Discuss the state of Latinos and the technology economy, and you wind up with “a tale of two cities.” On the one hand, Latinos have been the early adopters of advanced consumer technology. Recent statistics bear this out in consumption of Over the Top (OTT) digital content, for example, where Latinos are already over indexing in consumption of streaming content over services like Netflix. The same holds true for smartphone ownership, and use of social media via a mobile device. On the other hand, we face a dangerous separation from high tech jobs, and are nearly nonexistent when it comes to tech startups and venture capital.
The reasons for this divide are connected to a much broader educational and wealth divide. The Silicon Valley investor class is all about network. Founders and investors meet each other years before they go out for capital in jobs at places like Google and Apple, and their forbears, like the now-defunct Netscape. These are companies whose employee bases have been obscenely lacking in ethnic diversity and have been lambasted as at least unfriendly or discomforting to women as well. Those facts remain to this day.
But really, the networks that result in access to investment capital and successful startup are established long before the big job and entrance to the valley’s big tech, innovate and disrupt culture. They are formed in elite colleges and universities, strengthened in exclusive social clubs and on the basketball court. The culture of entrepreneurship and cooperation is formed in social circles that are as exclusive, and homogeneous as they are innovative. It results in a tech culture that, for lack of attention to the problem, has not been inclusive enough.
What can we do about it?
Latinos are some of the most entrepreneurial Americans. Latinas are the fastest-growing segment of small business startups. And if you’ve strolled La Villita in Chicago, shopped on Broadway in Los Angeles, or eaten at the food trucks of Red Hook, Brooklyn, you know that there is a Latino small business culture bred by creativity, collaboration, and necessity.
In fact, Latino startup culture mirrors mainstream tech startup culture. So many tech startup founders start their business because of a burning desire to run their own ship, take care of their families, or because they simply need to do so in a tough economy. Many tech startup founders will say the very nature of work is changing, and they need to be entrepreneurial in order to establish the lifestyle they desire.
Immigrants and their children know and live those same factors.
To close the gaps — to direct the immense Latino talent and entrepreneurial energy toward the billions of dollars in entrepreneurial opportunity generated by the tech startup sector, we, as a community, must focus on three areas:
1) Early exposure to technology and skills. Neither Zuckerberg and Facebook, nor Gates and Microsoft happened at Harvard. Both of these geniuses fomented ideas and aptitudes as children and tweens with early access to advanced tech. (See Malcolm Gladwell’sbook, “Outliers”).
2) More Latino computer science majors (but not just computer science majors). The numbers of Latino CS majors are too low. One of the best ways to predict successful entree to a job in Silicon Valley, or a job in a tech company (and a six figure salary in one’s early 20s) is to major in CS. We must grow those numbers. But that’s only one side of the coin. To close the entrepreneurial gap, those majors also need early acculturation to the game — the strategy, the system that is capital raising and startup culture. Like learning to play Monopoly or checkers, Spades or Loteria, there are norms and ways of doing business that come with startup life. Those skills and attitudes require focused attention on entrepreneurial education, experimentation and practice at communicating ideas and going out for support. It takes workshops and mentorship, and a shift in the thinking of K-12 and post-secondary education.
3) Directed Networks. We need more Latino-focused startup and capital networks. LATISM has power and people – Latinos who care. Along with a focus on the policy issues of the day – immigration and healthcare, housing, and civil rights – access to capital and closing the techpreneur gap deserve equal focus and programmatic attention. The Latino techpreneur class can be grown at multiple points in the spectrum. The experienced corporate or nonprofit leader is an excellent candidate for startup life, as is the college student seeking to establish their own business and pursue their dream. The Mom blogger with an audience is a step away from a startup venture, serving her tribe with her own tech.
In the coming months, I will share thoughts on policy issues here on the #LATISM blog. This post is the most pertinent of those pieces. The most pressing economic issue facing Latinos and America is the growing wealth divide that could leave Latinos, other minorities, and rural and urban people at the wrong end of wealth in the digital economy. This should be the starting point for our policy discussions about equity in the digital economy.
By: Jason Llorenz, JD
Jason Llorenz, JD is an adjunct faculty member at the Rutgers University School of Communication & Information, and Senior Fellow at Rutgers OIDI. Follow him on twitter @llorenzesq.