Welcome to Idea City Austin Encourages Latino Entrepreneurs

Austin is known for many things---as the Live Music Capital of the World, for its laid-back residents “keeping it weird,” and for being liberal in the midst of a very conservative state. But one thing it’s also known for is the spirit of entrepreneurial innovation. One of its major industries is technology, including telecommunications and social media. Austin is fertile ground for start-ups, and it’s often referred to as “Idea City,” also the name of a leading advertising agency in town.

Along with a growth in technology and business, Austin has also seen a surge in the Latino population. According to the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, there are 538,313 Hispanics living in the Austin Metro Area, nearly one third of the total population of 1,716,291. Between 2000 and 2010, the Hispanic population increased by 64%. This growth accounted for 45% of the total growth in Austin.

During the past five years, the Hispanic purchasing power in Greater Austin has grown by 54% to $9.4 billion. In Central Texas, there are 33,000 Hispanic-owned businesses, with most Hispanics earning between a range of $35,000 and $75,000 per year.

It’s also important to consider the next generation of business owners. Hispanic students represent a large part of the education system, as they represent almost 60% of the Austin ISD student population. There are various organizations working to make sure that the next generation receives the training and mentorship needed to continue succeeding.

Más Wired is a nonprofit news site dedicated to highlighting the work of Latinos in the digital space. As stated in their website, “There are currently Latinos paving the way for the next wave of Latino engineers, inventors, scientists and teachers. We want to tell their stories.” In states like Texas and California, two of the most populated states in the country, the majority of today’s school children are Latino, and they will enter into a world immersed in technology.

Sara Inés Calderón, who writes for Más Wired, says, “The demographic shifts in the country mean that, unless Latinos get into tech, companies are not going to have enough workers, since literally every industry in the future will run on technology.”

Latinos in Social Media (LATISM) is known for its annual conference that focuses mainly on blogging, social media, and marketing, and has expanded to meet the need for more Latinos in technology. This year, during the ultra-hip SXSW conference in Austin, LATISM hosted a casita for tech startups in the Latino community. “As you all know, less than 2% of venture capital funding is going to Latinos in technology startups,” says LATISM founder Ana Roca Castro. “The main reason for this scandalous divide is access.  Latinos find themselves in a significant disadvantage when it comes to the finances needed to attend the big conferences like SXSW.”

Texans for Economic Progress (TEP) is a statewide advocacy group driven by a core belief that greater access to technology is critical to job creation, innovation and prosperity for the Texas. Their mission is to inform, educate and connect the technology community relative to three key issues---education, entrepreneurship and infrastructure---that intersect every aspect of technology.

“TEP works for increased access to the benefits of innovation for everyone across the state. Among Texans who have historically been on the wrong side of the ‘digital divide,’ Latinos are leading the way in alternative ways to access the Internet, such as through their mobile phones,” says the organization’s executive director, Chelsea McCullough. Many Latinos rely on mobile broadband as a substitute for home broadband service. TEP encourages elected leaders statewide to recognize the diversity of users in the Internet ecosystem, by closing remaining gaps in connectivity and supporting a regulatory environment that results in more access and increased choices for Latinos and all consumers.

While organizations such as TEP are working on the policy end of the technology issue, others are working from the ground up to provide training to future business owners. According to the Small Business Administration, about 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years due to lack of training and poorly developed strategies. Minority-owned businesses are at an even greater disadvantage, with a significantly lower survival rate.

The Economic Growth Business Incubator (EGBI) equips underrepresented individuals in Greater Austin with the educational toolset to establish their own businesses. They strive to offer entrepreneurs world-class business training and incubation resources that bring products and services to market. One of the key objectives of EGBI is to close the gap between women and minority entrepreneurs and their mainstream counterparts.

“EGBI provides our budding business owners with the skills necessary to develop their business plan, establish growth strategies, and develop and improve management, business relations and communication skills,” says Al Lopez, EGBI Executive Director. Prior to joining EGBI, Lopez was a finance executive at Dell for eleven years, most recently serving as Vice President of Finance for Dell’s Global Services & IT organization. Previously he spent 21 years at IBM in various financial management and executive positions.

Austin is also home to Las Comadres para Las Americas, which just graduated the first class of its pilot Empresarias program. A group of aspiring Latina immigrant entrepreneurs were selected to participate in a business incubation program where they pitched their final business concepts to judges on a panel. Dr. Nora Comstock, founder and president of Las Comadres said, “The goal is that all our graduates would become successful business owners and mentors for future Empresarias.”

Comstock, whose passion is building community and sharing resources, used her technological background to take the organization a step further. What begun as a social networking group to build friendships has grown into an international effort to build professional collaborations and opportunities---in the areas of business, technology, as well as in the arts.

Established in 1973, the Greater Austin Hispanic Chamber of Commerce (GAHCC) has a primary goal of continuing the advancement and progression of a strong and stable economic culture for Hispanic businesses. The Chamber strives to reach these goals by developing business and management skills and bridging access to financial capital and maintaining cultural values and integrity. The organization recently saw the departure of its President and CEO Andy Martinez. Longtime public servant Lupe Morin is now serving as the interim President and CEO.

Earlier this year, the GAHCC hosted a Technology Symposium with successful business leaders providing business advice to local entrepreneurs on the best use of technology. Panelists included Stephen Carney, manager of Google Enterprise Business; Joseph Cardenas, mobility applications consultant for ATT; and Jonathan Libby, manager at  IBM. Stefan Molina, Director, Foundation and Program Development at the GAHCC, says “The technology symposium was an opportunity to talk about what’s up and coming and going on right now in technology. We also wanted small business owners to have access to these companies and increase their knowledge about what these companies can offer them.”

The GAHCC Economic Summit takes place in December focusing on the $15 billion growing Latino market. “We spend a lot of money. Our demographic is growing very quickly and we contribute a lot to the economy here in Austin,” Molina said. “We are doing our best to be the voice for Hispanic businesses in Austin.”

In addition to hosting various events throughout the year, GAHCC also runs programs to foster and sustain Hispanic entrepreneurship in Austin. The Economic Development Department focuses on supporting local businesses through the Access to Capital Triage Program, by providing information on small business certification and promoting bid opportunities online. Hispanic Austin Leadership (HAL) provides business leaders and professionals an opportunity to develop civic awareness in the Hispanic Community, leadership skills and a network of colleagues for life.

GAHCC is also fostering the presence of Latinos in social media through its Social Media Ambassador program. The mission of the program is to enhance the GAHCC brand, expand external online communications, and build an engaged member community.  In 2013, GAHCC was selected as one of the “Top 100 Most Social Media Friendly Chambers of Commerce in the U.S.”

As Austin continues to grow, it’s going to be more crucial than ever for nonprofit organizations, community leaders, and entrepreneurs to work together to make sure that Latinos continue to be part of this growth.