Juan Manuel Barrero is an Argentine entrepreneur who opened Lazo, his company, in the United States 18 months ago. Being a newcomer in the country, he not only managed to be considered a "success" case in the ecosystem of Latino companies, but he was also one of the five entrepreneurs invited by Kamala Harris last September to visit the White House as part of the Hispanic Month.
"It was on a Wednesday, 6:30 pm, I was reviewing the last emails of the day, sat on the couch with my pregnant wife. I received an email that I did not understand at that moment. I had to read it 3 times," says Barrero in an exclusive dialogue with LPO. That email was an invitation to be the next day, at noon, in Washington. An improvised trip and a surprise, he only managed to run out and buy a suit (since he did not have one) and a ticket for the first flight to DC the next morning. "I even wondered what was the reason I was going for, if it was worth investing so much money to run to Washington. And yes, it was completely worth it," he says.
"Nothing happens by chance," is a recurring phrase of Barrero. "It is a consequence of several things." The entrepreneur had won a scholarship at Stanford that, due to the pandemic, was virtual. Then, he was invited to discover the university and meet other colleagues who were in the industry. "There I met VCFamilia, which is everyone who works in venture capital. It is a community -among Latinos- to share knowledge and help each other. They came up with the idea of setting up Founder Familia, that is, entrepreneurs who raise venture capital. I started to be there, to help, there are all kinds of entrepreneurs: from those who are starting out and those who are in more advanced stages," he points out.
How did you get elected to go to the White House and represent Latino entrepreneurs?
The White House processed the invitation via Founder Familia. And since my company was doing well, and they wanted to share success stories, they chose me. They wanted to show that we were not entrepreneurs selling tortillas -because of the stereotype of the Latino who comes to the US to work, but that we were entrepreneurs with vision, ambitions, and that we were building things. We had a meeting at the White House with Kamala Harris, and then they invited us to the residence of the Vice President, who welcomed us there.
How did the fact that you were able to meet the Vice President change you as a Latino entrepreneur? Is it a display window used for business?
Here in the United States they really like the story of the entrepreneur, that is, the storytelling. And all these things validate you, although this is just starting. We do not win anything. But it works. It is very important here. For example, in Argentina, where I come from, institutions have lost a lot of prestige. But here the institutions are really appreciated, and the impact is very good. People still value it a lot.
But do you think it will add a lot to the company's future?
I do not expect anything. On a business level, I do not think so. I left Argentina because I do not like to do business related to the State, I am very skeptical. I do not expect to get anything out of it, rather a personal experience. It helps me build trust with my company's stakeholders, employees, customers, etc. It gives you value, small validations that are given to you. Something that gives confidence to those who have to trust you. In the long run, building reputation is very clear. And since the institutions here have prestige, this validates you.
How is Lazo, your company that Founder Familia sold as a successful case to the White House, made up?
What we do is to solve a problem that entrepreneurs have in their initial moments. When you are in a startup, you are very focused on the product, on selling a solution, on convincing people, and everything that has to do with legal, financial, accounting and tax matters is the last priority. Our solution is to take all this problem away from the entrepreneur. What we do is to unite everything in one place so that the founder knows that all the information is structured, and when he or she wants to raise capital, the information, the reliable numbers are there for the investors. Our focus is to be "the solution". In 18 months we have already worked with more than 500 startups, and we have recurrently more than 130 companies that pay every month.
As a Latino entrepreneur who comes from another country and other markets, how do you face the challenge of going out to conquer a market as large as the United States?
There are many more opportunities here. There is more capital, but everything is more competitive. If we want to be number one, we have to know that we are going to compete with the best. And we have to want to be the best. This is the most competitive market in the world. But if you make an effort and everything goes well, it is something else. Latin America is less competitive, but it is all dirt road. That is the big difference.
And can the "American dream" be achieved?
We were taught to be "the head of a mouse or the tail of a lion", at least in Argentina. And here you can be "the head of a lion", if you want. There is a very important mentality change. It is true that if you are Latino, everything is much more complex, although the Latino community is growing and there is an opportunity, it is more complex. For an investor, investing in an entrepreneur like me, who is from Trenque Lauquen -a city of 47,000 inhabitants in the Buenos Aires Province, Argentina- is riskier than investing in a person who graduated from Harvard or an investment bank. It will change to the extent that the "underrepresented" or underestimated people like us generate a return for investors and that generates more confidence.
What is the key then to start and stay afloat a company?
The only way for people like us is to work hard, be determined, persistent and keep going. It is something that you can achieve in this country, even if you come from a poor home and it is more difficult for you. But as long as there are more people who go forward, more investment will be generated and it will be less risky to invest in people like us. These validations, for example the one of Kamala, are useful. It reduces the risk I have as a company. Everything reduces the risk. And the reality is that if you go forward and with determination and persistence, it is difficult for you not to do well in the long run.
Does the support of organizations that make Latino startups more visible help, or is it still marginal?
Founder Familia and VCFamilia make the ecosystem grow and show that more and more organizations and funds are investing in underrepresented founders. But all this is a slow process, which will take years. For Latinos, the effort to raise capital is double, and that will not change overnight. However, there are things that are going to happen. The United States is realizing the power that Latinos have in this country. I think that at some point they will have a president of Latino origin, this market is huge.
Should there be government policies for Latino entrepreneurs, or does everything remain in the hands of the market or meritocracy?
I do not think you should give anything to anyone. What we have to do is to make it visible and raise awareness. The public sector should help create more companies. I do not know if it is necessary to give so much subsidy or access to credit, I do not know. But knowing that we have a disadvantage, having policies will help.
What is the future of the project, of the company? How do you imagine yourself in a couple of years?
My ideal world would include an operation center in Trenque Lauquen. That is my dream: show that from anywhere in the world you can work for everyone. For example, having a company based here in Miami, you can have many people working in Trenque Lauquen. That is my dream. To build a company that generates value, which at some point will allow us to continue growing and the incentive for it to be listed on the Stock Market and be worth.
Translator: Bibiana Ruiz
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