Latino Immigrants Inventing the Future

Cultivating Innovators and Entrepreneurs

By Fernando M. Reimers and Eleonora Villegas-Reimers


What do Gloria Estefan, Carlos Slim, Carolina Herrera, Juan Enriquez Cabot, and Cesar Conde have in common? All of these influential Hispanics contribute to the innovation economy. They are entrepreneurs who have found new ways to create value out of invention, and have served unmet needs and created value for the people who work in their organizations and for their investors. Entrepreneurs are the engine of the American economy. Entrepreneurs lead firms across different fields, they operate on scales large and small.

Their role is particularly important as a growing share of our economy depends on innovation. They are critical to future U.S. economic competitiveness and to job growth. Increasingly, technology and the availability of capital provide small entrepreneurs unprecedented opportunities to generate innovation. Latinos, particularly immigrants and their children, provide a rich reservoir of entrepreneurial talent. Parents must recognize entrepreneurship traits in their children and facilitate opportunities for them to develop those skills and knowledge to the best of their abilities. 

Structure In Place
The U.S. economic and legal frameworks, as well as the cultural ethos that values and encourages initiative are particularly favorable to entrepreneurs. This is why many immigrants see the United States as a country of opportunity, a country where talent, hard work and ingenuity can be rewarded with success. Parents can and should cultivate that talent in their children— to develop habits of hard work that are rewarded with recognition, and to provide all kinds of opportunities for Latino youth to develop and focus on that part of their education so our youth strengthen their roles as entrepreneurs.

Immigrants have traditionally been overrepresented among entrepreneurial communities. There are several explanations for this. One is that some of the traits that lead persons to migrate—initiative, capacity to take risks, resiliency and perseverance in the face of failure, and willingness to work hard—are also helpful in creating business ventures. Perhaps it is also due to the lack of access to social networks and small or no social capital in this country. Many immigrants have to make it on their own, creating jobs for themselves and others, and in that way opening new opportunities.

Much of the economic development in the United States has resulted from the innovation generated by entrepreneurs, including immigrants and their children; successive waves of immigrants have contributed a sizeable share to the entrepreneurial talent of the country. The Carnegie Foundation, a legacy of the Scottish-born immigrant and entrepreneur, recognizes each year contributions made by a selected number of immigrants; inevitably the list includes a large proportion of entrepreneurs.

A recent Council of Foreign Relations report demonstrates that Latino immigrant entrepreneurs are making significant, but largely overlooked, contributions to the U.S. economy. They are creating companies that expand the tax base, create jobs, and breathe new life into depressed commercial districts. More attention from the media is needed to highlight the many contributions of Latino entrepreneurs to this country’s economy and well-being.

It is also important that parents encourage and support the entrepreneurial skills of their children in a number of ways. For example, by helping them learn to take initiative, encouraging them to be creative and observant of their community needs and helping them develop an entrepreneurial mindset to approach challenges and opportunities.

Helping them gain financial management skills is also crucial. There are specific programs that schools can adopt to foster entrepreneurship, such as those offered by the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship or Junior Achievement. The most successful of these programs engage the students directly in the development of a business plan and in launching a business.

Thinking Like an Entrepreneur
At the core of the work of the entrepreneur is identifying unmet needs and opportunities and finding creative ways to address them; therefore, practical experiences that engage children in studying in what ways other entrepreneurs have done this, and in celebrating their contributions, will develop a positive disposition towards entrepreneurship. Helping them get to know their communities, identify the community needs and be creative in how to address those needs will go a long way.

Educational experiences that develop creativity and the capacity to think innovatively are necessary. Parents can partner with schools in generating those opportunities during regular school hours, or in extra curricular activities for their children. There are numerous forms to engage children and youth in learning about innovation and emerging trends that enable entrepreneurial creations; for instance, the program Innovation Hub on National Public Radio, or many of the Ted Talks, are excellent material discussing current innovations.

Other groups can support parents in developing the next wave of Latino entrepreneurs and innovators. Business and civic leaders and organizations can partner with school districts, community organizations and groups that exist to help expand the availability of entrepreneurship education programs in schools. They can create competitions that encourage innovation and entrepreneurship at the K-12 and college level. They can support entrepreneurial education at the college level and they can provide access to funding in order to support the work of young entrepreneurs.

In some parts of the country public-private partnerships are creating “innovation labs” or centers that provide access to an eco-system that includes fellow entrepreneurs, working space, access to funders and basic services so they can focus on the generation of innovation. The Cambridge Innovation Center in Massachusetts, for example, is a private venture that provides, for a fee, accessible working space and a community to entrepreneurs. Business and civic leaders can support the creation of similar ecosystems in Latino communities as a way to engage youth in this important creative activity and to promote their entrepreneurship skills and dispositions.

Entrepreneurs themselves can offer internships that allow students to learn by immersion in entrepreneurial environments and can serve as mentors of youth. Media organizations can also make visible and celebrate the contributions of entrepreneurs, highlighting role models in the Latino community, who can inspire the next generation that will, as other generations of immigrants have in the past, invent the future and contribute to an economy based on innovation and ingenuity.

Fernando M. Reimers is a professor of Education at Harvard University and serves with a number of educational organizations. Eleonora Villegas-Reimers is a professor of Human Development at Wheelock College.


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