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La Jefa

The Curve, CultureFirst, 2016—At a time when young white men dominate the entrepreneurial story in America (how many articles have you read about an Ivy League dropout with a multimillion-dollar, VC-backed app?), Latinas are leading a new wave of scrappy, grassroots, family-first start-ups that exemplify the old-school American dream and yet feel profoundly fresh. This matriarchal business model is appealing to consumers well beyond the Hispanic marketplace and to everyone who is seeking products, apps, and meals that are home-brewed rather than manufactured.

Latinas Rising

Some of the most interesting Hispanic-led start-ups can be found Portland, Oregon, which is pretty ironic, considering that its 76% Caucasian population makes Portland the whitest big city in the United States, according to The Washington Post.

But it was in Portland that Latina entrepreneur Melanie Davis founded the multicultural ad agency Su Público and Brilliant Media, which publishes the largest bilingual newspaper in the region, El Hispanic News. It would be easy to view Davis’s leadership in the region as partly hereditary: her maternal grandmother, Clara Padilla Andrews, was the first Hispanic Secretary of State in the country (for her home state of New Mexico), as well as a powerful activist in Portland’s Hispanic community for decades—she’s known locally as “The Godmother.” But while the blonde, light-skinned Padilla Andrews is often mistaken for an Anglo, people haven’t always known what to make of Davis: not only does she have an American-sounding last name, she didn’t learn to speak Spanish until she was in college. The fact that Davis sees herself as somewhat of an outsider (see Otherland) has strengthened her resolve to create her own opportunities and publish content that speaks to and represents minorities authentically and respectfully. Says Davis, “You’re not always invited to the table. You need to open the door and keep it open for others.”

Of course, La Jefa isn’t just about a Latina running a regional media empire, as impressive as that is. It’s about the growing momentum driving Latina entrepreneurs at a time when the national discussion is largely focused on how women aren’t leading in business or “leaning in” enough. The majority of the 11,000 Hispanic-owned businesses in Portland are Latina-led, according to Davis. Nationally, Latina-owned businesses grew a whopping 87% between 2007 and 2012, the most growth in any female demographic. And according to our study, twice as many Latinas as non-Latinas say they plan to start a business by 2020.

Latina women are twice as likely as non-Latinas to rate themselves as highly entrepreneurial (31% to 16%).

Alpha Mamas

Portland Mercado is the first and only Hispanic public market in the city. Developed as a business incubator to support immigrant entrepreneurs, the nonprofit initiative transformed a former car dealership into a food and retail space housing 21 Hispanic businesses, including a grocer, a butcher, a piñata shop, and eight food trucks decorated in vibrant colors. Proprietors hail from as far away as Cuba, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Mexico. This is where we met Doña Paula Asunción, or, as she’s known around the mercado, “La Mamá,” or “the Big Mom.” A widowed Mexicana, Asunción supported her six children for years by selling her homemade tamales on the street for a dollar each to supplement her meager earnings from working on farms and in fast-food establishments. Portland Mercado’s incubator helped her to develop a business strategy, get funding, and secure a retail space. Now Asunción has a thriving business selling her tamales at farmers’ markets and through her two Mixteca Catering food trucks.

According to the Portland Mercado’s general manager, Manuel Marin-Foucher Gomez, who helps select businesses through a process best described as “Shark Tank for Latino food,” the success of Asunción and other Latina women he’s mentored at the mercado is due to much more than a standout mole recipe. First, they’re risk-takers: some Latinas even mortgage their homes and sell their belongings to invest in a business. Second, they don’t feel entitled. Hispanic women know that success requires sacrifice (some even refuse to take breaks). And last, they keep it all in the family: parents, grandparents, and children all work together to make the business successful. Backing this up, 86% of Hispanics we spoke with agree that first-generation immigrants have a stronger work ethic than others. Respect for this bootstrapping mentality is certainly bridging cultures in the city: 80% of the Portland Mercado’s customers are non-Hispanic.

31% of Latinas, versus 19% of non-Latinas, strongly agree: “A benefit of entrepreneurship is being able to employ my family and friends.”

Melanie Davis offers another reason why female entrepreneurs are thriving: Leadership comes naturally to Latina matriarchs, who often hold an alpha-female position in the household. “They’re the bosses,” she says. “Moms make 70% to 80% of household decisions. They run the show and organize the troops. So being the leader just falls into their domestic flow.”

