Q&A

Houston native brings LatinX startup support to the Ion with HQ move

Jesse Martinez, founder of the LatinX Startup Alliance, joins InnovationMap for a Q&A on why he's relocating his nonprofit to Houston. Photo courtesy of LSA

Jesse Martinez was working in Silicon Valley before it was Silicon Valley. He took his years of experience within that tech ecosystem and launched the LatinX Startup Alliance to support his fellow Hispanic entrepreneurs — and now he's bringing that support to his hometown.

The LatinX Startup Alliance will move its headquarters into The Ion in 2022, Martinez tells InnovationMap. He's excited to finally make his professional return to Houston and to help support the diverse ecosystem — one that has been created with diversity at the forefront, unlike Silicon Valley and other coastal tech hubs.

"We're on the ground floor. We're helping to build that foundation. It's not an afterthought. It's not something that now we're trying to go back and think of diversity," Martinez tells InnovationMap. "I think that's the beautiful thing about Houston and everyone that I've met is that it's been so diverse and inclusive. That spirit is already there. So, how do we just maximize that?"

Martinez joined InnovationMap for a Q&A about the new HQ announcement and what he's excited about in terms of DEI in Houston's tech scene.

InnovationMap: Tell me a little bit about your own tech and entrepreneurship journey.

Jesse Martinez: In 1996, one weekend I was at Barnes and Noble reading the newspaper, and, for whatever reason, I went through the classified ads and this one ad caught my eye. It said, "internet sales for internet company." So I faxed in my resume and I got a call back, did my phone screens, and they flew me out to San Jose. I interviewed with the founders in Sunnyville where the startup was based. The name of the startup was Internet Systems Inc., funded by Sequoia Capital and I ended up joining as employee number 27.

I was new to this whole world. We were one of two pioneers in the web hosting services space — pre-Rackspace, pre-AWS, et cetera. In less than a year, we went from startup to public company trading at $35 a share via two acquisitions. So that was my whole intro into the world of tech startups, Silicon Valley, and stock options.

Because of that work, I caught the startup bug and did my first startup with my brother in 2000. We had two acquisition offers. We turned one down, and we were entertaining the second one, which was between $8 and $10 million. And then the market crashed in March of 2000. Those offers went away, and we tried to raise more money, but just couldn't do it. And then we ended up shutting down December of 2000.

IM: How did you come to start the LatinX Alliance?

JM: In 2010, I was looking to do my second startup. And it was early days of community-based organizations providing services for their founders — Black founders, Jewish founders, and others. And I did a set of Google searches to try to find something for myself. I'm like, "I'm Latino, I'm a tech and founder what's available for us?" And there was nothing. That left me scratching my head. Like how can this be? This is the global mecca of tech. That became the beginning of Latino Startup Alliance. We launched in 2011 in the Mission District of San Francisco with six people with their mission to empower Latino tech founders. Fast forward to today, we're over a thousand members globally. Our mission is still the same. And last year, we changed our name from Latino to LatinX to be more supportive and inclusive.

IM: You’re from Houston originally, but when did you have the idea of bringing the alliance to Texas?

JM: I was super excited to meet Bob Harvey (from the Greater Houston Partnership) and team, when they did a delegation to Silicon Valley. I met them at the Salesforce Tower, and we started talking about tech and Aggies and all the above. And they're like, "by the way, do you know that we're know committing to tech? We're finally making that commitment from the city on down, you should be there." And I'm like, "well, I've been waiting for this all my life." Houston was so engaged in oil, gas and energy. And so it was finally refreshing to hear that Houston had made that commitment. It felt right and it made sense to move our headquarters to Houston, and we'll officially launch in 2022.

IM: The new headquarters of the LatinX Startup Alliance is in The Ion. How will you work with them collaboratively and what can people expect from your organization?

JM: One of the things that we did early on as an organization is do a series of events — weekly events as well as a yearly summits. We were actually going to host our first summit in October of this year, because of the pandemic and the uncertainty, we decided to postpone it just because we wanted to be respectful for everyone's health and safety. We pushed it to next year, targeting the same month — October of 2022. And that'll be two days of programming focused on tech and also tech careers. So, there'll be a Friday and a Saturday. One of the things we want to ensure is that by hosting something on Saturday on tech careers, is that more people will be able to attend. And then Friday we'll focus on tech, founders, and startups.

