Nov 26, 2014

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Rewriting the Innovation Code for Latinas in Technology

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This post originally appeared on The Huffington Post.

In preparation for the upcoming Latinas Think Big Innovation Summit this October, at Google’s campus in Silicon Valley, I have been on a quest to identify Latinas around the country who are innovating in technology and across STEM fields.

I admit I stepped into this search with some trepidation – informed by reports and articles that continuously characterize Latinas as avid consumers and early adapters of technology, but significantly less engaged in the creation of new technology tools, in tech entrepreneurship or innovation.

But, as I delved deep into my social media networks, inquiring for names of Latinas who were innovating in technology, I began to see the new faces of innovation. Online research also revealed these new faces – as I pieced together “Top Latinas in STEM or Technology” lists, articles and interviews from online magazines, news digital platforms and blogs. Not surprisingly, I also found many of these women actively engaged on Twitter, Facebook and Google+ communities.

THE REVEAL: OBSERVATIONS AND INSIGHTS

My talent scout for Latinas in technology revealed some interesting observations and insights, three of which I outline below, followed by some recommendations to be considered.

Latinas are Not Just Consumers of Technology,
They are also Technology Innovators

Undeniably, Latinas over index non-Hispanics in the consumption of digital and mobile technology (Nielsen’s report presents robust data on this). But, it is important to recognize that Latinas are, indeed, contributing to and creating new technology tools across college campuses, at work and online. Furthermore, they are leveraging technology to grow their businesses, advance their careers, and create social impact in their communities. To illustrate this point, I highlight three women I recently came across – they will all be speaking at the upcoming Latinas Think Big Innovation Summit.

    • Meet Lisa Morales-Hellebo, the co-founder of the New York Fashion Tech Lab, an accelerator that she launched with Springboard Enterprises and the Partnership Fund for NYC. Her previous fashion tech startup, Shopsy, leveraged patent pending, smart data, remix technology to allow women to shop online the way they shop offline. Lisa is an alumna of both Springboard Enterprises and TechStars, and currently serves on the Board of Advisors for SNOBSWAP and Voysee.

 

    • Meet Zoraida Velasco, the Co-Founder of Dinnergy, an app created to introduce carbon budgeting principles into real world solutions, to bring awareness and foster real action towards energy reduction. The Dinnergy team will be launching the mobile application through a pilot program in partnership with Tufts University Dining Services. The program will focus on reducing emissions across the entire supply chain, providing energy and emissions data to dinning services and students across the campus.

 

  • Meet Judy Tomlinson, the CEO of FashionTEQ, a fashion-forward, wearable technology company, which combines high-tech with high fashion in conjunction with smartphone technology. Judy is also the Founder of CCO for AvocSoft, a company focusing on the development of mobile applications featuring simple user interfaces and powerful functionality. AvocSoft has launched a variety of successful applications, some of which have been ranked #1 in the U.S., Australia and New Zealand.

There many more Latinas in technology like Lisa, Zoraida and Judy. And, there are a greater number of aspiring and emerging women who are innovating in isolation, detached from the resources, networks and ecosystems necessary to advance their technologies.

Current Accelerator Models Are Not a Good Fit

It is no secret that the high-tech world is ideally suited for white, privileged males (often young and single). Consider the traditional models of accelerators – these are highly selective infrastructures especially designed to help launch and scale new startups. These programs connect tech entrepreneurs to mentorship, advice, practical training, resources, influential networks and investors.

There is a plethora of barriers obstructing women and, especially Latinas, from gaining access to top accelerators like the Y Combinator and TechStar. First, getting into these programs is fiercely competitive, with admissions rates as low as two percent. Second, female founders are a hugely underrepresented minority. In 2011, only four percent of Y Combinator companies had a female founder, increasing to 10 percent in 2013 – an all-time high. We can safely assume that the stats on Latina founders within these accelerators are staggeringly lower. This is precisely why Manos Accelerator, an organization that exclusively focuses on Latin American tech entrepreneurs, matters. Manos’ inaugural class had seven startups – five of them with Latina co-founders.

Yet, even with increased access to these programs, Latinas (and many women, in general) are faced with another limiting barrier: the 12-week commitment to leave their homes (often travel out of state) to immerse themselves in a highly intensive, long hours program. For Latinas, who place a salient value on family, the 12-week commitment is often a deal breaker.

