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Panama's growth over the past decade is very much a byproduct of its immigrants who have relocated in search of new challenges, profitable ventures, and lifestyle improvements.
From bloggers to incubators, experienced professionals to homegrown entrepreneurs, Panama has imported numerous high-flying individuals over the past few years, all of whom are making indelible marks on the new place they call home.
The Panama Report has selected 9 of Panama's most influential expats to give readers an idea of how foreigners have made a substantial impact in contemporary Panama.
Forget about slides to click through. Presented in no particular order, these are the movers and shakers responsible for one of the fastest growing hotbeds of international talent in the world. All in one place!
1. Name: Trey Bohn
Title: President, Vista Group Corp.
If you’ve ever contemplated who’s behind some of the more ingenious PR initiatives in Panama over the past few years, chances are, Trey Bohn is somehow involved.
After spending the better part of a decade in media positions at The White House, Trey relocated to Panama in 2010 where a consulting contract with the Panamanian government landed him in a position to directly influence the nation’s tourism growth. A graduate of Rawls College of Business at Texas Tech, Trey’s instinct when it comes to international media has proven instantaneously beneficial to the Republic of Panama just two years after his arrival.
Trey’s landmark achievements in Panama include sealing a 3-year partnership with Ironman, the world’s most iconic triathlon brand, spearheading Panama’s first sustainable sport fishing developmental program on behalf of SENACYT (Panama’s Science, Innovation, and Technology Agency), as well as leading a team of Hollywood producers, directors, and financiers who would go on to secure a billion-dollar media production company, in turn putting Panama’s entertainment industry (local filming and production of feature films) officially on the map.
It’s fair to say that as the world continues to learn about Panama’s fledging sustainable and authentic tourism industry, Trey Bohn will most probably be behind the curtains pulling at the strings.
2. Name: Lief Simon
Title: Co-Owner, Live & Invest Overseas
It’s hard to talk about Panama’s profound rise in popularity amongst expats over the past decade without mentioning the name Lief Simon.
Like the face of a generation, Lief and his wife Kathleen Peddicord moved to Panama from Paris, France (“no place to have a business – too much red tape and employee taxes”) because it had everything they needed.
After a tenure as Real Estate Director with International Living (a hugely influential cog in the Republic of Panama’s retirement boom), Lief launched Live and Invest Overseas, a resource for living, investing, and retiring overseas while simultaneously starting a real estate project of his own, Los Islotes located on the Western Coast of the Azuero Peninsula. His influence in the world of the expat communities, beyond just Panama, is that of an international thought leader.
Aside from Lief’s keen eye for real estate deals and straight-shooting advice, few would argue that any one individual has more successfully branded Panama as a retirement and investment destination. In fact, you sometimes get the feeling that if Lief wanted to carve out a new world-class destination or identity, he probably could do so over the weekend.
3. Name: Kimberly Hall
Title: Founder, Create Invest
In the midst of large-scale industrial growth, Panama’s underground art and culture scene is progressively chugging along thanks, in large part, to Atlanta native Kimberly Hall. Kimberly is almost single-handedly revolutionizing the way Panamanians – at both an individual and corporate level – embrace their own entrepreneurship.
Kimberly arrived to Panama with extensive experience in private equity and finance after graduating cum laude from Vanderbilt University in 2004. She since established Create Invest, a development platform for local and creative art-oriented entrepreneurs.
Kimberly’s Create Invest team is contracted by large corporate companies who create and execute internal business plans that grow, evolve and improve existing businesses. On the non-profit side, her company partners with local creative entrepreneurs and organizations to help develop projects that foster progress in the community, something Panama is sorely lacking.
Kimberly’s influence in Panama isn’t purely business-based however. In the recreational realm, she has a hand in most major plays, festivals, concerts, and art exhibits, including the renowned ArtBlock alternative arts festival of Casco Viejo. Which is to say, there isn’t one foreigner in Panama who’s more important to the nation’s development as an artistic hotbed than Hall who, at only 30 years old, is agreed by all to have influence beyond her years.
