Impact Mia: What Is Miami?

International financier Barry Sternlicht recently called Miami the "Singapore of the U.S."  But what is it about Miami that makes it so unique? This article from Richard Schuchts of ImapctMIA speaks to the question of what makes Miami so special.

What is Miami? Ask any number of people and you will get strikingly different answers. The federal government defines Miami as Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade Counties and their 5.5 million residents. It is home to 1,400 multinational companies, had international trade of $125 billion in 2012, and is the world’s fifth most connected city.

The region is extremely diverse, separated by geography, nationality, culture, language, and local identity. What unites us is entrepreneurism and innovation. Those traits come naturally for reasons found in our history.

Miami was born little more than a century ago by pioneers looking for monumental business opportunities: Tuttle, Flagler, and Brickell. By the 1920s, Merrick created Coral Gables, an innovative planned community, and Collins and Fisher converted farms into a vacation destination that became the art deco paradise of Miami Beach.

The next wave of entrepreneurs arrived after WWII. Comprised of U.S. soldiers who had trained on Miami Beach, these individuals returned with “sand in their boots” to start new lives.

However, it was the Cuban revolution that really set Miami apart. Rarely in history have the educated and wealthy elite from one country migrated to another so rapidly as when Cuba’s upper and middle class moved to Miami after 1959. Most had been professionals in Cuba; however, their educations and certifications were not recognized here. Thus, they used their ingenuity and relationships to become entrepreneurs.

During this time, entrepreneurs and innovators flowed here from other U.S. cities. Some came after selling businesses and “retiring”. With their wealth and expertise, many later began new businesses here. Corporate America brought others, including tech leaders IBM and Motorola, and many key innovations were born here. It is hard to envision life without the personal computer (IBM in Boca Raton) or the passenger airline (PAN AM in Miami).

Immigration from the south continued. Even the Cuban experience is no longer fully unique. Colombia’s guerrilla war and Chavez’s destruction of Venezuela had similar impacts, sending disproportionate shares of their best and brightest to make Miami their homes.

Other U.S. companies arrived and set up regional headquarters, primarily targeting Spanish-speaking countries. They hired many of these highly educated former immigrants, most of whom retained key business connections at home. After the dotcom bust, many U.S. companies abandoned regional plans, but as they left, European multinationals took their place and hired the same group of highly connected former immigrants.

Miami has had its share of real estate booms. The most recent ended with the financial crisis – a bust that left thousands of empty condos. While the U.S. and Western nations were suffering, Brazil was thriving. Brazilians began snapping up Miami real estate. This was a defining moment. Had the Brazilian wave settled elsewhere, Miami’s role as regional center may have been challenged.

Another BRIC nation also came to the forefront. In parts of the region, Russian is the most common second language. Eastern Europeans have taken to Miami by the tens of thousands, adding to the deep European culture here.

This brief overview is horribly limited. Focusing on wealth, education, and power is essential to understanding what makes Miami so unique. However, it ignores so much of what makes Miami’s community to entrepreneurial.

Most new arrivals did not come with fortunes and connections. Their entrepreneurism by necessity exemplifies the American dream. Pedro Pan children from Cuba, sent alone by loving parents to American families, are a striking example. As are the Haitian communities here who support new arrivals in an amazing way to collectively elevate the cultural community.

The success of the Seminole Tribe, the Bahamians that settled Coconut Grove in the 1800s, and the African American renaissance in Overtown and elsewhere, all help form the identity of modern Miami. But to fully appreciate these experiences, their stories must be told.

These are just a few groups that have impacted Miami so far. We will help relay other stories, and those that are developing now, as Miami makes its most exciting transition yet. The Miami experience will continue to be refined, but innovation and entrepreneurism will certainly be at its core. History has taught us that.


Miami, Florida



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