Portland Business Journal: A bridge builder for 'black and brown founders'
Author: Malia Spencer
Posted: June 6, 2019

To read the original story, visit Portland Business Journal.

Entrepreneurship runs deep with Juan Barraza. He watched his parents both start their own businesses in Mexico City and he saw the power of that entrepreneurship to leap frog economic status.

Barraza even started his first business in high school using an initial $5 investment, via his weekly allowance for bus fare to and from school. He used that $5 to buy pastries from a bakery — he'd negotiated with the baker — near his bus stop. He then sold those baked goods at a markup to classmates.

“Eventually I got to the point I was carrying 2,000 to 3,000 pastries a day,” he recalls. “I wasn’t riding the bus anymore. I could pay for a taxi to ride to school in style.”

He brought that entrepreneurial spirit to Portland when he moved his family to the Pacific Northwest. Barraza has become an integral part of the startup ecosystem over the last four years. We caught up to talk about what drives him.

When we first met, you had a startup called VDO Interpreters. What was that? With VDO we created a platform that connected with video conferencing certified medical interpreters with patients and doctors until the in-person interpreter could arrive.

Like many startups, VDO didn’t survive. What happened? For almost three years, we worked on getting the platform ready and doing pilot testing with a clinic outside Providence. But we couldn’t figure out the sales cycle. We ran out of money. We closed shop in 2015.

What did you learn from that and how do you pass that knowledge on to other founders and the students you work with? Focus on building the product and have market validation early on and figure out who is going to pay for the product. If you are going to raise capital you need someone on the team to focus on that full time. I give (other founders) the good the bad and the ugly and then connect them with a person in the industry they are working in that is nearby or afar and can give them real world experience.

After VDO, why did you stay so involved in the entrepreneurship support scene? I have been very lucky in my life. I have encountered people that mentored me to be the person I am right now. When I started going around (the community) and applying for (programs like) the Startup PDX Challenge and Angel Oregon, I noticed I was one of the few Latinos in the ecosystem. I know that there are a lot more Latinos in the community. There are Latino founders building businesses, not just in food and services but manufacturing, technology, health. And I wanted to figure out how to create a bridge into that.

How so? I remember meeting Mara Zepeda for the first time at a Startup PDX Challenge course and I was excited to see another Latina. That is a huge motivation to stay involved. I want (Latino founders) to cross pollinate with our larger ecosystem here in Portland. But for some reason we work in a silo.

Are those silos starting to come down? It is evolving. On the Latino (community) side at least we are talking more about how to create scalable businesses, or at least seeing more people involved. Leo Ochoa from Dorsum, Sylvia (Salazar) from Tono Latino, Sada (Naegelin from De las Mias), Edgar (Navas from Cliqa). We are having those conversations and we are celebrating their success as part of the (Portland) community success. We haven’t reached critical mass. We haven’t reached the point that this becomes mainstream in the Latino community.

What does critical mass look like? Critical mass would be that we hear of a lot more businesses scaling beyond the traditional success like the Portland Mercado. Take Junea Rocha from Brazi Bites. The fact that Junea said we can take a traditional home recipe and have mass market appeal, and have a successful exit with co-packers ... That creates a roadmap for many food related businesses. If we can have 20 Junea Rochas across Oregon, that as a result will create new founders and new sources of capital from those exits. But it also will tell the community you can do this at scale.

What does critical mass look like for the broader ecosystem? I always keep my eye on the award ceremonies. With Technology Association of Oregon, or Oregon Entrepreneurs Network and if in each of the award categories there are one of two Latino founders, then we reach critical mass.

Are there any communities or organizations you look to for inspiration as you do your work? Kapor Capital. Their nonprofit side is doing a lot to shine the light on Latino and black founders. Digital Undivided and Kathryn Finney. Black & Brown Founders. They all have different models that we could apply here.

What still needs to happen to reach that critical mass? It’s two parts. Myself and Stephen Green and Mara Zepeda, we can’t be the only ones with the drums, right? It needs to be more people, entrepreneurs like us to work with the community at large to tell their own stories and be able to advocate and be willing to lend a hand. One of the things I love about the Portland startup community is I know I can email (Cloudability co-founder) Mat Ellis, (Wildfang co-founder) Emma Mcilroy or (Puppet founder) Luke Kanies and they will have a cup of coffee with me. Definitely, we need to emulate that in the black and Latino community.

The other part is the organizations that have the funding or the resources to shine the light, they need to be intentional. I love TAO, I love OEN but it’s a head scratcher when it comes to award ceremonies and they are not intentionally looking for black and brown founders doing great work but who might not feel like they can apply to those competitions. Build intentional relationships and create trust in those communities, that’s huge.

Juan Barraza

Director of student innovation at the Portland State University Center for Entrepreneurship

Education: Bachelor of business administration, marketing, Instituto Politecnico Nacional

Hometown: Mexico City

Volunteer: Latino Founders, Startup Weekend Latino

Favorite Portland restaurant: Tamale Boy

Most listened to artist on your playlist: “Guardians of the Galaxy” Soundtrack, or anything heavy metal

Currently reading: “The Gift of Struggle: Life-Changing Lessons About Leading,” by Bobby Herrera