Meet Three Latina Tech Founders Challenging Diversity Statistics
In 2017, only 16 percent of startups had a female co-founder or founder.
Although there are no hard statistics out there (that we know of), it’s probably safe to say that the number of startups with a Latina co-founder or founder is likely in the single digits percentage.
Cecilia Corral, a Latina co-founder of San Francisco social enterprise not-for-profit startup CareMessage, was so frustrated by the lack of media coverage and attention paid to Latina tech founders that she set about uncovering them herself.
“Vanity Fair recently published an article entitled 26 Women of Color Diversifying Entrepreneurship, but the only problem is they notoriously excluded Latina founders,” she wrote me in an email. “I’ve grown tired of the responses I keep getting about Latinas not having raised enough capital to be included.”
The lack of Latina inclusion in the Vanity Fair article inspired Corral – who also serves as VP of product at CareMessage – to compile her own list of Latina entrepreneurs who have raised more than $1 million in funding. Her list includes 35 women with a variety of backgrounds and includes more than just tech companies. (For the record, her own company has raised $19 million in venture funding from the likes of Google and YCombinator)
We decided to profile three of the founders who made Corral’s list so we could learn more about their companies and backgrounds.
Founded in 2014, the smart mattress cover startup develops software and hardware products that aim to “optimize sleep to perfection.” Eight has raised nearly $30 million from investors such as Khosla Ventures,Y Combinator,Yunqi Partners,Comcast Venturesand StartX. It has over 20,000 customers and its smart mattress cover is sold via retailers like Amazon, Costco and Walmart.
Of four co-founders, Zatarain is the only female and only Hispanic. The other co-founders are three males of Italian descent.
Zatarain, 28, was born in San Diego but raised in Mexico. She moved back to the U.S. after college, and said she only recently became aware of how many Latina founders are out there.
“We’re really a minority within a minority,” she said.
Zatarain estimates there are even more Latina founders but that part of the challenge is that many venture firms or incubators don’t necessarily asks founders about their ethnic backgrounds or track that kind of data.
Plus, in general, it is simply not immediately evident when someone is Hispanic or Latin, Zatarain points out.
“We all look so different,” she said. “It can be a challenge when talking about identity. People don’t immediately identify me, for example, as being from Mexico. Sometimes that can be easier with other minorities and backgrounds. How you identify yourself and how others identify you doesn’t always match, unless you make it part of a public persona.”
Raising money was much harder at the beginning, Zatarain said. But in general, she said she’s never experienced a moment where she feels like she was treated “less than” her male co-founders.
“I’ve also never encountered a situation where I [felt] mistreated or treated in a condescending way,” she said, “Our challenges were more in that none of us had a background that fit the mold of what a lot of investors look for. We didn’t graduate from an American university, and certainly not from an Ivy League school. All of us have an accent. Three Italians and a Mexican starting a company in San Francisco made it a little hard on all of us to have that sort of camaraderie that can form between investor and founder.”
However, Zatarain does believe that if she didn’t have three male co-founders, that she would have faced many more challenges in building a company and raising funds.
“It’s kind of sad to think about,” she said, “but if I were alone or on an all female team, I don’t think I would have been able to build the same relationship with investors.”
Awareness is key. Zatarain was stunned to realize how many other entrepreneurs that graduated from the same university in Mexico that she did.
“I asked myself, ‘how is it possible that I don’t know them, and that we were not aware of each other’s existence,” she said. “This shows that we really need to organize ourselves as a community and get more women and people from different backgrounds in positions of power and leadership.”
Kristen Sonday is COO and co-founder of New York-based Paladin, which aims to help legal teams run more efficient pro bono programs. Founded in 2015, the startup works with Fortune 500 companies, law firms, law schools, and bar associations to staff, manage, and track pro bono work. It has raised about $2 million in funding from investors such as Chaac Ventures.
In a seed round that it’s about to close, Paladin has broadened its investor base to include funds focused on diverse founders such as MergeLane, Backstage Capital and Harlem Capital Partners, as well as some investors in the B2B SaaS, legal, and impact spaces as well.
Paladin was also a part of the recent Techstars Chicago cohort, and participated in the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce/1871 accelerator program.
