Helping Hands for Latino Startups
Sequestered on the second floor of an unassuming office building in downtown San Jose, CA, a group of brilliant young Latino minds are hanging on every word from their mentor, Edward Avila. The ideas being molded in this room drive the engine of an entrepreneurial think tank. Shoes optional, the impossible encouraged. Days and nights planning, dreaming, questioning conventional wisdom, constantly bouncing ideas. No clocks on these walls. No filters, no “let’s run it past management.” It’s a place where young doers from across the globe converge to hone their skills, each aspiring to create their unique imprint on the digital landscape.
Welcome to the MANOS Accelerator. It was founded in hopes that more venture capitalist opportunities could be afforded to talented Latinos who just have not been exposed to this level of connectivity. In fact, with less than 1% of venture-backed startups founded by Latinos, there is a huge opportunity to develop this community and accelerate the growth of all this untapped entrepreneurial talent. MANOS is a mentor-driven incubator program that provides education, business resources, infrastructure and guidance for promising startup companies led by Latinos.
Silicon Valley has been very good to Avila. Working as a corporate coach, he caught the entrepreneurial bug early on. “I’ve learned so much from the business culture brought from places like India right here to San Jose. They took care of their own.” he remembers. It was though experiences with organizations such as the The Indus Entrepreneurs, fostering entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking, and education, that Avila saw the benefit of embracing culture and business.
So, drawing on his experience with venture capitalists and corporate coaching, he wondered, “Why couldn’t this approach work for us?” and the idea of Hoy was started. It was a platform to mirror what a lot of the networking groups Avila had worked with in the past had done, only concentrating on young Latinos. “Hoy, being the exact opposite of mañana,” he recalls. “Why wait for tomorrow when it can be done today?” Enter Sylvia Flores.
“Sylvia is a trailblazer herself,” admits Avila. “When I shared the idea with her, she talked about how she had a similar vision 10 years ago.” After a successful run at IBM, Sylvia Flores launched her own series of successful start ups. At one point, she had worked with the former President of Mexico Vicente Fox to establish a technology incubator for Mexican entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley. She too had longed for some way for Latinos to gain exposure behind the tech curtain. With a strong sense of purpose, the pair drew on their networking contacts to help them bring their idea to VC’s.
They were quite a formidable team, with Sylvia being more of the strategist, and Edward taking on the role of ambassador. Their passion and enthusiasm is contagious. They have the ability to pull you in and make you believe your ideas matter, that your dream has a place in this world. They devised a way to give Latino entrepreneurs those tools and Hoy became MANOS.
One of Sylvia’s endeavors had led her to work with celebrities like Jennifer Lopez. Her ideas quickly caught the attention of David Lopez, Jennifer’s dad. Indeed after several years in the restaurant business, David was in search of a new challenge. The idea of creating an environment for young Latinos to grow really excited D-Lo. The meeting is more fortuitous than what it seems on the surface. David actually has a background in computer programming from the early days of Silicon Valley in the 60s. He was eager to jump on board and complete the hi-tech troika.
“Obviously I had to re-learn a lot of technology and its lingo” admits David, but, “Things happened so fast! In five or six months we were doing it.”
With Edward and Sylvia’s relentless vision and David’s enthusiasm, the MANOS Accelerator was hatched. Avila admits trying to be too perfect in their initial planning. It was Mary Grove, Director of Google for Entrpreneurs, who encouraged them to just go for it. Her golden piece of advice was, “Be scrappy. Put the idea out there, you can always tweak later,” recalls Avila.
It began in July, 2013 with a press release asking any and all Latino entrepreneurs to apply. The response was overwhelming. It was picked up by the Wall Street Journal and Tech Crunch, and next thing they knew, the number of applications doubled. They had to whittle down the list to just seven applications out of over 70. The first MANOS Accelerator session featured two teams from Mexico and five from the U.S.
This momentum caught the eye of players like Kapor Cantor, the VC arm of the Kapor Center for Social Impact based in Oakland. Kapor’s Ana Diaz-Hernandez recalls an immediate connection. “Right away we could see the social impact coming from groups like MANOS,” she explains.“We invest in seed stage tech startups that generate both economic returns and positive social impact. We believe diversity in tech is a strategic priority to the industry.” Another alliance born. It’s through these strategic partnerships that MANOS passes on that endless supply of possibilities to its participants.
But the real magic is in the eyes of the entrepreneurs that fill the cubicles at its headquarters. This year’s teams came from Columbia, Honduras, Mexico as well as the U.S. Although most are focused on apps, they also feature online resources for musicians and wearable technology for women.
One team from Honduras was Cuestiona.me. Its founder, Alejandro Quintero, has created a platform for users to have access and interact with people of influence through a sophisticated question and answer forum. A question or comment that is supported by the majority raises above the noise of social media and becomes visible to whoever needs to addressed it, either a leader, organization or person of influence.
Last July, the groups competed in a startup showcase competition called “In The Tanque” at the annual NCLR conference in Los Angeles. Each team was given 3-5 minutes to pitch there ideas to an esteemed panel of judges, which included Rep.Tony Cardenas and Antonio Villaraigosa, former mayor of Los Angeles.
“The experience was priceless and we learned what we can do to get the kind of response we want from our ideas,” says Jesus Contreras, co-founder of MyBigame.com. This is a platform that allows gamers to infuse a little action in their gaming experience. Users can compete with friends anywhere around the world and earn a lot of money while showing off their skills.
MANOS is buzzing on a Friday morning. Young and eager minds are fueled by fresh coffee. Some participants arrive with just a backpack, shorts, flip-flops and a head full of coding. In fact, Avila shares the story of a recent conversation preparing for the NCLR conference. “I had one team member tell me he could not go to LA and present with his team,” Avila shares like a proud father, because he didn’t have slacks and shoes. So Avila took the young entrepreneur to a local department store and picked up a few staples any young exec should have. Lessons learned anytime, anywhere. Housing is ad hoc and some participants stay with Edward’s mom in her guestroom. Truly the spirit of familia. The three month program is grueling but rewarding. Participants are given three meals a day and their gratefulness is palatable.
What’s the latest for Team MANOS? The Angel Bootcamp is a program that explains how to make angel investments in early stage startups. MANOS’ vision is sustainable. Held November 10th in Palo Alto, the bootcamp attracted tech company recruiters and entrepreneurs from Harvard, Google and other heavy hitters from Wall Street and Silicon Valley. The day’s message was, “Angel investors are needed more than ever before to build and sustain a robust startup ecosystem of tech innovation and entrepreneurship within the Latino community.”
This vision is what has drawn the likes of Google for Entrepreneurs and Kapor Capital to MANOS. John Lyman, head of partnerships for Google for Entrepreneurs, is one of Avila’s greatest advocates. “We are very interested in ideas that have global reach and global impact,” explains Lyman. Google for Entrepreneurs has similar working incubators in Tel Aviv and London and soon in Warsaw. It’s encouraging that these hi-tech players are realizing the untapped potential that lives in so many untapped minds of Latinos, not only in Silicon Valley but all over the world.
MANOS realizes that to make dreams come true there are sleepless nights and never-ending work days. But exposing that tireless will to succeed to young entrepreneurs is a priceless lesson. One they are more than ready to pass on.
By Adam Mendoza.