When Tara Roberts lost her job as a magazine editor in the midst of the recession, she decided to start her own business. The American from Atlanta wanted to create a social networking company that connects women around the globe working to improve their communities.
But when it came time to choose a base from which to launch the site, the United States was not the logical place in her eyes. Instead, Ms. Roberts went south – far south, to South America's southern cone.
"I had been the victim of the downsizing, the madness of the US economy, and the idea of exploring another place – living in another [country] was also really exciting to me," says Roberts, who began developing GirlTank in November as part of a Chilean government-sponsored program called Start-Up Chile.
"One of the great things about being [in Chile] is that there is such an opportunity to do anything," she says. "You can really start projects here, and there is a need for them."
As Europe and the US have suffered economically, Latin America has been lauded for its stability. It has experienced its fastest sustained growth in decades. While oil companies, big agricultural outfits, and factories have long invested in Latin America, attracted to looser laws and cheap labor, young people now see the region as a new economic frontier. It's a place to launch a company, get a competitive edge, or spruce up a résumé. They are seeking – and finding – opportunity, at a time when they see little at home.
"Compared to Europe, where everything is slowing down, South America seems to be doing the complete opposite," says Toby Donnison, a young Briton who is heading to Argentina to do a three-month internship with an investment bank. "I definitely want to know how business works over there."
One path: internships
The internship has always been a door opener. For Mr. Donnison, a Spanish speaker, the work experience is part of his degree in language, politics, and international studies at the University of Bath. He could have stayed much closer to home but says he wanted to get away from tired Spain, where the unemployment rate is over 20 percent.
Donnison scored the internship through a new company called Intern Latin America, which is trying to capitalize on what founder David Lloyd says is a growing interest in working in Latin America.
Mr. Lloyd created the outfit last year, based on his own positive experience in the region. While he landed an internship at Rolex in Argentina through connections, it's a path he recognizes most people can't depend upon.
So far the company has placed dozens of interns in law firms, fashion companies, banks, and government offices in Colombia and Argentina. Intern Latin America is now expanding into Chile and plans to do the same in Mexico and Brazil, which just surpassed the United Kingdom as the world's sixth-largest economy.
"We see Brazil and Mexico as two definite places to be," Lloyd says. "People are well aware that the opportunities outside the UK might far surpass the opportunities inside the UK. They want to get exposure to that."
The economic rise of Brazil makes it an obvious choice, he says, and Mexico has a pioneer-feel to it. "Mexico is going through a somewhat difficult time with the security situation," he says, "[But] Mexico would be highly attractive for a young, ambitious student."
Career changers also welcome
Latin America is appealing to those not just starting, but hoping to switch to new careers. Jeremy Melul of France went to college at Stanford in California, business school in Madrid, and started his career in finance in Brussels. But when he got the idea to start his own business, he, like Roberts, looked to Chile, where the economy is expected to grow by 6.3 percent this year according to United Nations statistics.
He and a partner founded Jogabo.com, a website that connects soccer fans for pickup games in cities around the world. He, too, applied for a grant with Start-Up Chile, and says that in addition to the seed capital, the program has allowed him "access to top people quick" through meetings with local business leaders, and office space. So far, 200 entrepreneurs from 30 different countries have traveled to Chile to try to get their ideas off the ground through Start-Up Chile. The program aims to fund 1,000 entrepreneurs by 2014, and not only benefits the grantees – 80 percent of whom are foreigners – but is a boon to Chile, too, says spokeswoman Brenna Loury.
"Historically, Chile has been very closed off from the rest of the world. The government thought that maybe if we imported entrepreneurs with global experience, they could inspire Chileans with a similar mind-set," she says.
But critics say the program does not address a key obstacle facing Chile and the rest of the region. Ricardo Israel, a professor of political science at the Autonomous University of Chile, says in Latin America, one thing stifling growth is the concentration of power in the hands of a few families running virtual monopolies.
"The result of economic liberalization has been a large concentration of market power and a profound inequality," Mr. Israel says. If an entrepreneurial culture is lacking, he says, it's because "for those who don't have adequate connections, it's very difficult to get access to capital."