I Immigrated to the U.S. When I Was 17. I’m Now Part of the 2% of VC-Backed Startups Led by Latinx Founders.

Elias-Torres-Hispanic-Heritage-Month

I was 17 when my mom, my two brothers and I immigrated to Tampa from Nicaragua. 26 years later, I’ve founded two companies and am currently the founder and CTO of Drift, one of the fastest-growing SaaS companies in the world. And, my co-founder, David and I, are part of the just 2% of VC-backed startups led by Latinx founders.

It’s something I’m really proud of.

But — it was really hard. And I wouldn’t be where I am today if it weren’t for the help of a few key people I met along the way. My hope is that my story can show that anyone can have a huge impact on someone’s life and career trajectory – you just need to be willing to lend a hand.

My Tampa Community

When we decided to move to the United States, we were fortunate to have extended family already living in Tampa. Because like most people who move to a completely new place, we relied on the help of others to get settled. But what we don’t talk about enough is that the people many immigrants need to rely on for help are (more often than not) other immigrants who are struggling too.

So like many before us, and like many others now, we put down roots where we had a support system – in a low-income neighborhood, with people who had less education, lower-paying jobs, and smaller networks. It was our Tampa community that told us where we could find work, how to apply for food stamps, and how to secure subsidized housing.

It may not sound like much, but it was a new start. And that meant everything to me and my family. They may not have been able to tell us how to leave an hourly job for a corporate, salaried position – or why that should be a dream to aspire to in the first place. But as a 17-year-old, this didn’t matter to me yet. I was just amazed by the opportunities I had and was grateful for the community we found ourselves in.

Not long after we arrived in Tampa, I took a job at McDonald’s and started saving up to buy my first car – a Chevy Cavalier. It was something I could never have done in Nicaragua. During this time, I also worked at Albertsons bagging groceries and cleaned corporate offices – much like the one Drift is in now. I did anything I could to help my mom and our family pave our own way.

My Teacher, Judy Blanco

The first break I had, the one that helped me understand how far I could go, was at high school in Tampa. I attended a school that was almost 100% Latinx and – to this day – most of the students are eligible for free or reduced lunch. But I was pretty good at math, and so my teacher, Judy Blanco, asked me if I wanted to join the math club. I’d done a few math competitions back in Nicaragua and liked it, so I figured, why not. It was in that club that I was exposed to the top students in the school, kids who wanted to attend some of the top universities in the country. Schools I had never even heard of. Schools that, at that time, I couldn’t even point to on a map. Meeting these people made me realize that my own path wasn’t set in stone, that I had a say in what I did after high school.

Robert Boyd, Manager of INROADS

And it was because of this Judy Blanco, that I met Robert Boyd, who introduced me to the INROADS program. Robert has now been at INROADS for over 29 years and has worked tirelessly to develop and place underserved youth in corporate jobs and prepare them for leadership positions.

I was no exception. Robert helped get me involved in INROADS, a four-year program that not only helped me get a summer internship at Bank of America, but also coached me on how to interview, how to talk to a manager, and how to process feedback. He, and the INROADS program, prepared me to be successful. They knew that providing these lessons to an underserved community would help us change the trajectory of our lives.

Bill Lawrence, Former IBM Director of Diversity Recruiting

Even though I was given an internship through INROADS, throughout college I was always focused on getting a job. Starting in my freshman year, I’d show up at every job fair I could find, in my baggy suit and tie, with my resume. And every year, I would get laughed at – because they weren’t looking for a freshman or sophomore, or even a junior.

But that didn’t stop me. During my junior year, I followed a group of seniors to a job fair in Atlanta. That is where I met Bill Lawrence, the diversity recruiter at IBM. And, as you probably expect, Bill said he wasn’t interested…but he told me to come back next year. It was through Bill that I got my first job out of college, at IBM, where I worked for the vice president of the personal computer division. And interestingly enough, one of my first tasks was building chatbots.

Building chatbots was exciting work for me, but one of the best parts about working at IBM was getting to be a part of a few employee resource groups that exposed me to the Latinx community. I got to meet executives who had the same background as me and learn how they were growing their careers. They took me under their wing and helped me learn how I could be better.

After about 10 years at IBM, I moved to Boston. I was drawn to the growing tech community and began to explore opportunities at startups. But coming from IBM, no one from a startup wanted to hire me. I didn’t know the people, and I didn’t know the space. So I offered to help startups – for free – on nights and weekends, trying to build up my credibility in this new world.

David Cancel, co-founder and CEO of Drift

And that’s how I met David Cancel, another Latinx guy in the technology space. At the time, I was actually being recruited by someone I’d met who was trying to start a company. They wanted me to be their CTO and brought in David Cancel to help close the deal. But rather than wanting to work at the company I was being recruited for, I instantly knew that it was David who I wanted to work with. I felt comfortable with him. I felt like he understood me.

At the time, David had started a company named Lookery. What we didn’t know, was that two weeks after I joined Lookery as VP of Engineering in 2008, the market was going to crash. But I trusted David. I knew we could figure it out together. So when that company didn’t work out, and he asked if I wanted to start a new company with him, I didn’t think twice about saying yes. This was my first time as a co-founder. That company, Performable, was later sold to HubSpot in 2011.

Founding one company together wasn’t enough, and we ended up starting Drift a few years later.

My Ask

You would think that because David and I are Latinx, we would have a more diverse workforce at Drift. And it is something I have been focused on since day one. But I admit that we still need to do better. And it’s not just about focusing on statistics – it’s about fostering a more inclusive environment that would attract 18-year-old me, or 18-year-old David, or whoever.

So here is what I ask of all of you:

  • Be a role model: If you have the opportunity, think about how you can help those around you. Can you offer career advice? Mentor them in some way? We all need to bring others up with us.
  • Invest in building an inclusive workforce: I was lucky enough at IBM to have employee resource groups and other programs that encouraged people to pay attention to inclusivity. If you’re not seeing it, speak up. Or better yet, start something.
  • Engage with your community: One of the best things we’ve done at Drift is partner with programs like BUILD, Diversity, the Kapor Center, SMASH, Inner City Weightlifting, Mayor Marty Walsh’s Summer Jobs program and more. We also host groups at our office to discuss topics like diversity and inclusion. So I encourage you to get in touch with your own city officials or local groups to see how you can help.

Because it’s truly amazing what you can accomplish with a community behind you.

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