I would like to think that where other people see problems, I see opportunities.
Take the growing migration crisis, for example. Conflict and climate change are forcing people around the world to leave their homes in search of better lives. In my country, Mexico, young people are returning or being deported from the United States, and may not speak fluent Spanish or even know the extended family members they end up living with back in Mexico.
Or, take the problem of talent shortage in the tech industry. Tech companies, especially those outside the United States, are desperate to find people with programming skills. There simply aren’t enough qualified candidates with the right education, and the problem is projected to get worse.
Both of these issues could be seen as problems, but what if we looked at them differently?
Many migrants are young, of working age, and looking for employment opportunities. They want to expand their talents and grow their skills – they have ambitious dreams. When I look at this demographic, I see the incredible potential of this human capital and talent.
And so, three years ago, because I knew how badly tech companies in Mexico City needed programmers and I knew how badly recently deported young people needed jobs, I created Hola<code/>.
I thought that Hola<code/> could potentially support those parallel issues. I believed in my idea. But getting my new company off the ground meant facing a whole new round of problems.
My secret weapon against problems
Finding opportunities in problems is not a skill I was born with. It’s something I learned and continue to practice.
I have a background in social sciences, including a master’s degree in social development. That may not sound like the “right” credentials for a startup founder, but it taught me many of my most valuable business skills.
It gives me the advantage of being able to observe things in a more analytical way. Power dynamics, social intricacies, human desires, and capabilities – my background in social sciences helps me connect dots and find the opportunities in them.
When you’re building a company, that’s a skill you’ll use daily. Every day presents you with a list of problems you’ll need to address and solve. As your business grows, so do the scope of problems you need to find the opportunity in.
And when you are seeking funding for a business that sounds crazy, as a woman who has no business degree, it’s a skill you’ll need to exercise a lot.
The “crazy” dream
I should tell you a little bit about what made people call me crazy when I pitched them my business.
Hola<code/> is a five-month software engineering program focused on integrating returned or deported migrants and refugees into Mexico’s economy. The crazy part? To make the program as accessible as possible, students aren’t required to pay any tuition until after they have graduated and found a job.
The problem is that it’s risky. But it’s also an opportunity to innovate a new business model and redesign how people access education. It’s an opportunity to remove barriers that exclude people from the tech sector and increase the diversity of thought and experience in the talent pool of programmers.
At first, it was almost impossible to get anyone to listen.
I was asked why I didn’t start a nonprofit instead of attempting this risky business model? I was asked if I was even the right person to run the company, since I didn’t have a business degree. And, of course, I was already in for a difficult battle based on the numbers of how many women are funded from venture capital.
But here was another problem that I turned into an opportunity.
I used every pitch session to refine how I talked about Hola<code/>. I used every disbelieving statement and negative comment to get feedback on my business plan. And I kept going.
I kept going because I knew what I was doing.
I had pulled on my background in social sciences to do ethnographies of our target students and understand their dreams and ambitions. I had dug deep into the needs of tech companies, so I knew exactly what skills they were looking for, and what toolkit students needed if they were to land a good job.
I just needed resources to connect the pieces. And, because I refused to give up, I eventually got the funding I needed.
Seeing opportunities come to life
I want to tell you a quick story about one of our graduates. He lived in the U.S. since he was a toddler but was deported to Mexico as a young man for driving without a license. His Spanish wasn’t perfect, and he didn’t know anyone in Mexico. So, he slept on a distant relative’s couch and worked in a call center for minimum wage.
He went through our program while still sleeping on the couch and commuting every day from the outskirts of Mexico City. And after five months of hard work, he graduated from our program and landed a tech job that paid thirteen times what he was making in the call center.
He soon rented a new apartment along with several other of the students from his cohort, and the first thing he did was show us a photo of his new mattress. It was the first real bed he’d slept on in years.
At Hola<code/>, we love to hear about the cool companies our graduates now work for. We love to see the increases in salaries.
But when I see that photo of his new mattress . . .
When I hear yet another graduate who grew up near the sea tell us about a vacation to see the ocean once more . . .
That’s when I know these students have turned their own problems into opportunities.
That’s when I know how contagious a crazy dream can be.
You must be a registered user to add a comment. If you've already registered, sign in. Otherwise, register and sign in.