Costa Rican entrepreneur Karen Paola Gómez López surfs on Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. | Courtesy of Gómez López

Since early October, Costa Rican entrepreneur Karen Paola Gómez López has been embedded with Louisville’s professional soccer club to learn about marketing, networking and other business aspects to improve the viability of her adventure tourism startup.

Gómez López is one of 10 young entrepreneurs from Latin America who have shadowed business, nonprofit and government leaders in Louisville as part of a U.S. State Department program to foster prosperity and human rights south of the U.S. border.

Gómez López told Insider that she had learned invaluable lessons, including the importance of networking and that entrepreneurs had to take many small but critical steps to achieve success.

“I’m really grateful,” she said. “It’s a life-changing experience.”

Gómez López, 26, hails from La Cuesta, a small town near the Panamanian border. In college, she studied in Pennsylvania for a year as part of another State Department program. After completing her post-secondary studies in Costa Rica, she worked in tourism and then decided to get another degree, in social work.

She recently got together with two partners to launch Learn Experience Adventure (L.E.A.) Costa Rica, which is based in San Isidro and offers all-inclusive and customized adventure tours involving anything from hiking and rafting to surfing and snorkeling. Gómez López said the business would cater primarily to groups of foreign tourists and would welcome its first customers next year. Twenty percent of the profits will be invested into social programs the San Isidro region to help lift people out of poverty, she said.

Gómez López looked for mentors and advisers in San Isidro, a tourism-heavy city of 45,000, but found that governmental and private organizations that help entrepreneurs there focused primarily on tech businesses. She read about the State Department Program, Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative, on Facebook and reached out to her embassy contacts, who encouraged her to apply.

Commerce and social change

The program this year has brought 250 fellows from Latin America to the U.S. Louisville organizations, including Superior Meats, New Directions Housing and Louisville Forward, are participating for the first time.

Laura Duncan

The program, in its second year, aims to strengthen ties between the U.S. and Latin American countries, said Laura Duncan, visitor program manager for the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana. The council is the State Department’s regional partner and served as a liaison between the fellows and host organizations.

The council tried to pair the visiting entrepreneurs with businesses or nonprofits in similar sectors so that each could benefit from the other’s expertise and make connections that may result in additional revenue.

One visitor from Ecuador runs a company that produces guinea pig meat and has been meeting with local chefs, hotels and Latino grocery stores for potential export opportunities, Duncan said. Another entrepreneur, who works with at-risk youth in Suriname, got an up-close look at the operations of YouthBuild, a local nonprofit that helps disadvantaged youth obtain a high school diploma or GED while getting hands-on career training.

While the State Department has, for decades, fostered international exchanges focused on the public sector and social issues, the start of YLAI reflected an increasing interest by the agency to create greater stability in developing countries by supporting entrepreneurs who are trying to improve the lives of people in their communities by offering them work and by including in their business plan some kind of social component.

The application period for a program that will send 45 fellows from the U.S. to Latin American countries in March and April is about to begin.

The programs are funded by the State Department. Funding details were not immediately available.

Enjoying the people — not the weather

Karen Paola Gómez López, left, and Leigh Nieves | Courtesy of the World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana

Since arriving in Kentucky on Oct. 6, Gómez López has shadowed Leigh Nieves, account executive at Louisville City FC, the local pro soccer club.

Nieves said that on a basic level both the soccer club and the adventure tourism company tried to attract and entertain people, and LouCity leaders had focused on helping Gómez López with marketing and networking skills and had connected her with local tourism-related businesses and resources to help her company adopt those practices that maximize its chances for success.

Nieves said that the club, too, had benefited from the initiative because Gómez López provided some insights into how LouCity could reach out to attract more fans from the local Latino community.

Discussions about soccer between Nieves and Gómez López came easy because it’s Costa Rica’s most popular sport. Gómez López said Costa Rican towns had at least three things: a church, a school and a soccer field.

The visiting entrepreneur also could not help but point out that the Costa Rican men’s soccer team had qualified for next year’s World Cup while some other teams did not.

Beyond the business lessons, Gómez López said that she has enjoyed meeting Louisvillians.

“People I have met have been really nice to me,” she said.

The work, activities and additional meetings and discussions with the other visiting entrepreneurs have made for busy days that often left her too tired to visit many Louisville sites, she said. Nonetheless, she enjoyed a tour of the Muhammad Ali Center and plans to visit Churchill Downs on Friday.

And, she said with a laugh, she has been able to go to the mall to buy some clothes for her family in Costa Rica, including her parents, an older sister, a younger brother and two nieces.

Gómez López said that she likes Louisville because it’s a sizable city but not so big that it’s overwhelming.

“It’s easy to get to places,” she said. “You don’t get lost here.”

She does have one complaint, though.

“I don’t like the weather,” she said with a laugh.

Costa Rica is close to the equator and does not experience seasons or significant temperature swings. Average daily temps range from 70 to 80 degrees.

Nieves said it’s been refreshing to meet someone from another culture, especially someone with such passion for her business and mission to help others.

“I have nothing but good things to say about working with YLAI,” Nieves said.

Gómez López invited Louisvillians to visit her country, which, she said, is safe, fairly prosperous, close (a four-hour flight from Atlanta) and a paradise for nature and adventure lovers. The country has active volcanoes, Pacific and Caribbean coasts and, although it covers only 0.03 percent of the planet’s surface, it holds nearly 6 percent of the world’s biodiversity, according to the country’s embassy.

“Costa Rica is one of the best places to visit,” Gómez López said.

Carlos Zamora, Costa Rican entrepreneur and partner in adventure tour company L.E.A. Costa Rica, rafts the Naranjo River. | Courtesy of Karen Paola Gómez López

Costa Rica

  • Location: Central America, north of Panama and south of Nicaragua, bordered by the Caribbean Sea in the east and the North Pacific Ocean in the west.
  • Area: 51,100 square kilometers, or slightly smaller than West Virginia.
  • Climate: Tropical and subtropical.
  • Terrain: Coastal plains separated by rugged mountains including more than 100 volcanic cones, including active volcanoes.
  • Capital: San Jose.
  • Population: 4.9 million.
  • Government: Presidential republic.
  • Background: Costa Rica’s political stability, high standard of living, and well-developed social benefits system set it apart from its Central American neighbors. Through the government’s sustained social spending, almost 20 percent of GDP annually, Costa Rica has made tremendous progress toward achieving its goal of providing universal access to education, healthcare, clean water, sanitation and electricity.
  • Per capita GPD: $16,400. Northern neighbor Nicaragua has a GDPs of $5,500. Costa Rica is a popular regional immigration destination because of its job opportunities and social programs. Almost 9 percent of the population is foreign-born, with Nicaraguans comprising nearly three-quarters of the foreign population.
  • GDP growth in 2016: 4.3 percent.
  • GDP composition: Services, 73 percent; industry, 21.5 percent; agriculture, 5.5 percent. Although it still maintains a large agricultural sector, Costa Rica has expanded its economy to include strong technology and tourism industries. The standard of living is relatively high. Land ownership is widespread. (Source: CIA World Factbook.)

Photo courtesy of World Affairs Council of Kentucky and Southern Indiana