Joe Scarpaci

Executive Director, Center for Study of Cuban Culture & Economy

EducationPh.D. in Geography (University of Florida), M.Sc. in Geography (Penn State University), B.A. in Geography (Rutgers University). Post-doctoral Bridge Certificate in Marketing, AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business)

Describe your job. What are some of the most important tasks or duties for which you are responsible?
I offer investment information for U.S. companies interested in staking a claim in Cuba’s future economy. This entails appraising them of, and simplifying, the current implications for businesses registered in the U.S. that must abide by the Trading with the Enemy Act.

I also design and lead interpretive educational/cultural tours in compliance with the current trade embargo. Since the early 1990’s, I have held licenses through my organization or from the U.S. Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC), and have since introduced over 900 American students and civic organization members to the island through these itineraries.

What attracted you to this industry?
My early research in heritage tourism and the Centro Histórico of Latin American cities led me to nine UNESCO heritage sites, including Havana and the more recent addition of Cuenca. My field work addressed city, provincial, and national governments aiming to attract new clientele to their aging historic districts – an alternative traveler than those coming to Latin America and the Caribbean for traditional tropical amenities. Place promotion and branding, I realized, become front and center in understanding how these places aimed to position themselves in the international tourism market. This inspired me to accept an offer from Virginia Tech to a post-doctoral bridge program in marketing, which required 320 hours of intensive summer study. After completing the program and receiving my certificate, I began teaching full-time and online in international business, hospitality, and marketing programs. Additionally, I’m able to consult with businesses in Hollywood and on Wall Street about working in Cuba under U.S. Treasury guidelines.

How has your education/background in geography prepared you for this position?
Geography’s interdisciplinary approach provided an excellent foundation for international marketing, which itself draws on several concepts relating to economic, cultural, and methodical foundations found in geography; however, it’s worth noting that business administration faculty often view interdisciplinary affiliations as “weak”. My “jack-of-all trades” geography training, however, was encouraged. When it comes to publications, books are not as valued as in geography, and the peer-review process is much more rigorous. All in all, my geographical fieldwork methods, foreign language training, ability to synthesize material, etc. have been assets to my work in international marketing.

What geographic skills and information do you use most often in your work? What general skills and information do you use most often in your work?
As I mentioned, the ability to synthesize both qualitative and quantitative information, as well as the ability to effectively display my work in visual and written formats and my Spanish language skills are the tools I most rely upon. Working in Cuba, I was amazed by how many “experts” on Latin America or Cuba had so little knowledge about flora, fauna, political and social history and theory, and climate patterns. I’d sat in on so many lectures where these basic factors — which would be immediately picked up by geography students — were totally absent.

Are there any skills or information you need for your work that you did not obtain through your academic training? If so, how/where did you obtain them?
I mentioned previously my post-doctoral certificate in marketing; otherwise, I’m not sure if field work counts as training, but my Spanish language skills have definitely been most helpful. The notion of “going native” is a false approach; however, I’ve found over the course of doing ethnographic work throughout the region that locals appreciate a foreigner’s ability to speak Spanish. I stress the importance of language to my students; with Spanish in particular, the use of present and imperfect subjunctives tend to be most difficult for English speakers, and I encourage my students to master that.

Having run 32 study abroad programs in Cuba, the Dominican Republic, and Chile and working with international organizations has forced me to summarize my research clearly and effectively. My center has worked with several alumni organization, museums, civic organizations, and high schools and university programs as a result. Taking account of these varying audiences, I try to “hit the right altitude” in giving lectures, assuming very little and presenting interesting and “big picture” topics on globalization, urbanization, consumer behavior, etc. rather than convey trivial information about the region.

Do you participate in hiring, screening, or training of new employees? If so, what qualities and/or skills do you look for?
In the past, I have hired part-time U.S. and Latin American-based scholars. I look for good people skills, strong bilingualism, and effective team players. Travelers in Latin America don’t want a boring and introverted docent accompanying them. Using locals, I also keep an eye out for good English skills, and the ability to keep politics in check.

What advice would you give to someone interested in a job like yours?
I appreciate the luxury of being able to be flexible with my time and with my choice of projects; however, this requires a sense of seasonality and advance planning. Another challenge tends to be good budget development skills and learning how to monetize your skills. Understanding how to conduct a marketing plan, even with geographers who don’t speak your language, is essential.

I stress the balance of having your work validated in North America while earning the respect of locals; with that, I cannot over-stress the importance of language skills. Language skills should not be treated as secondary skills, especially with the decline of Spanish and Portuguese with Fortran and COBOL (in the 1970s) and C++ (recently) being treated as “substitutes” to modern languages in contemporary higher education curricula. You should never assume that any key informants will “speak English anyhow”—personally, this is a terribly misguided assumption.

What is the occupational outlook for career opportunities in your field, esp. for geographers?
Any geographer can find their own niche, but this requires understanding the big picture. In my case, it means understanding supply chains, which in economic geography we might call the production chain or the value-added chain or the commodity chain. At each point, there is an opportunity to connect a market with a client, whether it is a B2B setting (business-to-business) or B2C (business to consumer/client) one. One of my mentors at Penn State, Pierce Lewis, who was a talented and broad-thinking scholar, wrote a Presidential Address in the 1970s following his tenure as AAG President.  In that talk, he urges students to pursue their interests without putting on ‘blinders,’ and then try some more, but to also avoid those with narrow focus who might attempt to put blinders on your vision. He encouraged geographers to work on projects not confined to one place, and that pay attention to context.

While deciding between graduate programs in the mid-1970’s, I was given advice to develop systematic skills at the master’s level, and to then focus on regional specialization at the doctoral level. I opted for a M.Sc. program at Penn State; though they had little in the way of Latin American studies, I did indeed pick this up later at the doctoral level at the University of Florida.

I remember being at Penn State while Peter Gould, the professor of my seminar on the history/philosophy of geography, opened a recent issue of the AAG’s Annals and read the caption of a photo that read something like “Campesino in field in white pants”. He didn’t have to say anything else; it was clear that this was overly descriptive. Hence, the debate on idiographic versus nomothetic approaches to geography, and the quantitate vs. qualitative debates. All geographers will have to choose those paths as their careers evolve.

Two other faculty members at Penn State — Ron Abler and Wilbur Zelinsky — told their graduate students that a good dissertation could be defended in at least two or three other departments; at the time, I found this to be hyperbole on their part, but now I see they were right. My undergraduate advisor at Rutgers (Bria Holcombe) encouraged travel and journaling, even as an undergrad. I echo the advice of these sage geographers.