Through our monthly events, we'll have office hours, we'll have meetups, and what we call LSA founder dinners. We just hosted one last week in Oakland, and we used to do these all the time. We're going back to that now that we can, and especially as we launch in Houston is ensuring that we have that consistency as we start building that community. It's like starting over, which is great. The biggest part is being able to support and champion the LatinX tech community here in Houston and also the state of Texas.

IM: How do you envision growing the LatinX Startup Alliance internationally? 

JM: We've always been global from day one. We've had founders come from other cities and countries to Silicon Valley because it was such a hub for many, many years. It'll be interesting to see what happens moving forward. A lot of people have moved away to their hometowns or new cities. So now we have a more distributed network of founders and startups and also investors. So when you talk about access and access to opportunities, it's certainly a big win for those founders and startups across the west.

IM: What should people know about LSA? 

JM: We operate under three pillars, which are awareness, access, and acceleration. Through the awareness piece, it's creating awareness around LatinX tech, startups and founders, both of those that are in the ecosystem and those that want to learn more. Access is being able to include people in tech programming, again for founders or for the public to participate in whatever it is we post, you know, from a founder perspective, it could be an invitation to attend Techcrunch or SaaStr Annual— either virtually or in person in San Francisco. We've had a partnership with both of them. So, we have diversity scholarships for our members.

IM: How have you seen things change in terms of connecting LatinX founders with funding?

JM: There is more access, and we help facilitate some of the awareness. You might not be aware of all the investors angel investors. And so that's where we try to be the bridge and be able to make those warm introductions between investors and also the startup founders. There are a lot more diverse funds. There's a lot more diverse general partners, which is awesome. And I think there's access to more. Does that mean that everyone's getting funded? No. It's not easier to get money, but there's just more money to go around. But you still have to go through the same steps and follow the process.

IM: Ahead of the launch of the LatinX Startup Alliance in Houston, who are you looking to connect with?

JM: Everyone, because you never know who that one person's going to be —corporates, companies, startups, founders, investors, other nonprofits. One of things that I've been doing as I've been going back to Houston is just meeting people from the ecosystem.One of the things that we're working on right now is setting up a group of key stakeholders for LatinX Houston Alliance. Who are those key players that we can bring together on a monthly basis? I'm thinking like a town hall of 40 or so people talk about what we need to do to better support and champion the ecosystem.

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This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Building Houston

 
 

Samantha Ettus of Park Place Payments joins the Houston Innovators Podcast to discuss how she founded a company that lets individuals find financial independence while providing better customer service in the payments processing industry. Photo courtesy of Park Place Payments

Four years ago, Samantha Ettus found herself as a keynote speaker in a room with thousands of ambitious and talented women. It was a conference for multi-level marketing sales associates and, as Ettus found out later, most of them — despite their talent and passion — were losing money on whatever product they were selling.

"I realized there was a problem. There obviously was a need — all of these people want to be doing something outside of their families that gives them fulfillment and meaning and has goals associated with it — but they also want to be earning money," Ettus says on the Houston Innovators Podcast. "And the first part was being fulfilled — but the second part wasn't."

Ettus created an alternative to check both of those boxes. Park Place Payments is a fintech startup founded in 2018 in California. Houston was one of the initial six test market for the business model, and the company now has over 1,000 account executives across all 50 states. Sales team members are trained for free on how to sell Park Place's payment processor service to local businesses.

Ettus says the payment processor industry is competitive and most small business owners are very disappointed with the customer service they receive. The average business changes payment processors every three years, Ettus says, and Park Place wants to change that.

"Payments is an industry where something always goes wrong," Ettus says. "As a small business owner, if you can't reach someone — that's really important for the livelihood of your business. ... We really think of ourselves as an outsourced payment partner for small businesses."

This past year has been one for growth for Park Place, Ettus says, and earlier this year, she closed on the company's seed round, which was supported by Curate Capital, founded by Houstonian Carrie Colbert. Now the company is focused on its tech team, including hiring a CTO. Early next year, Ettus hopes to close a Series A round, again with support — financially and otherwise — from Colbert.

"I feel so lucky because a lot of people pointed us to traditional Silicon Valley VCs in the beginning, and I had a lot of conversations. I didn't feel some of those firms had the patience to grow with us," Ettus says.

The company has been tied to Houston from its early days, from testing the business in town to a Houston-based early hire, Nancy Decker Lent, who is a founding member of the team and head of product for Park Place.

Ettus shares more on her passion for supporting financial independence for women and how she plans to grow her company on the podcast. Listen to the full interview below — or wherever you stream your podcasts — and subscribe for weekly episodes.

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