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Latino business leaders concerned about Trump policies

Karen Morales
Latino business leaders concerned about Trump policies
Reimagine Play founder Betty Francisco makes a point during The State of Latino Entrepreneurship, a forum held held at the PLUG co-working space in Kendall Square. (Photo: Karen Morales)

With President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration approaching, his anti-immigration and visa reform rhetoric has caused a lot of uncertainty among the Latino business community in Massachusetts, particularly regarding the cultivation and retention of Latino talent.

A public conversation on “The State of Latino Entrepreneurship” was organized by three local entrepreneurs last Wednesday to outline concerns, critical next steps and how to support one another in the business community.

Leading the discussion were Nicole Castillo, co-founder of BeVisible; Betty Francisco, founder of Reimagine Play and the Latina Circle; and Oliver Sanchez, CEO and founder of PLUG, a co-working office company in Cambridge where the event was held. Fellow self-starters and business-minded types were in attendance, many of whom are originally from Latin America.

Issues examined included visas and immigration, diversity and inclusion, investing climate, maintaining top talent and social impact.

One of the most pressing topics for the group was how visa and immigration reform, specifically affecting the H-1B program, would affect foreign-born, U.S.-based talent upon which the innovation and technology industry thrives.

Currently, the H-1B program allows U.S. employers to hire skilled, specialty workers, particularly scientists, engineers, or computer programmers, on a temporary basis. H-1B visas are capped, enabling immigration of 65,000 workers and 20,000 graduate student workers each year. Some firms such as Microsoft utilize the visa program to hire highly skilled workers and compensate them well, because they are in short supply in the U.S. But other companies, such as Infosys, use the visas to outsource to lower-paid contractors to cut costs.

A business problem

Although the groups that most benefit from the H-1B program tend to be Indian IT outsourcing companies, restrictions to visa programs may have a negative impact on innovation in the U.S., which relies on diverse and global talent, including Latin American workers and entrepreneurs.

On the other hand, restrictions to work visas “may create a greater incentive and opportunity for training programs in the U.S., which can cultivate local talent to fill high demand jobs in the tech industry.” said Francisco.

Reform also could mean setting higher minimum wages and giving priority to companies that sponsor H-1B workers for green cards, although Trump has said he would want to give preference to American workers. But how many Americans, especially those of color, are actually being trained and educated in STEM fields?

This was another major point in the discussion. “How do we foster innovative talent to U.S.-born Latinos?” event leaders asked. Why aren’t more so-called “high risk” and “inner-city” kids being exposed to industries that are high-paying and have low-cost access, like food, financial services, hospitality, and technology?

“Schools are, and should be, rethinking how to develop the future workforce by teaching students 21st-century skills needed to compete in this information and tech-focused global economy,” said Francisco. “New teaching models that don’t always require a college education, such as coding bootcamps, will offer alternatives for students and much needed talent to employers.”

The entrepreneurs also considered the climate of hostility and intolerance that has become more palpable during and after this election season.

“The normalization of xenophobia and racism could drive foreign entrepreneurs or even U.S.-born Latin Americans to think twice about forming a business here,” said Sanchez.

“The problem does not begin and end with the so-called pipeline problem for diverse talent,” said Castillo. “We need to ensure that once diverse candidates enter these jobs, the environments promote inclusivity and continue to retain them.”

According to a Pew Research Center 2016 analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data, Hispanics are the youngest major racial or ethnic group in the United States. Nearly six in ten Hispanics are Millennials or younger, which means they are the largest upcoming workforce. “How do we uplift this tremendous demographic?” the discussion group pondered.

Francisco also talked about wage gaps. She cited the 54 cents Hispanic women are paid for every dollar white non-Hispanic men are paid. “Sometimes our own Latino culture and upbringing affects how we navigate networking and negotiating in the U.S. Some Latinas feel subconscious guilt when they ask for more pay because they may already be making much more money than their parents,” she said.

“To advance and help close the pay equity gap, we should all be looking at market data and negotiating our worth based on our unique skills and the value we bring to the employer,” Francisco added. In other words, look at how others in your position and with your skill set are getting paid and make sure you are getting your fair share from employers.

Collective effort

Concrete solutions and strategies to these issues are being considered and executed. Sanchez said that PLUG is planning to launch an accelerator program with LatAm, a Latin American startup development company, in 2017 called LatAm Accelerator PLUG XL. “The accelerator fund looks to invest in early stage LatAm founders looking to globalize their startup in the U.S., specifically Boston,” he said. “Through the program we give entrepreneurs access to opportunities for funding and revenue. We are creating bridges, not walls.”

PLUG also plans to post Businesstown videos on their website, which are how-to expert videos on building a business, with Spanish and Portuguese translations so as to increase accessible information for area Latino entrepreneurs.

The Latina Circle, a nonprofit social network for Latina professionals, will start a directory of Latinx-owned businesses to provide more visibility and cross marketing opportunities in the next couple of weeks, Francisco said.

The fitness entrepreneur, who has invested in startups herself, suggested a new idea to pursue in the Greater Boston area. “Forming an angel investing group focused on Latinos, which provides access to capital, mentorship and resources, could help more Latinx-owned startups to launch and rapidly scale,” she said.

Overall, Francisco said she would like to see more visibility and networking. “We should be more collaborative about getting to know each other in Boston. I want to see more that comes from us, and investing in our own people,” she said.

Castillo, Francisco and Sanchez are planning to continue conversations like “The State of Latino Entrepreneurship” with other Latino leaders in the near future.

On the Web

Reimagine Play: www.reimagineplay…

Latina Circle: www.latinacircle….

PLUG Cambridge: http://plugcambri…