite easy: it’s a significantly different city to what it was in 2011.
I’ve always felt that Chile really suffers from some kind of syndrome with being so little (population wise) and literally at the bottom of the world map. It’s always looking up north, at what is going on there, in the first world, where things happen. Back in the day, the few privileged that had the chance to travel abroad would bring back goods, ideas, and this discourse of knowing how the world really was. People here would always quickly adapt and worship any product, service, or trend that was popular abroad as soon as they got access to it (the first iPhone owner in Chile even made it to some newspapers front pages…). Nowadays though, that gap seems to have been rapidly closing.
Santiago in 2019
Those once distant, beloved, unfamiliar products and services that only a few privileged travelers used to get and adopt, are getting here very quickly, almost at sync with leading markets. Not just that, they’re landing here and finding some competition from international and regional players. Examples are everywhere: On demand electric scooters (Scoot and Lime), on demand bikes (Mobike plus 3 council supported docked bikes schemes), delivery platforms ( at least 2 competitors to UberEats: Rappi, and PedidosYa ), ride sharing of course (3 competitors to Uber: Beat, Cabify, EasyTaxi), grocery shopping (Cornershop), coworking spaces (4 WeWork locations plus multiple other local coworking companies), and so on.
These things stand out, but there is also a deeper connection of a different kind. Cultural trends are spreading out faster, too. Immigration must be a significant factor in this: where ten years ago everyone looked and behaved pretty much the same (or at most divided in 2 groups), now you find immigrants from all over the Americas, Europe, and Asia. Logical consequence is to find food from everywhere (to the point that Chilean food once just the default, is now a category by itself), and constantly hear different languages and Spanish accents on the street.
Moreover, there are other things happening too: there are not only vegetarian, but vegan options in lots of places. Play Cafés, nicely equipped playgrounds (including the biggest one I’ve seen, in Parque Araucano), and even an app to find and purchase tickets for activities with kids (EntreKids). Local coffee roasters with some even preparing their own plant based milk and great coffee shops that really remind of Blue Bottle and Monmouth.
This, I believe, relates to how much more interconnected the world is, how much more Chilean are traveling abroad (Chile’s government sponsored scholarships may have played a big role there), and the effect of having the aforementioned syndrome of feeling left behind in combination with finally being exposed to absorb what is going on up north.
Santiago is now plugged into the increasingly shared culture of big western metropolises, which are converging and becoming a group by themselves, drifting apart from the smaller cities in their own countries, hence creating divides within countries between highly urban hubs and the rest. London, New York, Paris, Santiago versus Dover, Coos Bay, Chillán and so on. Don’t take my word for it, I’ve just ran into someone that explains it (among many other worldview misconceptions) in much more detail on this great book, and explains how people lifestyles are much more determined by their income levels than their culture, religion, or location. And here in Chile we should know it: life in Santiago, in a world region viewed by the ‘rest of the world’ as a group of developing countries, is much better than in some cities in Europe or North America, regions seen as the ‘developed world’.
Is it really that good?
Here comes the disclaimer. If you live in Santiago, is likely that at this point I have made you raise an eyebrow a few times. What I’m describing is not the whole of Santiago, is the wealthy part of it. The city continues to be highly segregated, so predictably wealthier as you move from West to East that seems like a perfect segregation function of geographic longitude. As vast as the city is, getting to see other realities requires to cover much longer distances than what I’ve done. So you can now dismiss all I’ve said or just apply a big filter on top of it: ‘This guy is probably just talking about (part of) Santiago Centro, Providencia, and Las Condes’, and that would be fair. I acknowledge it and can’t feel great about it, but I’m just trying to analyze what I’ve seen from my perspective hoping it can be useful to somebody. All of that said, I think it’s logical these changes start to emerge in the wealthier areas of the city, and it remains to be seen if they spread. Even more interesting is to ask whether they would make the city less or more segregated.
As a tech insider, most of my interactions have been with people in the ecosystem, catching up with its evolution over the past years. I’ve talked to mostly entrepreneurs, some big companies, a few investors, etc, and that probably deserves its own article. By no means I’ve become an expert on the Chilean tech ecosystem after 3 months of caffeine fueled encounters (tomémonos un cafecito) , but I need to at least provide an overview here of what I’ve found by just scratching the surface.
Compared to the more limited perspective I had back in 2011, there are now more VCs (although they seem to still be mostly conservative in their investment strategy and focus) and tons of startups tackling all sorts of problems.
Just bringing ideas from abroad to implement them here with no competition won’t be enough: for on demand luggage storage like Stasher, there is Airkeep; for p2p renting like FatLlama, there is e-rent, ; for on demand mechanics for your car like YourMechanic, there is FullMec, and the list goes on. This makes things more exciting as it should really surface the importance of focusing on the execution over the idea now that ideas are hardly unique.
Chile is positioning itself as a good market to experiment and iterate, and that is attracting Latin American entrepreneurs coming through StartUp Chile or other means. It is and will not soon be a market for growth because is too small, but that seems to be reasonably understood.
There is high enthusiasm with cryptocurrencies and some noticeable interest on blockchain as a technology, but very little implementation action on that front (from what I’ve seen and been told). The enterprise can’t pay much attention to it as it’s busy trying to digitally transform itself and do more ‘data science’ whether that is AI, Machine Learning, or ( to put it into more realistic terms ) structuring and surfacing data to do proper data backed Business Intelligence.
Let’s be optimistic!
Well, I don’t have a tracking record of being an optimistic, but I’m trying hard now, and this process is being helpful. People ask us how the landing has been and what do we think about Chile now. The pattern (with irresponsibly low data to be honest) seems to be that people over 40 think that Chile is the same or worse, and look a bit surprised when we point out how the gap with the ‘developed world’ it’s getting narrower. I see the younger people getting onboard with what is going on in the world and having a very different attitude in a lot of topics and issues, like inclusion and the environment. Chileans seem to be impressively concerned about minimizing waste, plastic usage, and eating from more sustainable sources. Not widely adopted behaviors yet, but trending upwards rapidly.
I’ll try to keep that optimism up. I’ve wrapped up this article 4 months after starting and found myself already more pessimistic! So will come back to check on this or my own benefit and health.