Born: New York City
Lives: Palermo Hollywood
Education: International business degree at Plattsburgh University
Profession: Founder of Startup Buenos Aires
Book: Steve Jobs’ biography
Film: Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
Gadget: My iPhone
While an extended working holiday to Buenos Aires was only supposed to last a few months, New York City transplant Lisa Besserman’s business idea spurred her to take the plunge and turn it into a more permanent move. Two years on, she’s founded a community devoted to startups with her savings and recently married her Argentine boyfriend.
Lisa says: “It was November 2012 and I was working for a company based in New York. I hadn’t taken a vacation for a couple of years and given that my lease was about to expire and I wanted to avoid the high New York City rents, I asked my boss if I could work remotely.
“I had just one week to decide where to go to escape for a few months and knew that if I said I was going somewhere exotic like Argentina or Rio, they’d never let me go. So I’d said I was going to stay with my grandma in Florida, to which they couldn’t say no, looked at a map and randomly selected Buenos Aires.
“It was summer when I got here and I had no Spanish or friends; in fact, it ended up being quite stressful as I had to get a phone number with a Miami code – it was hard to pretend to be in Florida while all these blackouts were happening in BA! One time, I’d scheduled a conference call in a café but there was a blackout and the strongest signal was in the women’s bathroom, so that’s where I had to hold my meeting!”
With a short timeframe in mind, Lisa indulged in the porteño lifestyle with gusto in the early days, and lived in Palermo. She says: “I stayed in Las Cañitas for the first month then I moved to Soho. I had only planned to be here for a few months and wanted to overdose on meat and Fernet and boliches! But what I loved most was the social culture. It was so easy to meet people who always were so friendly; coming from New York City, I’m not used to that as it’s a closed-off social environment.
“I’d also lived in Japan, and found a huge expat community here in Buenos Aires which I’d never discovered in Japan – that drew me into the city as well.”
While the original idea was to spend the North American winter in Argentina and return in March, Lisa saw the opportunity to set up a company – and her plans changed. “I toyed with staying once my idea came to fruition, then decided to make the jump and handed in my notice. So I used my return ticket, packed up my stuff and bought a one-way ticket back two weeks later. Everything I owned is in boxes in my parent’s garage.”
The scene was then set for her to found Startup Buenos Aires, a community aiming to inspire, promote and support local startups and entrepreneurship. Lisa adds: “Once I accepted the fact I was going to be living here long term, I committed to making a life here: I started to learn the language and make good friends. I changed my perspective from being here for a short while for good times to being here longer term and having a more worthwhile experience. I knew I needed to make this home in order to make it work out.
“All the elements for a startup community existed but it was a fragmented landscape – no-one was giving the community the tools they needed. Palermo Valley had disbanded by the time I arrived. But I was impressed and inspired by the entrepreneurs here and met more than I ever had before, but they all lacked resources and I wanted to create that for them – that was one of my main motivations.
“Startup Buenos Aires’ mission is to put the city on the map and bring more opportunity and development while helping startups. One we’ve assisted, for example, is Bluesmart which is run by four Argentines and is the world’s first smart luggage – it charges devices, has GPS tracking and you can remotely lock and unlock it. This group wanted to raise US$50,000 but they raised US$1.4M. My team, who I couldn’t do this without, helped them to get press opportunities and we also provided them with resources.”
Setting up such a community isn’t without its hurdles, however, and one of the biggest has been the language barrier for Lisa. “I’ve been studying Spanish at UBA so I am getting there, slowly! I’ve got exams this week and will have reached level three out of seven – I can communicate with toddlers at the point! I’ve been very fortunate that Argentines are very patient with my Spanglish and the tech community speaks really great English.
“But on a larger scale, there are lots of government obstacles, a lack of funding, the risky environment of investing here, Argentina’s economic problems – it’s been tough! I didn’t have any funding – essentially I’ve used my life savings to create this. It’s not making me rich and it never will, but we’re changing lives in the process. It’s not an easy ride but it’s worth it when you see the impact you can have, not just on a person but on a city.”
While Lisa’s principal reason for staying in Buenos Aires was work, once she’d committed to that decision she then met JP, her now husband. “It’s really great we met at that particular time, because if I’d met him before then stayed for him, it could have put a lot of pressure on the relationship. But I stayed of my own accord because of Startup. We dated for about a year then he proposed to me in New York and we got married in August. We’ll be having another wedding in the US next year – my full transition into an Argentine lifestyle was marrying an Argentine!
“We had an intimate civil ceremony followed by a nice lunch with our closest friends and family. I definitely never expected to have two weddings! That said, I definitely had no expectations about meeting the man of my dreams here either!”
The couple lives in Palermo Hollywood, a part of town that Lisa relishes being in. She says: “When I lived in Soho, I never thought I’d leave it but now I live in Hollywood, I think it’s much cooler. It’s less convenient with fewer supermarkets and transport connections, but there’s a much stronger neighbourhood feel, lots of bars and restaurants, and it’s nice to walk around. Most of my friends live here so it’s also great for my social life! Soho is in your face with so many people, whereas Hollywood is like a nook with the cool essence of a neighbourhood – it’s like the Brooklyn of New York City.”
Besides her friends and family in the US, Lisa says she misses food, “specifically bagels and pizza. I’m from Queens, which is the most ethnically diverse place in the US and so I really miss ethnic dishes.”
Lisa adds that her family have now come to terms with her living in Argentina. “I think they’ve finally accepted it. I’ve always travelled and the question was always ‘when are you coming home?’ But they’ve stopped bugging me about that now they see I’ve established an adult life: they accept it and are proud.”
Buenos Aires Herald, December 13, 2014