This brings up an interesting point: One of the motives behind Latinas’ entrepreneurial drive may be one of the same factors so often cited to explain why American women are falling behind professionally—maternal instinct. While headlines blare about female execs stepping off the career track to shepherd their kids through the pre-K years, many Latinas are stepping up their careers to get their kids through college.

Not only do Latina women have the support of their families, it’s also the need to support their families that drives them. Case in point: Doña Paula Asunción supported all of her kids in pursuing college degrees, and now all of them have returned to work for her—she employs 10 family members, including siblings, children, and teenage grandchildren.

So while some women opt out of a workforce in which freezing one’s eggs is actually considered a perk (Facebook and Apple both offer this benefit to female employees who choose to delay childbearing), Latina entrepreneurs are instead leveraging their careers to support, employ, and educate their families.

“Women entrepreneurs have to take care of their families. You’ve just got to do whatever it takes. And Latino families are always very supportive. You will always see the mom and dad working really hard and trying to offer their kids a better life.”

—Manuel Marin-Foucher Gomez, General Manager, Portland Mercado


Valley Girls

Latinas are breaking through in another predominantly white marketplace: tech. Hispanics are the largest minority in the U.S., yet Hispanic entrepreneurs are the largest unfunded community in the start-up ecosystem, receiving less than 1% of venture capital investment (according to the industry database CB Insights).

Enter Manos Accelerator, the first venture capital (VC) firm in the country to focus exclusively on funding early stage high-tech start-up companies founded by Hispanic entrepreneurs. Based in San Jose, Manos is helping to change the gender ratio, too: 40% of the entrepreneurs that Manos Accelerator supports are women. Manos didn’t plan it this way; it’s simply a result of picking the most deserving teams. Manos’s cofounder and CEO, Sylvia Flores, told us, “When I see a hustler, I know they’re going to get somewhere.” And when we asked what makes Latina entrepreneurs give such a good return on investment, her answer was, “We’re just badasses.”

By all accounts, Manos Accelerator has invested in some badass Latinas. After getting help from Manos, Pilar Manchón sold her artificial intelligence technology company, Indisys, to Intel for $25 million. Martina Montana cofounded People Spread, a search tool to find social media influencers. Fatima Ruiz cofounded the Make My Quince platform, which aims to disrupt the multimillion-dollar quinceañera market by allowing 15-year-olds and their families to plan the whole party via their mobile phones, from crowdfunding to choosing the dress and the cake. And Judy Tomlinson (who is 100% Latina, although you wouldn’t guess it from her married name) created a fashion-forward line of wearable technology, FashionTEQ, when she found herself unemployed during the last recession. Interestingly, Judy’s path to entrepreneurship is possibly more prevalent among Latinas: according to the National Women’s Business Council, minority women were more impacted by the recession than white women, experiencing consistently higher rates of unemployment from 2007 to 2012.

76% of Latinas agree: “Today, the American dream is to work for yourself.”

Aside from picking business investments wisely, Manos Accelerator is also unique in what it brings to the table: support, mentorship, and a familial vibe that you’d be hard pressed to find at cutthroat VCs like Y Combinator. “We believe so much in inclusion,” says Flores. “When the entrepreneurs get here, they’re like, ‘Oh my God, I don’t know anybody.’ And then they all get to know one another, and when the program ends, they all hug and cry. They become friends forever. It’s like a big Latin family here.” (See Inclusionaries.) In fact, many Manos alumni take an Uber straight to Manos’s offices whenever they’re back in Silicon Valley to mentor new entrepreneurs or check in with those who inspired them. This dynamic is further demonstrated by the fact that Manos is quite literally a family affair: extended family members have an open invite to all incubator events, and cofounder David Lopez often brings in his daughter—the superstar and epitome of La Jefa, Jennifer Lopez—to work with him and Flores on tech ventures. Thanks to this supportive family environment, Flores forecasts the rise of a Hispanic techpreneur of Mark Zuckerberg stature (or bigger) within the next five years. Fortunately, this isn’t such a far-fetched prediction, as more companies than ever before are implementing bold initiatives to appeal to women and minorities. For example, Intel established a $300 million fund to be used in the next three years to improve the diversity of the company’s workforce, attract more women and minorities to the technology field, and make the industry more hospitable to them once they get there.

89% of Hispanic respondents say there would be more Hispanic business owners if they could get access to funding.

