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Finding funding solutions for blacks, Latinos in tech: Rutgers-backed initiative hopes it can support these underserved communities

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Carlos Medina is the head of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Carlos Medina is the head of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. - ()

When Jose Martinez built his app and website, healthylunchmenus, in 2010, he didn't quite know how to get it onto the market.

Then, he got in touch with LATISM, Latinos in Tech Innovation and Social Media, which led him to a startup pitch competition in 2013 in Silicon Valley.

He took second place.

The idea was to allow people to instantly search for all the healthy dishes at restaurants around them — almost like a single filter for search options on a food finding app.

After the competition, he was told by many in Silicon Valley to drop everything in New Jersey and move in order to start networking and building up on his idea.

But he couldn’t.

As the son of first-generation immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, Martinez didn’t have family to financially lean on. So, he took the safe route of staying back in Lyndhurst to continue his design company, Pixl Graphx, with his business partner.

“I grew up in an urban area (Passaic), and we are not taught to be entrepreneurial or tech savvy,” Martinez said. “Lots of schools in urban areas lack technology, so we grow up with a major disadvantage.”

The launch of Rutgers University’s Black and Latino Tech Initiative last week aims to solve that problem in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.

Experts say African-Americans and Latinos have been unable to network in the same financial circles as others. It’s a problem Wall Street has recently focused on.

“Less than 2 percent of all technology startups are led by black or Latino individuals,” Lyneir Richardson, executive director of Rutgers’ Center for Urban Entrepreneurship and Economic Development, said.

“The reasons for this are two-fold: Black and Latino entrepreneurs have difficulty securing capital, and they also have challenges building business teams that get accepted into top tier accelerators.”

John Harmon, president of the African American Chamber of Commerce, is familiar with Richardson and his origins in Chicago.

“He’s used to seeing African-American businesses have greater capacity than what he is seeing here in New Jersey,” Harmon said. “I think (Richardson) is trying to replicate some of the strategies and do the same thing with black and Hispanic businesses here in New Jersey.”

Recent reports have shown a sharp increase in Latino-owned businesses, which is projected to continue its upward trend.

Martinez said that, although there is a gap in access for Latino startups, the internet and social media have helped level the playing field.

“At the end of the day, what percentage of Latinos in tech get funded is significantly less, but I do see there are now incubators all over the country and hot spots focused on the Latino base. But we are still a few years away,” he said. “It’s still growing.”

Carlos Medina and Luis De La Hoz, chairman and vice chairman, respectively, of the Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, are both cautiously optimistic about the Black and Latino Tech Initiative.

“My concern is that they really need to do the outreach, to find the people,” De La Hoz said. “What I see is a lot of people in this industry don’t want to identify as Latino. They think they have a better chance (with an angel investor) if they hide that and are considered part of the general market.”

In the case of African-American businesses, Harmon said that, in New Jersey, there isn’t enough outreach, either.

“They make announcements about these initiatives and assume everyone is just going to gravitate and participate in these opportunities,” Harmon said. “It just doesn’t work that way. It takes some cultivating, some relationship-building and some willingness to bring others into the marketplace.

“We really need more focused effort throughout the state to be more inclusive for capacity building.”

E-mail to: anjaleek@njbiz.com
On Twitter: @anjkhem

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