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Students of Color

I Used to Think Entrepreneurship Was Just for White Guys

The hustle never stops. This time, I was racing for an afternoon coffee with fellow entrepreneurs. I threw my University of Virginia Darden School of Business padfolio into my bag, tossed in a handful of business cards (you never know when you may need them), and hustled over to the coffee shop. As I made my way through the busy shop to find the group, it happened again. It happens a lot—and not just in Virginia. It has happened to me in D.C., New York, San Francisco and Denver. It happens almost every time I’m in a space for entrepreneurs. As I sat down and looked around the table, six White, male faces stared back at me. Again, I was the only Latina with a seat at the table. Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with these entrepreneurs. In fact, I believe there can and must be a place for everyone in entrepreneurship including those who might represent the status quo. But far too often, I’m one of few women at entrepreneurship events I attend and usually the only Latina. So, where are all the Latinx entrepreneurs? And for real, where are the Latinas?

Entrepreneurship Is For People Like Us

As I sat in that coffee shop and thought about this question, I reflected on my own journey. If you had told me a few years ago I’d be CEO of  oneTILT, an education nonprofit that grows managers to lead from a place of equity and innovation, I would have been quick to tell you, "Nah. Me?" I worked hard to earn a college degree and stable job—one that started as a classroom teacher and turned into a decade-long career in nonprofit management. Why would I risk all that for a start-up that may or may not succeed? I thought entrepreneurship was something for Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and those six guys I sat down with at the coffee shop. Not for people like me, with long, curly brown hair and last names that end with a Z. The truth is entrepreneurship is for people like me, like us. First, our people—nuestra gente—have  entrepreneurship coursing in our blood. Think about it: How many of your tias or padres own their business? Sure, maybe they didn’t go through a design-thinking protocol with sticky notes and sharpies, but they once had a start-up! While they perhaps did not have the opportunity to go to business school, they likely spent evenings talking with loved ones and strapping together a real-world MBA to ensure their business would grow and succeed. Entrepreneurs are Latinxs that dreamed of a better future, got others to invest in that vision and worked hard to make that vision a reality. Taking an idea and turning it into a small business requires the same skill sets society admires in elite White-dominant entrepreneur spaces.

We're the Definition of Hustle

Second, it’s not just our history and community that make us ripe for innovation; our Latinidad is the very definition of the hustle. Accelerator programs and funders love to talk about investing in founders with an “entrepreneurial spirit.” Check—Latinxs have that too, which I call our Latinx hustle. You know—the hustle of my abuela, who as a Cuban refugee figured out how to navigate a new country and learn a new language while working full time in a factory and supporting three boys. I think of my own hustle—becoming the first woman in my family to earn an undergraduate and graduate degree. It sure sounds like an “entrepreneurial spirit” to me. In fact, find me a Latinx without that hustle, and I’ll gladly buy your next drink. As Latinx social entrepreneurs, we are often best positioned to dream up solutions for our own community. We’ve lived the struggles we are trying to solve—our voices, our perspectives and our experiences give us many strengths as innovators. We are built for this.

You Don't Have to Do It Alone

If you’re Latinx with an idea to make education better, start talking about it! Share your idea in a group chat or on your Twitter timeline. Ask questions to learn more. Find a trusted coach, mentor or friend and start putting your ideas into actions. Do it! Why not see if it works? I co-founded  oneTILT because I believe that talent at every level of leadership should reflect the communities we serve. Right now, it doesn’t. At oneTILT, we’re working to create a more diverse pipeline of leadership across education ecosystems. We support those who hold the keys to the decisions facing talent today: managers. We help managers build concrete management skill, grow awareness around race, equity and inclusiveness, and unleash leadership through design thinking. OneTILT began as a little idea and grew into a side hustle while I was working full time. My co-founder and I brainstormed venture names and mission statements, got rejected from and eventually accepted into different social venture accelerators, and made our first sales while working our regular jobs. I channeled that Latinx hustle as we showed up to webinar after webinar, meet-up after meet-up, and dreamed about what could be. Eventually, it paid off. We received seed funding to grow our organization and signed our first few year-long contracts with national education organizations. We’re doing this. And you can do it, too. Just like we rely on our familia for so much—you, too, don’t have to do this alone. There are organizations out there designed to help us specifically. In the education innovation space, Camelback Ventures supports underrepresented entrepreneurs (people of color and women) working on social impact and education ventures (nonprofits, for-profits, hybrids and schools).  4.0 Schools invests in early stage entrepreneurs so you can play with your idea as a side hustle, and keep that stable income. Plus, you can call me! Truly—my social media info is linked—don’t hesitate to reach out! I was blown away by how many Latinx entrepreneurs are open to a phone call via a LinkedIn connection or a chat at a networking event. Thanks to many of these organizations, my network of entrepreneurs of color grows every day. While many of my meetings still look like that coffee shop, I am hopeful about what the future holds. Our community needs us to innovate the next solutions to make this world just a little bit better. Why can’t it be you? After all, you know you’d make your abuelita proud.
An original version of this post appeared on Latinos for Education as Just Like Your Abuelita Did: The Case for Latinx Entrepreneurship.
Kimberly Diaz
Kimberly Diaz is co-founder and CEO of oneTILT, an organization that grows education managers to lead from a place of equity and innovation. She brings more than eight years of nonprofit management and teaching experience at Teach For America to oneTILT. Kimberly holds a BA in Psychology and Economics from the University of Virginia, an MAT from American University and is currently pursuing her ...

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