Joel Rojo says he wouldn’t have launched a startup if it weren’t for mentors who convinced him he could do it.
Now, the 25-year-old Harvard-educated software developer wants to do the same for others.
Rojo is the Austin winner of a new entrepreneur-in-residence program created by CODE2040, a San Francisco-based nonprofit. CODE2040 was founded three years ago to focus on drawing more African Americans and Hispanics into the tech workforce.
Through the one-year program, Rojo and two other entrepreneurs, one in Chicago and one in Durham, N.C., will receive a one-year stipend and free office space. The program, which is backed by Google, seeks to empower minority entrepreneurs to build companies and help others.
“There’s this very open, super-supportive startup environment in Austin that’s full of people who want to help you,” Rojo said. “I want to introduce that to people from other communities who don’t know where to start.”
Rojo is the son of Mexican immigrants and grew up in Weslaco, just north of the Mexican border. During his time at Harvard, he ran an online real estate business with his brother and spent two summers as an intern for Google at its Silicon Valley headquarters.
After graduating in 2012 with a degree in computer science and sociology, he joined Indeed.com in Austin as a software developer. As a side project, he started TicketKarma, a website for buyers and sellers of live music tickets. The two-person company, which is self-funded, hopes to raise capital to expand this year.
“We call it a ticket marketplace for good people,” Rojo said. “With some sites you don’t know who you’re dealing with. We wanted create a place that people can trust.”
Now, the CODE2040 residency is allowing Rojo to focus on TicketKarma full-time.
Rojo, who was named a winner in March, will receive $40,000 in seed capital as a grant, workspace at downtown technology incubator Capital Factory, and a trip to Google’s headquarters for training, networking and mentoring.
“We look for entrepreneurs who are working on a really interesting and scalable projects, and who also have the capacity and a real want to create change in their communities,” said Jason Towns of CODE2040. “That’s a combination that we see in Joel: He’s working on a very cool app that has some real traction, and on the other side, he’s really engaged in the community.”
During the Google visit, “we’ll help the entrepreneurs build a toolset that they need to grow their business, but we’re also supporting them in coming up with strategies for building out more inclusive tech ecosystems in their communities,” Towns said.
The program is part of a push by Google to recruit more women and minorities to its workforce. The company said this month that it will spend $150 million on the effort, up from a $115 million investment in diversity efforts last year.
That follows a report that Google released in 2014 about its workforce demographics. It revealed that seven out of 10 people who work at Google are men. In the U.S., 3 percent of its workers are Hispanic and 2 percent are African American.
Other tech companies are also making a push to increase diversity in their workforces. This year, Intel created a $300 million fund for diversity efforts over the next five years. In March, Apple dedicated $50 million to non-profit organizations including the Thurgood Marshall College Fund and the National Center for Women and Information Technology.
The outreach is being driven in part by business interests.
“The tech industry needs more diverse thinking to help it build products that people around the world are going to use,” Rojo said. Broadening recruitment efforts “brings in new ideas and different ways of looking at things. Right now a whole generation is sitting on the sidelines.”
Rojo hopes to act as a bridge between Capital Factory, which hosts frequent networking and mentoring events, and college students and nonprofits. One of the challenges, he said, is getting people who are new to the tech community to take the first step.
“It’s a matter of getting out of your comfort zone. It’s not always easy being the only brown person in the room,” he said. “I’ve never thought of myself as this Latino guy. If anything, it just adds another element. I want to help others see that they bring a perspective that matters.”