Hack the (Gender) Gap

What’s perhaps most exciting about the momentum among Latina entrepreneurs right now is the profound impact it will have on the next generation of women. Mari Monzo is a second-generation Cuban American from Miami who moved to the Bay Area to start her own technology business (read more about her in TCK Rising). Monzo is tapping into tech labs and maker spaces and networking with other female “geeks” to learn JavaScript, coding, game development, circuitry building, and more. She and the one other woman she sees regularly at maker spaces have already naturally gravitated toward each other and started discussing ways to get more Latinas engaged in STEM (science, tech, education, and math).

While Monzo says that she finds Silicon Valley to be fairly racially diverse, she wishes there were more women to serve as an antidote to the pervasive bro culture. But that’s not stopping her from starting her own projects, from writing code for movement games to building hardware, like the necklace she wears that incorporates working red lights. “I busted my ass for so many companies,” Monzo says. “I’m tired of working hard for someone else’s idea. I know that I can teach myself whatever it is I need to make it.” Monzo’s not alone: 71% of Latina millennials say they have what it takes to start their own ventures, and 26% plan to make it happen within the next five years.

“Since our generation went to school and we’re in tech, believe it or not, our kids are probably going to be hackers.”

—Sylvia Flores, cofounder and CEO, Manos Accelerator


The Secret Sauce

Let’s take a look at the factors behind the success of Latina entrepreneurs:

“They’ll mortgage their home, their car, everything—and just put it into the business. They don’t want to think about it, they just do it. They’ve got nothing to lose, so why not take chances?”

—Manuel Marin-Foucher Gomez, General Manager, Portland Mercado

“When there’s no entitlement, you know you’ve got to work really hard. Because when you come from a country where you’re lacking things as simple as water, and then you come to this country and there’s so much access to resources, it’s perfect for them.”

—Manuel Marin-Foucher Gomez, General Manager, Portland Mercado

THE WILD (MID)WEST: While Portland, Oregon’s food truck scene is legendary, it wasn’t the only place where we found impressive Latina culinary entrepreneurs. In Detroit’s Mexicantown neighborhood we had a memorable meal at Loncheria el Parian, owned by Nancy Diaz. She describes food trucks as the Wild West of the food frontier: overhead is low, location is flexible, and creativity thrives. But if you want to have a successful food truck business, Diaz told us, you’ve got to hustle.

“When I see a hustler, I know they’re going to get somewhere and they’re going to get funded. There’s a big difference between someone that’s really persistent, with the personality to attract people to work for them almost for free, and a person that’s a one-man show.”

—Sylvia Flores, cofounder and CEO, Manos Accelerator


HOLA FAMILIA: In Charlotte, North Carolina, the relatively new and fast-growing Hispanic community is being brought together by the vision of one woman: Pamela Sanchez, the founder of the annual Hola Charlotte Festival. The daylong jamboree brings together more than 60,000 people to celebrate their heritage through food, music, dancing, and cultural exchange. And, like many Hispanic enterprises we encountered, it’s a family affair: Sanchez creates the yearly event through the sponsorship of her father’s media marketing company, Norsan Media, where the two work side by side.


DESERT ROSE: For Tamara Becerra Valdez, business is personal. Drawing on her Tejano roots, the Austin-based installation and archival artist creates desert-inspired botanical products for her apothecary line, Botanicals Folklorica, that are about form as much as function. Creations like her popular Madre Soaking Mineral Salts and Rose Floral Water hark back to Texas’s native medicinal landscape and keep her connected to her culture. The line also offers a field guide to the Chihuahuan Desert, Ode to the Desert, and a small book of photographs, both of which embody Valdez’s commitment to preserving and archiving her heritage through her work.

“Moms make 70% to 80% of household decisions. They run the show and organize the troops. So being the leader just falls into their domestic flow.”

—Melanie Davis, Publisher, El Hispanic News


“Women here in Silicon Valley have to figure it out for themselves. They have this great imagination. They really think outside of the box.”

—Sylvia Flores, cofounder and CEO, Manos Accelerator

Brand Opportunities


Now that the entrepreneurship story has been overtaken by the white 20-something techie in a hooded sweatshirt, more diverse takes on the American Dream narrative feel fresh and authentic.


A Latina face may offer a new and genuine approach to female empowerment, especially since Latinas over-index in entrepreneurial ventures and aspirations.


Take a page from VC firm Manos Accelerator and fund the ideas of Latina entrepreneurs: their outsider perspective just might give you the highest ROI.

Read next in Shifts
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