4. Name: Lee Zeltzer Title: Blogger, Boquete Guide
Visitors to Boquete might easily mistake Lee Zeltzer for just another gringo walking down the street. After all, in one of Panama’s highest-density expat destinations, Lee basically looks the part. But in doing so, they would be overlooking one of this eco-town’s most authoritative and respected voices.
At the end of a seven-year quest to move from the United States, Lee found himself in Boquete where the lifestyle seemed to be more about making choices of his own (rather than having them made for him). Having relocated in 2006, Lee was part of a first major generation of influential Boquete transplants.
Lee first started BoqueteGuide.com, a blog of his adventures in a foreign land, which gained a cult-like following. This gave way to BoqueteNing.com, a virtual community that took on a life of its own as a way for locals and tourists to share unbiased experiences about this soon-to-be renowned retirement destination.
Besides just being a thought-leader in the world of everything Boquete, Lee is something of a model expat in the community as well: he’s been both a volunteer at a handful of foundations and voted (now twice) by his Panamanian neighbors to the local water board (“a lofty position.”). This lead-by-example mentality has earned Lee a great deal of respect from locals and foreigners alike in Panama. According to another prominent Boquete resident, “When Lee talks, the neighborhood listens.”
5. Name: Kelly Berube de Caro Age: 32 Title: Buena Vista Bar & Grill
Sometimes, you don’t have to be a “person of influence” to be an influential person and Kelly Berube de Caro may be the perfect example. Sometimes just being a model contributor to the community earns a foreigner her might.
After graduating from Michigan State University in 2002, Kelly embarked to be a deckhand on a friend’s boat throughout the Caribbean. When she landed in Bocas del Toro, the plan was to return to the USA and begin a “real life.” But as you might have imagined, that never happened.
Kelly’s Buena Vista Bar & Grill on Isla Colon may be the nerve center of her commitment to Bocas. By hiring exclusively locals (representing 9 individual families) and promoting wholeheartedly the local economy, Kelly immerses herself intentionally and constantly with locals.
But Kelly’s influence goes beyond just a landmark grill: the past 10 years have seen her heavily immersed in BESO (Bocas Educational Serice Organization), a series of free ballet and jazz dance classes for local kids, and her youngest daughter’s public school PTA where Kelly, the foreigner, plays Vice-President. She is also the host of a famous Halloween party that brings together the community in many more ways than one.
It’s wouldn’t be unfair to say that if something is going down in Bocas – a party, a charity, a new business opening…etc – when Kelly Berube de Caro gives a shout out, pretty much everyone will know. If you ask Kelly what her mission is in Panama, she’ll tell you it’s “to learn what she can from others,” but ironically, to her neighbors, it’s most oftentimes the other way around.
6. Name: Jacob Ehrler
Title: Editor, The Visitor/El Visitante
If you’re a foreigner in Panama and you don’t know who Jacob Ehrler is, you’ve probably been living under a rock. As the Editor of El Vistante, Jacob is Panama’s human keystone, connecting and sustaining two cultures – the local and the imported – on an unfaltering and unbiased weekly basis.
After visiting Panama, from Manhattan, for Carnival in 2001, Jacob continued visiting the isthmus several times a year because he had a hunch something big was brewing. And he was right. 2007 saw him make the plunge to relocate permanently, hitting Panama at a developmental sweetspot amidst its fastest growing decade of the modern era.
This timing, fueled by Jacob’s drive and personality, saw him emerge as an authority on all things Panama: a leader whose influence stretches far beyond the pages of the nation’s largest English-language newspaper.
In the world of foreigners who have moved to Panama, you get a lot of quacks. You get a lot of obscure individuals running or hiding or getting lost. But then there are the few select times that you get massively normal playmakers. In the end, just about everyone in Panama has been influenced by Jacob Ehrler, whether they realize it or not. Fortunately for us, his judgment and his principles are about as good as they come.
