A Startup Incubator Designed Specifically For Underrepresented Groups


By Delece Smith-Barrow

Incubators for startups can be saviors for new entrepreneurs, offering them work space and guidance from experienced business leaders. But, like the tech industry as a whole, they’re often short on one thing: minorities.

This gap struck Paul De La Cerda, executive director of the East Los Angeles College Foundation and a former professor of entrepreneurship and marketing at College of the Canyons, when he visited LACI, a noted Los Angeles-based incubator for clean tech and green companies. “I noticed immediately the lack of diversity,” he said.

The entrepreneur – his businesses have varied from selling high-end knives to creating an electronic pet door – hopes to increase diversity among startups with his latest project, the ESTEC LA Incubator. It’s specifically designed to attract and assist minorities, women, veterans, former convicts, those who have been in foster care and people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, intersexual and asexual. De La Cerda, a Latino man, will manage the program, which will welcome its first cohort in June.

“Our goal is draw investment capital to equalize the opportunities for our communities,” said De La Cerda.

The East L.A. College Foundation and OmniWorks, an organization that supports women and minority entrepreneurs in underserved areas of Los Angeles, are partners in ESTEC, which will be based at East L.A. College. The incubator will serve the college’s students as well as the larger community, De La Cerda said. Budding entrepreneurs must apply to get in and 15 enterprises (of up to two people each) will be selected.

One of their first responsibilities as members of ESTEC will be to go to school.

“They’ll enroll in an 11-week program,” said De La Cerda, who earned his M.B.A. degree from Oklahoma State University. “And over the 11 weeks, they’ll be enrolled as students at our college, and the classes will be free.”

During this period they’ll take two classes, which can count for college credit, to learn about marketing and business development.

Later, they’ll have “nine months of really intense coaching,” said De La Cerda. Mentors and advisors will help them refine business plans, develop marketing and sales strategies, assess where and how to get capital and make connections with resources they need. The program will also offer other support that can be critical to new business owners, such as networking opportunities.

De La Cerda believes ESTEC is important and necessary for California, where, he said, a
“critical thinking and entrepreneurial-minded workforce is in high demand.”

California was among the top five states to have an increase in business startups in 2015. And that entrepreneurial workforce isn’t coming just from four-year institutions, De La Cerda said.  He has worked with community colleges for years and says many students in these schools are entrepreneurially-minded but lack resources.

“That’s where you’re hitting the students who really don’t have access to a four-year education, particularly in business,” he said.

ESTEC, he hopes, will boost their business acumen, their startup knowledge and their career growth.

Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report. And, here are a few news developments and trends in the future of learning.

Going digital in after-school time: By now “the homework gap” is a familiar phrase, labeling the problem of asking children to do all sorts of online learning outside of school even though many don’t have the computer resources at home to keep up. After-school programs are often overlooked as places where many students could be reached and helped, so the National Afterschool Association, a membership organization for those who work with children in programs outside of school hours, has assembled a collection of resources and training guides for after-school professionals. The “tool kit” shows after-school workers how to embed technology into their own programs, help kids with access to technology and support in using it and train support staff members to use it as well.

Nothing to sneeze at:  A grant of up to $10,000 is the top award for winners of the Innovative Educator Prize, offered by the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning. The foundation wants to reward school leaders or teachers who “lack the funds to run a program they know will make a difference to their students,” and have ideas for programs that will help overcome achievement gaps, drive student engagement and advance personalized learning. Winning projects will be documented as they roll out and their results will be shared with other educators. Applications must be filed by May 31at this address. The foundation has awarded 14 prizes in 10 states since 2016.

Watchdog help:  Those advocating for more equitable treatment of disadvantaged children in all schools often need solid statistics to make their case, and last week a useful tool arrived to help with that. The Education Trust, a nonprofit research and advocacy group in Washington, D.C., which focuses on expanding equity in education for students of color and those from low-income families, has built an interactive data tool it calls Education Watch, which offers state-by-state data on student demographics (race/ethnicity and socioeconomic status); whether a state gives all students access to educational opportunities; how well each state’s schools prepare students for college and careers, and how well a state’s colleges prepare students for graduation.

Further Reading


94 Percent of U.S. Teachers Spend Their Own Money on School Supplies, Survey Finds,” via The New York Times

Under-resourced kids depend on after-school and summer programs,” via The Hill

Project Unicorn signs first companies to help schools handle the hairball of edtech data,” via GeekWire

How bringing trampolines into schools could improve literacy results,” via the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald, HT to SmartBrief on Special Education

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