When Hurricane Maria raked across Puerto Rico last September with wind speeds of up to 155 miles per hour, it left a path of unprecedented destruction. The storm flattened houses and forests, flooded towns and made hundreds of thousands of people homeless. It knocked out most of the island’s power grid, leaving nearly all 3.7 million residents in the dark, and severed 95 percent of cell networks as well as 85 percent of aboveground phone and internet cables. Eighty percent of the island’s crops were decimated.
Related: Is Your Business Ready for the Next Devastating Natural Disaster?
Once the hurricane moved on, an all-too-common aftermath unfolded. Local emergency responders became overwhelmed. There was, memorably, public fighting among political officials — San Juan’s mayor versus President Trump. Relief agencies and volunteers flooded in. People who wanted to help could find long lists of organizations to donate to, though, as is typical after a disaster, it wasn’t clear where the money was best spent. Dollars often flowed indiscriminately.
Ten days after the hurricane, a different kind of responder arrived on the island. His name was Jesse Levin, a 32-year-old serial entrepreneur with close-cropped hair and aviators, and the co-founder of a series of rock-climbing gyms called Brooklyn Boulders. He had no military background, though he had volunteered in past disaster zones and spoke the language of relief — casually discussing “air assets” and “force multipliers.” Before he arrived he’d made plans to help, help that didn’t necessarily involve the cluster of government agencies and NGOs that were scrambling to advance their operations. “It was mind-boggling,” he recalls now. “There was just completely ineffective communication going on.”
A rented jeep was waiting for him.
Once in Puerto Rico, Levin spent several days crisscrossing the island’s debris-strewn roads, talking to residents, business owners, mayors and policemen. He rarely came across an aid worker or a utility truck. In the media, he’d kept hearing that people were desperate for food and water. But in village after village, Levin encountered grocery stores open and stocked with enough provisions to sustain the local communities. Enterprising merchants had even rustled up generators to keep on the lights. But many customers couldn’t buy anything: Around 40 percent of Puerto Rico’s population depends on food stamps, which require Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to make purchases. With the island’s telecommunications network down, the cards couldn’t be processed. This particular problem didn’t require an intensive governmental effort to distribute food and water. It was just a connectivity issue that nobody else was solving.
So Levin coordinated with Steve Birnbaum, a satellite communications expert he works with, who had arrived on the island a week before the hurricane to prep for the storm’s aftermath. Their plan: to personally buy a bunch of small satellite terminals from Focused Mission, an emergency response business on the island. Levin then worked some local government contacts until he wrangled a helicopter. Among them was Puerto Rico’s chief information officer, Luis Arocho, who came along for a beta test to see if their plan would succeed. Soon this small team was airborne and installing terminals on two grocery store rooftops. They flipped the switches and boom — EBT purchases now worked. Levin would go on to install 12 more.
The experience was validating. “If the economy is broken in a place, the location can’t heal,” Levin says. But now, functioning EBT machines can lead to more products sold, more employees paid and more shelves restocked — an economic system revived, and saved from further dependence on FEMA aid. He says the hard costs totaled $33,000, which was ultimately reimbursed by the Foundation for Puerto Rico, and that around $3 million in transactions have since passed through the satellite terminals.
But it was legitimizing on a far larger level as well. Levin isn’t here in Puerto Rico simply to do one-off projects like this. He’s here to advance a concept — an audacious idea that he calls “expeditionary entrepreneurship.
” In essence, it’s disaster relief in the form of entrepreneurship. Governments and NGOs are important, he says, with their standard operating procedures and approaches to administering aid. But entrepreneurship — not profiteering, but the principles of entrepreneurship — can accomplish what those bodies cannot: quick and nimble responses to ground-level problems, and connective tissue between foreign aid resources and capable local actors like grocery store merchants who are often not engaged.
The same instincts that help an entrepreneur build a business, in other words, can help them rebuild a region from catastrophe.
Levin explains this to me as we drive past toppled power lines and landslide debris in Puerto Rico’s lush interior mountains. It is mid-January, four months after the storm has passed. “An entrepreneur looks at systems and comes up with creative fixes,” he says. “We start from the bottom up.”
Levin didn’t just dream up “expeditionary entrepreneurship” one day. Instead, he came to it after pursuing two parallel paths: He was an adventurer, and an entrepreneur..!!