What does it mean to be a Latinx entrepreneur?
For Elias Torres, founder and chief technology officer at the Boston-based software company, Drift, it meant taking risks. It took emigrating from Nicaragua in 1993, cleaning corporate offices, working at McDonalds, learning English, and receiving a scholarship to attend the University of South Florida. Torres worked at several companies including IBM, sold a startup to HubSpot, and founded his business with a fellow Latinx cofounder.
Along the way, he never forgot the support of his community.
In a nation where only 3 percent of 5 million Latinx-owned businesses have exceeded more than $1 million in revenue, Drift grew from $1 million to $10 million in less than a year.
“I want to be able to take this company public and then turn it into a $10 billion company to show other Latinx people that we can do this,” Torres said. “I’m just tired of going into every event, every venture capital meeting, into every venture capital room and we’re the only ones.”
Torres and other entrepreneurs shared their stories Friday at the launch of PowerUp Latinx Biz during HUBweek, a campaign to increase economic opportunity for Latinx-owned businesses.
“There’s something about the struggle to achieve that increases our awareness and makes us grateful,” said Vivian Iannotti, CEO of Stop and Compare Supermarkets. “I’ve seen this close-up with my parents’ experience emigrating from a socialist Cuba. Coming here with nothing, struggling and building something from zero made them grateful.”
Dr. Mariana Matus, co-founder and CEO of Biobot Analytics, runs a company that analyzes city wastewater to estimate the level of drug consumption. She emigrated from Mexico where she was raised in poverty, got her PhD at MIT, and co-founded her company based on her research.
“We think of sewage not as waste, but as a data resource to understand the health of our communities in real-time,” Matus said, “to do public policy in a way it’s never been done before.”
The goal of PowerUp Latinx Biz is to help Latinx-owned businesses cross the opportunity divide and spur more entrepreneurs forward. This means identifying companies and connecting them via a mobile application for professionals called LatInc founded by a Boston-based Latinx entrepreneur, Claritza Abreu, as well as accelerator programs, capital, and mentorships.
“That idea helped me not only reach out to a much wider audience,” Abreu said, “but also helped me converge my two passions: my passion and love for technology and my passion and love for my community.”
PowerUp was founded by Amplify Latinx, a collaborative effort created by two Latinx entrepreneurs, angel investor Betty Francisco and attorney Eneida Roman, who also founded The Latina Circle and have been focused on building civic engagement and political representation within the Latinx community.
“Imagine if we could scale all these Latino businesses even six at a time would make a huge difference,” Roman said. “We are big in numbers, but not necessarily big in access and opportunity and we need to close that gap.”
One out of 10 businesses in Boston are Latinx-owned, according to the Boston Foundation Latino Legacy report. Yet, in Boston, statistics show Latinx-owned businesses average less than $100,000 in annual sales, compared to $644,000 in annual sales for all privately-owned firms.
“If only 3 percent are reaching beyond the ceiling, that means 97 percent of them aren’t,” said Lourdes German, a faculty member with the Boston College Carroll School of Management.
“It’s just like money being left on the table.”
John Barros, Boston’s chief of economic development, shared at the event that the city would be adding language for diversity participation on city public land going up for development.
“We will have criteria ... that every part of the development team, construction, legal, architectural design, ownership particularly will get asked for the diversity make-up, Barros said.
Natalia Oberti Noguera, founder & CEO, Pipeline Angels, asked the crowd a question: who do you want to make money for? She made the argument for investing in companies from the Latinx community by unleashing capital from within the community itself.
“If we invest in what looks like us, if we invest in what’s familiar, why don’t we get more of us on the investing side because we’re probably going to be investing in more of us on the entrepreneurship side,” Oberti Noguera said.
Francisco and Roman see PowerUp Latinx Biz as a movement.
“Our job is to create the visibility for them, to create a voice and space for them to be featured so people can see the great work that they do,” Francisco said. “We’re not just the hair salon, the beauty, salon, the bodega. We are creating multi-million dollar, venture-backed businesses.”