Latino business leaders in Seattle face a unique set of challenges, but also bring a refreshing portfolio of personality traits and creative skills to the local startup scene, according to three panelists at Tuesday’s Startup Grind event.
The panel discussion and networking event was part of Startup Week, a five-day celebration of entrepreneurship in Seattle, and hosted in the Galvanize collaborative space in Pioneer Square.
“I’m trying to figure out if this was a positive reflection of the progress of Latinos in startup technology, or if it was more of a talk about the hardships that are still happening,” attendee Facundo Nishiwaki said afterward. “I think there was a mix of both.”
The panelists discussed whether their backgrounds had contributed to their inclination toward entrepreneurship.
“For my family of Jewish immigrants, landing in a new country and starting something from scratch is the thing you did,” panelist and Algorithmia founder Diego Oppenheimer said.
Oppenheimer’s grandfather opened a corner store. “It was out of necessity… But me, growing up, it was the only thing I wanted to do.”
Panelist Leslie Feinzaig, whose family is Costa Rican, said she didn’t have much of a choice when her family immigrated to the United States.
“Costa Rica (is) not a super-entrepreneur country because it’s very risk averse,” Feinzaig said. “I don’t think there is a single, unique entrepreneurial DNA. But we are a lot more social, a lot more friendly, a cohesive place.”
A lot is going right in the American entrepreneurial world as well.
We hear so much about racism in hiring practices, but the panelists really saw a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs in the business world. They saw no difference between a company hiring, in host Mike Grabham’s words, “an engineer from Kansas,” and an engineer from a Latino background.
“The good thing is they’re colorblind,” Feinzaig said, “but I don’t know that enough people are making it through the funnel.”
The funnel she refers to is Latino STEM students entering the workforce.
“People describe technology as being a meritocracy,” said former venture capitalist Enrique Godreau. “But that assumes we are all starting from the same place.”
The panelists agreed that, to an extent, they had to “check their Latino at the door,” or adopt different social norms to function in the American business world.
As a Latino and a woman, Feinzaig said she suppressed her mannerisms.
“Sometimes I don’t know if I’m checking my woman at the door or my Latino at the door,” Feinzaig said.
Godreau said he downplayed his Latino traits in the past, but now he lets his Latino values and empathy permeate his decision-making process.
This has proven to be an advantage in certain scenarios, he said, like when expanding into new markets.
Svetlana Zverev says she attended the event to connect with other women business owners. Zverev, the founder of Seattle nailcare business Pediworx, is of Russian background, and said she wishes the Russian community held similar networking events.
“It’s great to learn how women feel in business,” Zverev said. “When someone is comfortable and proud of their business, the most important thing is to find a place in the community.”
As Latinos, the panelists said they are becoming less of a minority in the United States. Homogeneity is becoming overrated, and the most creative ideas come from diversity in the conference room.
“An uncommon identity,” Godreau says, “is the most valuable thing in the world.”
Jennifer Karami is a part of the News Lab program at the University of Washington.