Latino entrepreneurs seek guidance, community during post-election forum
By Natasha Mascarenhas
To create a stable environment for Latino entrepreneurship, don’t use the word Latino in conversations about business and technology.
That’s according to a group of about 20 first-generation and immigrant Latinos, who came together for the “State of Latino Entrepreneur” forum hosted at PLUG Cambridge. The event, inspired by Donald J. Trump’s nomination as president-elect, largely focused on post-election concerns of Latinos such as workplace stigma and job opportunities.
“After the election, I immediately started reaching out to my friends in the diversity and inclusion field,” said Nicole Castillo, the main organizer of the event and the founder of BeVisible LatinX, a career platform for Latinos. “And if anythings clear, we can really rely on each other for inevitable things that occur.”
Castillo was joined by two diversity and inclusion advocates to lead the conversation: Oliver Sanchez, the co-founder of PLUG Cambridge and Betty Francisco, the co-founder of the Latina Circle and founder of FitNation Ventures.
The event began with the audience voting on which current issue they were most concerned about, by texting in their responses to a real-time poll. Based on the results, attendees were most worried about investing climate, followed by maintaining talent in the work field, and inclusion.
Francisco began the night by speaking about her experience as being a Latina in the business industry.
She told the audience that her success began when she started “asking the questions that needed to be asked.” Staying away from a challenge perpetuates the gap between minorities and upper-level positions, she explained.
“There are other ways to think about wealth, so I began to explore this idea of angel investing,” Francisco said. “As a Latina, I did not know of anyone who did [angel investing] in our community.”
Francisco is currently the founder and president of FitNation Ventures, a company dedicated to developing and investing in fitness companies.
Other topics such as visa information, immigration and the economy were also mentioned by the panelists. The audience, however, shifted the conversation to mainly focus on social concerns.
Henry Calderon, an audience member and an independent clinical research consultant, expressed how he often felt marginalized in job interviews and work environments.
He explained that in his time as Chief Air Traffic Controller for the Army National Guard, he was often “the Latino guy” in the room.
“I’d prefer to be a human first, and then a Dominican,” Calderon said.
Another attendee, Jimena Arnal, explained that her problem wasn’t being marginalized, but instead being ignored because of her physical appearance.
“People don’t think I’m a Latina, my hair is blonde, my eyes are light,” Arnal said. “So they’ll make comments about other Latinos in the office, and I’ll have to stand up to them and explain to them that what they’re doing is wrong.”
Arnal came to the event with hopes of learning. She recently started a movement called “Un Mundo,” that sells bracelets which encourage good deeds. She explained she has hired a diverse workforce incase her status in the country is threatened.
Seemingly fueled by frustration, Arnal explained ignorance against Latinos is a problem throughout Boston.
Castillo responded to audience concerns by explaining the importance of open forums.
“There is such a gap, especially here in Boston, in leadership roles, government roles,” she said. “Our voice isn’t going to be heard unless we come together, and discuss solutions.”
Francisco urged the audience to embrace their background and network with other minorities, but not in the “business card, business suit,” sense, as she described.
“I’ve never met anyone at a formal networking event,” she said. “We know what we’re doing, Latinos have been networking for a while. At home everything is family-oriented and it feels like a party.”
She then smiled and gestured toward a table in the room, filled with wine, tortilla chips and crackers.
Castillo echoed Francisco’s advice on networking, and said that formal events often come off intimidating and unhelpful.
“I just attended a workshop for General Assembly,” Castillo said. “And it was in a fancy building, and everyone had fancy business cards and I was the only women of color.”
PLUG, in contrast, seemed to be as devoted to inclusion as to the attendees themselves. The room was filled with students, entrepreneurs, start-up founders and young professionals interested in business.
“The co-working space doubles as a bridge to Brazil’s entrepreneurs and startups,” said Sanchez, co-founder of PLUG. “We want to be leading place that Latino entrepreneurs come to.”
Sanchez continued to say that on any give day, the co-working space is mixed with both English and Spanish dialogue, a rarity in Boston.
Following the conversation, individuals spent an hour exchanging emails and phone numbers.
One middle-aged woman, standing near the door and taking notes in her moleskin, expressed gratitude for the safe space.
“It’s good to have people that you look like, maybe with different backgrounds but going through the same struggles that you’re going through,” said Kristine Acevedo, the founder of Neat-n-Green, an eco-friendly professional organizing services.
Before the forum, Acevedo was at Imagine Boston 2030, a series of panels and tours that are dedicated to city-planning and urban development. She thanked the Latino entrepreneurship discussion for a “much-needed contrast.”
“No one cares about the Millennium Tower, the issues our city faces are never that black and white,” she said. “As somebody of color, the issues are always a spectrum.”