Facing a crowd of over 100 people, Nilton J. Serva, a 19 year-old Latino entrepreneur, pitched his idea for an app that connects career mentors with Latinos and Latinas. An audible “Wow!” was heard from the audience as a teammate showed a mock-up of the simple, elegant app on the screen with sections for career credentials, a profile photo and ratings.
Serva, whose family lived in a single-room home after they lost their house, said he spent time in a juvenile hall in eleventh and twelfth grade and was just released earlier this year. Determined to change, he got a job, and is now studying business administration at Los Medanos Community College in Pittsburg, California, where he serves as a student government representative.
“The lack of mentorship is what led me to my bad decision-making and my incarceration when I was 16,” he told the audience. “After my release this March, I was able, through mentorship, to overcome these struggles and find my passion.”
His words were met with applause.
Serva’s idea was one of many at Startup Weekend Oakland Latinx Tech. The conference organizers used the gender-neutral term “Latinx” because they wanted to convey its inclusivity of people of all gender identities. “We use an ‘x’ at the end of the word to acknowledge that they are valid and that their experience is being recognized,” said Aleandra Leynez, a participant at the conference.
Held at the Kapor Center for Social Impact in downtown Oakland, the three-day event was one of the first of its kind focused on solving issues faced by the local Latin American community. After a Friday night event covered the basics of forming a company, about 70 attendees grouped into teams to gather market research and prepare pitches under the guidance of mentors.
Participants ranged from community college students to working professionals at companies like Apple. They came with a broad range of backgrounds, from business and engineering to design.
The conference was part of a series called Startup Weekend run by startup-accelerator Techstars in Boulder, Colorado. The organization started nine years ago, and to date, it has worked with local hosts to organize nearly 3,000 conferences around the world including in Pune, India and Lyon, France.
While the Latinos and Latinas make up 15 percent of the U.S. population, they make up only three percent of the workforce at companies like Facebook and Twitter, according to their latest diversity reports. Carolina Huaranca, a venture capitalist at Kapor Capital who organized the event, said she wanted to come up with a program specifically for this community because of the connections that can be made at this kind of event. “My north star is about giving access to a community,” said Huaranca. “In venture, I give access to capital, I give access to advice and to networks and that’s what I want to bring to this particular experience.”
Organizers said they pushed to bring participants who usually would not come to a startup event. A team of representatives visited community colleges and looked for students interested in technology. They also found sponsors for those who couldn’t afford the registration fee. Uber donated free rides.
“There was so much behind-the-scenes grassroots efforts that were done to bring the community together,” said Huaranca. “It wasn’t just putting a Facebook ad out there.”
In the end, nine teams competed in a pitching session before a panel of judges. The three judges were Monique Woodard, a venture partner at 500 Startups which focuses on funding companies with black or Latino founders; Laura Gómez, the CEO of Antipica, a company that uses artificial intelligence to analyze diversity in hiring patterns; and Mitch Kapor, founder of Kapor Capital, a venture capital firm dedicated to promoting diversity. Each team gave short presentations. Ideas varied from micro-lending platforms to a program that shows via virtual reality how minorities are treated in the world.
“My advice is to pilot this as soon as possible,” said Kapor after Team Prezta pitched an idea for an app that allows people to set their terms and loan money to friends and family.
Team Prezta won the grand prize: three months of co-working office space at Impact Hub in Oakland; half off tuition at Make School, a program that teaches students how build products and code apps; and four hours with the Kapor Capital investment team.
Woodard said she was impressed by how the participants’ ideas spoke directly to challenges faced by the Latinx community. “This was a very good way for people to come together and start something very nascent and keep it going for the next few months or years and see what can actually come out of that,” said Woodard.