7. Name: David Harmatz, Daniel Smetana, & Daniel Saxe
Title: Owners & Founders, Hostel Heike, Luna's Castle/Relic Bar, OfertaSimple.com
You’d be hard-pressed to find a foreigner in Panama worth his or her salt who wouldn’t agree that these three sub-30 Bay Area entrepreneurs have blazed a trail for Panama’s consumer future as we know it.
Harmatz, Smetana, and Saxe, friends from high school and college, make for the prototypical Panama success story. After buying a hostal in Bocas del Toro (Mondo Taitu) and revolutionizing the party-hostal theme, they then opened a second just blocks away (Hostal Heike). Next, moving to Panama City for their third (and most impactful) project – the now famous Luna’s Castle and Relic Bar in Casco Viejo – this trio became influential not because they talked a good game or were born with four aces. It was their work ethic and insistent honesty that propelled them into the Panama spotlight (whether they wanted it or not).
Nowadays, the boys tend to look a little more corporate at work in their apartment living room-cum-technology headquarters. As founders of OfertaSimple.com, an online coupon business, they are responsible for helping Panama transition into the digital age, by creating the first profitable business model of its kind in Panama.
Yet as mainstream as their projects are received by Panama's general public, still sporting unkempt beards and flip flops, the three have clearly not forgotten some of the benefits of entrepreneurship.
Many might see Panama tourism, nightlife, and technology as related through separate spheres. But Harmatz, Smetana, and Saxe use their skills and instinct to unite them in unique ways and across different cultures, an influence that will continue to impact Panama – both for locals and foreigners – across many generations to come.
8. Name: David Henesy
Title: Founder, Henesy Rodriguez Group
It may not be expected to see a foodie on a Most Influential list, but David Henesy is capable of enormous things. It is his knowledge and his vision – after nearly 30 years of operating hotels and restaurants internationally – that are responsible for something of a culinary transformation in Panama. David is, both literally and figuratively, changing the way Panamanians and their visitors look at local food.
In addition to what hundreds of his diners might experience at La Chesa or Market or La Posta or Elephant Grill on a nightly basis, Henesy’s Henesy Rodriguez Group is an influential community leader as well.
Under David’s direction, HRG partners with organic farms in the interior, uses an internal recycling system, is part of the Smithsonian’s Futuro Forestal reforestation project, and sources around 80% of its ingredients locally: all cognizant efforts to minimize its carbon footprint and to support Panama’s local agriculture.
Sometimes, being influential in Panama means showing others how businesses can be successful, both financially and environmentally, not on paper but by example. David’s example, if it hasn’t already, will be the template for many generations of upscale restaurants in Panama for years to come.
9. Name: Don Winner
Title: Owner, Panama-Guide.com
Whether tracking down serial killers, translating local news articles, investigating mysterious diseases, or simply promoting beach mixers, Don Winner is the undisputed king of influence when it comes to foreigner-related current events in Panama.
Assigned to Panama in 1987 while serving in the US Air Force, Don decided to stay after retiring in 2000, working for several years as a contractor. When his contract ran out in July 2005, he started the Panama-Guide.com website to provide timely and accurate news and information in support of the English speaking community of expats in Panama. Apart from homerun cameos on most major news stations in the US, Don’s bread and butter is connecting expats with things they should know about in a foreign land.
Boasting visitor numbers that reach upwards of 6 million, Don’s brainchild the Panama-Guide is a constantly updated feed of news and analyses from the foreigner perspective. His unabashed style has earned him a loyal following (and not to mention, plenty of enemies) so his influence is unrivaled when it comes to disseminating information or rooting for a particular cause.
Whether in business or retired, foreigners in Panama inevitably want Don Winner’s advice. In turn, this makes his opinion wielding as influential as they come.
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