Sonday – a Princeton University graduate who is 30 years old – previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and served on the founding team of a New York City-based tech startup called Grouper. (She was also named a 2017 ABA Woman in Legal Tech to Watch, ABA Journal Legal Rebel, and FastCase 50 honoree.)
In 2017, she also served as Google for Entrepreneurs’ Code2040 Entrepreneur-in-Residence at 1871, representing and promoting Black and Latinx founders.
With a Puerto Rican mother and a Persian father, Sonday said she saw Paladin “as an opportunity to leverage technology to increase access to justice.”
“In the U.S., there is a professional responsibility for every attorney to do 50 hours of pro bono work but 86 percent of low-income people who need help don’t get it, according to the Legal Services Corporation,” she said. “This particularly affects women and minorities. We realized there was very little to no existing tech infrastructure to support the pro bono system.”
When it comes to raising funds, Sonday acknowledges it’s “definitely difficult” to raise capital as both a woman and a minority. Early on, their investors were angels who are aligned with the company’s mission. More recently, the startup’s investors have broadened to also include those focused on diverse founders. In general, Paladin is aiming for a well-rounded investor base.
Participating in a Latina Entrepreneurship program was helpful, Sonday said, because “you’re able to be introduced to other folks who look like you.”
“It’s really important to have that exposure and opportunity for mentorship from people who are going through, or have gone through, similar things,” she said. “This provided access to capital and resources we wouldn’t have otherwise had – especially coming from a first-generation Latina background, my access was quite limited to other starting companies.”
Sonday and her co-founder don’t fit the traditional profile or narrative of other successful tech entrepreneurs, she said.
“There are successful Latina entrepreneurs out there raising capital and building great businesses,” she added. “Hopefully over time, the more women who can raise and have successful exits, the more we can change the face of what success looks like in tech.”
Corral’s list, while impressive, demonstrated how much further Latina entrepreneurs have to go, according to Sonday.
“I think being a woman in tech is hard as there’s an extra level of expectations and you have to work ten times as hard to prove yourself. Plus, there are so many issues that specifically affect diverse communities,” she said. “We’ve definitely experienced different situations in fundraising and selling than our male counterparts. There’s an element of being underestimated and being able to use that as motivation to go above and beyond.”
Brazilian native Daniela Perdomo co-founded GoTenna in 2012 with her brother, Jorge, in Brooklyn just after Hurricane Sandy tore through the Eastern Seaboard and knocked out power and cell service for thousands of people.
Taking out nearly a quarter of all cell towers, the storm rendered communication virtually impossible at a very crucial time.
“Given we have supercomputers (phones) on us all the time, we decided that wasn’t acceptable,” Perdomo, 32, recalled. “There needed to be a resilient phone-to-phone network that was people-powered, not dependent on large-scale solutions that fail us when we need them most.”
GoTenna creates decentralized connectivity through what it describes as the world’s first mobile, long-range mesh networks via peer-to-peer communications devices. It has two devices on the market, goTenna Mesh and goTenna Pro, both of which create independent mesh networks that let users send texts and share GPS locations without cell service or wifi. The devices pair to regular phones as the interface.
GoTenna Mesh is the company’s consumer device and began shipping mid-summer 2017. It has been adopted by more than 100,000 people and available in 42 countries, according to Perdomo. Each node acts as a relay for other devices, extending the range for everyone in the network.
Like Zatarain, Perdomo – who grew up in Sao Paulo and moved to the U.S. when she was 18 – believes the Latinx population is harder to quantify or identify because it comes “in literally every color.”
“Even our names don’t always clarify things,” she said. “Latin America is a melting pot.”
When it comes to being a minority co-founder, Perdomo believes she probably gets discriminated against more due to her gender than her ethnic origin.
“That may also partly be because I am white,” said Perdomo, who serves as GoTenna’s CEO. “If I was brown or black, I might feel discriminated against for my background more. That being said, the data is quite clear — very few women and even fewer Latinas – get funded. The odds are stacked against us and the biases are definitely additive.”
In time, the number of Latina founders will inevitably increase. It’s up to us (as media) and them as savvy entrepreneurs to continue to build awareness for this growing group of bad-ass tech startup founders.
Illustration Credit: Li-Anne Dias
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