Ten years ago, the hope and aspiration for our Latino parents was that we become educated. Our parents put everything into us. They sacrificed, sent us to the best schools they could and as a result, many of us were able to attend college and pursue white-collar jobs. Latinos have made incredible progress in higher education in the last several decades. According to the Center for American Progress, the share of young Latinos enrolled in college doubled from 2009 to 2010, from 13 percent to 27 percent, but despite these gains in higher education, the goalposts are moving again. Just as we enter the white-collar economy, that sector is becoming increasingly insecure, while the growing innovation economy is offering immense rewards to entrepreneurs who are able to take risk. So while we are gaining ground in higher education, Latinos lack the economic and social capital to take advantage of these opportunities.
Ten or twenty years ago, for the children of the elite, the dream was to choose careers in law, medicine, consulting or finance. Today, the elite embraces entrepreneurship and the fast-paced world of technology and startups. This innovation economy has the potential to create immense social change and massive economic prosperity for those who have the opportunity to participate in it. It is quickly supplanting —and in some cases surpassing— the promises of the white-collar dream. What then does it take to break into the innovation economy and to start tapping into this potential? While you need a good idea, a great work ethic and strong mind, the secret ingredient, which remains inaccessible to many, is the ability to take risk.
While Latinos maybe succeed in some of these areas, we still lack the economic and social capital to take advantage of the opportunities of the innovation economy. The children of elite have the social connections to find investors and mentors for their businesses. They have the safety nets to take risks in their 20s. They have less college debt and can incur the opportunity costs of lost wages to work for startups. Many of the barriers Latinos face in the startups world, mirror those that we faced in college.
Washington Monthly recently wrote about a Journal of Economic Perspectives study, saying the following:
In college, black and Hispanic Millennials are more likely to have to work one or two jobs to get through, missing out on opportunities to connect with classmates who have time to tinker around in dorm rooms and go on to found multibillion-dollar companies together. Many of them take on higher levels of student debt than their white peers, often to pay for routine expenses, such as textbooks, that their parents are less likely to help them with.
This trend continues past college, as adults breaking into startup life, juggle multiple jobs and often cannot afford to work in an industry that can make significant demands on your life—while the gains remain insecure and far ahead. The cumulative results are striking. Aileen Lee documents how the founders of the most successful “unicorn” startups come almost exclusively from elite universities. According to economists Ross Levine and Yona Rubinstein, “entrepreneurs are disproportionately white, male and highly educated.” The innovations they create mirror their identities. The potential of the innovation economy is tremendous, and we need more Latino minds with these tools in their hands. Our communities need access to them to create social change and to increase our socioeconomic privilege.
How then do we help Latinos to level up?
- Make College More Accessible: Colleges and universities can be engines of social and economic mobility. However, they need to rebalance their financial aid packages to make these opportunities accessible to all. More grants and fewer loans (and work-study) should be offered. Students need the time to tap into resources while they are in school, but cannot do so if they are struggling to balance school and multiple jobs. Once they graduate, they lack the edge needed to break into the innovation economy when they start their life with stifling amounts of student loan debt.
- Promote Tech Equity: Accelerators —which offer funding, resources, support and mentoring for great new ideas— are this century’s version of higher education. As such, they must begin to see diversity as integral to their mission and success. How innovative is it, if it is not diverse and accessible only to a few? Accelerators and venture capital firms should disclose the number of minority founders that they have supported each year. Transparency will result in more accountability and change. The tech sector needs to continue to cast a wider net in recruiting, take a hard look at implicit bias in hiring and promotion, and realize the disparate impact created by unpaid versus paid internships.
- Spread the Social Capital: Networking, mentoring and sponsorship remain integral to success. With the help of technology, Latinos are successfully networking with other Latinos across the world. In addition to these efforts, we need more cross-group mentoring and sponsorships. While giving back and giving to those with less is important, taking someone along with you is powerful. It is critically important that everyone who has “made it” or “is making it,” especially non-Latinos, commit themselves to sharing the insider knowledge they were given and making a space for someone else outside of their network to have the same opportunities.
About the Authors
Nicole Castillo is a Latina feminist and blogger interested in social innovation and tech. She serves as the National Advisor to Millennial Issues at BeVisible.soy. Follow her on Twitter @niccastillo1017.