The Valley isn’t interested

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The Valley isn’t interested.

The vision for this series is to surface and share insights of thought-leaders and trailblazers who live at the cutting edge of technology. While the opinions featured may not necessarily represent those of Verizon and its employees, we still believe that we can each learn from experiences and opinions of others, which is why we’ve chosen to feature them here. This dialogue is how we take the first steps towards making innovations that matter.

“It’s the golden age of the minority entrepreneur.” Nancy announces as we sit down to talk at her office at the Opportunity Finance Network (OFN). 

Nancy Santiago-Negron has been working for the betterment of underserved communities for her entire career.

Nancy Santiago Negron is a behind-the-scenes force, making things happen for underserved communities. An Obama Administration appointee from 2010 to 2014 in the Department of Labor and the Department of Education, she’s now the Chief External Affairs Officer at OFN. She is often on the road. I was glad to meet with her in person at OFN. Though it was a rainy day in Philadelphia, the lines of colorfully clad tourists and school trips lined up to witness the independence era monuments. As we sat in her office near Independence hall their gleeful voices echoed along the storied red brick walls and worn cobblestones.

“People of color and women aren’t getting those capital access points,” Nancy expresses strongly. Nancy sits cattycorner to me, on my right. On the walls around us are photographs and certificates, mainly from her time in Washington. “We have forward-thinking people and people with talent and are now seeing more and more connectors.”

Nancy is the example of a next-generation leader operating in our current era. She commands an air of positive electricity mixed with civic-minded humility. She is pragmatic with a keen sense for authenticity. She identifies the honest problem and can immediately visualize the solution and then matches the resources to the opportunity.

The next generation will be the agents of change

Throughout our conversation Nancy touched on the demographics of the emerging generations. The ample research and data on “millennials” and gen y or z, describes these new generations as inherently diverse, values-driven, seeking to change the world for the better. They are more tolerant than previous generations, and see the world as connected and mobile with the innate ability to gain information. Plus, they understand that competition is fierce, and opportunities are harder to cultivate. This is the world Nancy is working to empower. 

As we talk about access to capital, Nancy points out the current state of online lending. Nancy shared story after story of how online lenders are taking advantage of entrepreneurial people of color. Turning their opportunities into business closures and bankruptcies.

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“Online lenders sound good, but many are also predatory in nature. They are making their financial services available on mobile that reach black and brown communities who struggle to get loans for their businesses…You get capital that gets you inventory but then you see daily withdrawals from your bank account (many lenders have high fees) and now you’re being bogged now. However this is also the opportunity I see, how different demographic groups consume mobile, how they gain information. The more we can get a customizable mobile approach with greater access to the information and intelligence that empowers us, the more helpful, and not harmful, these needed services can be.”

New access points will close opportunity gaps

We then talked about funding Nancy identified how women and people of color aren’t part of the Silicon Valley ecosystem, and how current cultural prejudices work against women in the employment marketplace. Nancy exclaims,

“How does a woman find out what she is making when no one tells you? Women of color make 30-40 percent less than white men in the same position!”

Funding access points for underserved communities

This is the type of opportunity Nancy envisions, an app that provides immediate data points to empower women of color when they are making career and financial decisions. She notes that Silicon Valley doesn’t have interest in this type of service, but the new generations do. They are more community focused then previous generations.

She noted there are many new entrepreneurial access points for underserved communities popping up in places other than the Valley, such as in New Orleans and Washington DC. “Powermoves popped up in New Orleans where they saw opportunity, where they can’t keep losing people of color as small business owners…and Project 500, giving tools to disadvantaged businesses in need, to make an impact in the DC area. Now I am beginning to see the natural connections around minority and tech innovator-types with VC’s wanting to back them.” Though the Valley continues to seek the steroidal high-growth “Unicorns,” the new generations of investors don’t see money alone as the goal.

Community is the next killer app

Nancy confirms she’s seeing new businesses started by women and people of color are trending towards being community-minded, “The next big things will answer how we are solving a social problem, either for the planet, communities or one individual. Tech innovators of color are doing this to aim at, ‘what problem am I fixing?’” This is a movement towards the local, but with tech that can scale. Tech becomes the enabler for scale, not a replacement of the customer-facing authenticity of a service. These new entrepreneurs aren’t building robots for you to interface with. They are building robots to support people so they can engage with the right people.

“Here’s an opportunity, when we asked the small business owners what communities they most belonged to, they felt community-less. The only reference point they felt they could have is a community with other small business owners. No one understands their needs other than other small to mid-size business owners, but that they don’t have the time to meet up with those owners. They want to build a community and feel a sense of community.”

The Valley isn’t interested

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Our discussion continued to uncover the gap between the ambitions and entrepreneurial interests of women and people of color with the current interests of tech funding. We kept coming back to the notion that VCs are seeking the next big thing to be a one-size-fits-all solution that is meant to be for everyone, for a monoculture, but that the next generation is a multi-culture. Most of these one-size-fits-all projects are not considering minorities as part of their markets. “Are you talking to the next big community, and if you are not because you only want to create one solution, you are going to be missing something since it is a changing world and we are not paying attention to the one’s willing to spend their money…There is a lack of foresight and inability to look past what we already know, and there is no planning for these communities. If these communities are making headlines (about millennials being multicultural) then why aren’t we planning for them?”

As we shook hands and said our good-byes, Nancy pointed to a civil rights poster on the wall behind me, “See that, we’re losing that generation. These new minority generations will be the ones to take their place. It’s a golden age.”

Nancy will make sure that this happens.

Read more conversations from this series:

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