Embracing the “Tech Startup” Label Matters

Consider Airbnb, an online platform that helps connect people who have space to rent with those who are looking for a place to stay. It was recently featured as a tech startup in Fortune Magazine. There are other similar examples of online ventures labeled “tech companies,” including Huffington Post, Care.com and AngiesList.com. Which brings me to Latina bloggers and digital media publishers.

For years, thousands of Latina bloggers and online publishers have been making their mark on the blogosphere, publishing relevant and informative content across all life-style areas. For a significant number of Latina bloggers, these online platforms are a business – they connect brands to targeted audiences, write product reviews, promote brand campaigns, write advertorials, and monetize incoming traffic with a range of ads and affiliate programs.

Yet, their business models have remained constrained within the blogging practice when, in fact, a large percent of Latina bloggers are tech entrepreneurs. Clara Gonzales is a good example. She is the Founder of DominicanCooking.com, a hugely popular online collection of traditional Dominican recipes. Since 2001, Clara, an Industrial Designer by profession, has monetized her platform using smart business models and scaling up to reach millions of people. She is, indeed, a tech entrepreneur running a tech company.

Do the tech startup and tech entrepreneur labels matters? Absolutely. Identifying Latina bloggers (who monetize their platforms) as tech entrepreneurs allows them to be included in a new conversation, and opens up new opportunities for business growth, support and funding.

RECOMMENDATIONS

How do we begin to address and close the innovation divide, as it pertains to Latinas in this country? This is an important conversation, and one that includes a policy-driven top-bottom approach, in combination with a grassroots bottom-up approach. Below, are three recommendations as starting points.

Local/Regional Latina-Focused Tech Networking Events Are Needed

Face-to-face connections with other like-minded Latinas and tech influencers can have a profound impact on the retention of Latinas’ enthusiasm and aspirations as tech entrepreneurs. Creating networking spaces and networking opportunities fosters role modeling, collaboration, guidance and exchange of ideas/resources. The upcoming Latinas Think Big Innovation Summit aims to achieve these goals.

Bring the Incubator/Accelerator to Her

Given Latinas’ high digital connectivity, virtual incubators/accelerators are an ideal model for reaching Latinas who do not have luxury of participating in traditional program models, where in-person attendance is required. While virtual accelerator programs are beginning to emerge, none are exclusively focused on the specific needs of Latina tech entrepreneurs.

One Size Accelerators Do Not Fit All

The level of expertise, experience and resources among Latina tech entrepreneurs is wide ranged. Programs designed to help advance their startups need to be flexible and accommodating, without sacrificing quality of training and mentorship. Besides flexibility in program structure, flexibility in time to achieving milestones is key. Programs need to meet Latina founders where they are at – in their startup journey. While some women might need 12-weeks to complete the program, others might need much more than that. Flexible incubators will offer Latina tech entrepreneurs more control over their startup experience, and a greater sense of self-efficacy, as they are able to better manage both their personal and professional commitments.

College Campuses as Pre-Incubators for Aspiring Latina Innovators

An increasing number of colleges are offering coding courses, computer science majors, entrepreneurship programs and access to innovation labs. Connections to mentors, resources and even seed funding might also be available through colleges, making these educational environments ideal tech ecosystems and incubators for aspiring Latinas innovators. Creating these opportunities at Hispanic-serving institutions, in particular, will help level the playing field for aspiring and emerging Latinas in tech.

REWRITING THE INNOVATION CODE FOR LATINAS IN TECH

Efforts to significantly advance Latinas in technology will require the identification and implementation of disruptive models to meet their needs and circumstances. The tech space needs an innovation makeover, with women – and Latinas of all walks of life – in mind. Most importantly, the technology industry needs to recognize that an industry without women representation is an industry in crisis.

Our country’s global economic power and influence greatly depends on our innovation competitiveness. Investing in the innovation of the fastest growing female population might yield the best return-on-investment in this country’s recent history.

Join us at the Latinas Think Big Innovation Summit, to continue this conversation.

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Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Angélica Pérez-Litwin

Dr. Perez-Litwin is the Founder & CEO of ELLA Leadership Institute, a multi-platform professional development organization designed to advance the careers and leadership of women. She's the creative force behind the LATINAS THINK BIG™ national tour, sponsored and live-streamed by Google.

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