Lili Gil Valletta on building networks and asking for funding
Lili Gil Valletta (pictured above, right), the co-founder, with Enrique Arbelaez (pictured above, left), of marketing and consulting firm Cien+, has boundless energy. When you meet Lili for the first time, it's clear she has a deep love of connecting people so that they form meaningful and practical networks; these qualities are evident in her wide, welcoming smile. When she speaks, she exudes not only warmth, but strength. She and Enrique have taken their skills and passion for building businesses and building networks with Dreamers Ventures, which Lili describes as "an empowerment platform and multi-city tour." Dreamers Ventures offers access to education, mentorship, and sales opportunities to empower Latino and other minority entrepreneurs to build business growth across the U.S. and Latin America.
On November 13 at Google's New York City office, Lili, Enrique, and their Dreamers Ventures team partnered with Google Business Inclusion program manager Lucy Pinto, Google's Accelerate with Google events team, and Google's Digital Coaches program to kick off a multi-city tour of digital marketing master classes for Latino business owners. True to Lili's energetic, practical approach to business and community, the event drew 250+ attendees, featured luminaries such as Andy Unanue, former COO of Goya Foods and now CEO and Managing Partner of AUA Private Equity Partners, and included fun rounds of conversation and cocktails, where she introduced investors to entrepreneurs and startup founders.
We sat down with Lili to discuss how and why she co-founded Dreamers Ventures, and why she feels compelled to share her own journey with other Latina entrepreneurs and businesspeople of all backgrounds and stages of success. It's a journey that took her from her arrival the U.S. from her native Colombia at the age of 17, to achieving executive positions at Johnson & Johnson, to founding companies, becoming what she describes as "a recognized Cultural Intelligence" expert and supporting future business leaders via partnerships with Google.
Latino entrepreneurs receive less than 1% of VC funding. Firms like Dreamers Ventures, with Latino funders, are starting to emerge. Are Latino startup founders excited to see funders that reflect and share their culture?
I think the process of funding in general is very intimidating. For Latinos, sometimes we are the first in our families in the U.S. college educated in the U.S., the first likely to be entrepreneur, yet are not born with a U.S. network. Regardless of your background, funding is hard to figure out on your own. Culturally, we're told to work hard, keep our heads down, and the rest will follow. To never, ever, ever talk about money or ask about it. It's taboo. It's a mistake for entrepreneurs–as in the U.S., there are so many resources for minorities and women, and for everyone.
We have to be taught, even as U.S., MBA-educated Latinas, on the norms of raising capital. I wanted to co-create a space that is safe, where you see people like you, and financing is demystified. This type of experience is of great value for Latina and Latino entrepreneurs. Those forums are not readily available for us, and we're quietly suffering and Googling "how to be an entrepreneur" in middle of the night. But we could be out creating a network. I'm drawing upon my own mistakes on my journey, so that others don't have to.
It's critically important to see people like ourselves, who can speak from experience and not theory, and have cultural affinity with us so they can speak to nuances that keep us away from asking for money. Unfortunately, there's baggage that we bring from our countries of origin, such as a mistrust of financial and government institutions. So that's how we're wired culturally. So there is an issue of trust. Institutions, VCs, etc., could be more aware of the challenges of relationship-building with Latinos, and then can earn our trust.
But we need to reframe the story. Building this trust is is not charity work. Minorities are driving new business creation in the U.S., so then the growth of the U.S. economy at large depends on us. Why does it matter for VC firms to take us into consideration? Because...if new job creation depends on small businesses, then the groups who are creating new businesses need to achieve their full potential so everyone can.
Do Latino/a business owners benefit from culturally specific coaching, delivered by trusted community members?
Trust is key. The Latino community is hyperconnected, family driven and socially centered. The way we build relationships is about more than mentorships. Business becomes personal. Right or wrong, we invest ourselves fully. Some of my best mentors aren't Latinos, though; it can be hard to find them, but it's also important to learn from other communities. I've been in business for 7 years, and I had my first Latino mentor last year! It's essential to get different perspectives. But a culturally aligned mentor is key. As Latinos, we need to explain to our families why we want to be an entrepreneur. Latinos tend to make decisions with the entire, extended family! This is why we've curated our advisors, so people can see we exist and are here to advise them! Sometimes it is hard to see successful Latinos in the mainstream business press. So I say, if you're not being invited to the table, create your own table. So that's what we are doing with Dreamers Ventures.
How does Dreamers Ventures use data to uncover the needs of Latino entrepreneurs?
We are mining cultural intelligence, using AI (artificial intelligence) and ML (machine learning), including Google's tools in our algorithm. We scrape open comment boxes and look for drivers and barriers for Latino entrepreneurs. Absolutely, the data has led to three buckets, which are access to knowledge, access to capital, and access to opportunity. Opportunity means "give me a purchase order or a contract"! We want to take entrepreneurs all the way to the finish line.
Our events are about sharing knowledge, but also introductions. We host them with "color codes" for investors, so they're identifiable during cocktail hour and you can intentionally meet them. You can get contracts so many ways.
What is the role of digital marketing, in terms of reaching their audiences?
Digital is so critical. But in this era of everything digital and e-commerce, the one thing that will set a destination apart is an emotional connection. When you see people like you, you get obsessed! More than any channel, the content needs to be relevant. And that means to everyone. "Hispanic" doesn't mean "Spanish"-speaking only. We don't need to focus on speaking only to Latinos in our marketing. The U.S. and the world respond to sensations like Pitbull and Shakira. Tortillas are more popular than bread in America! There is mass-market appeal of Latino culture and ideas. This is where investment needs to go.
Why do you feel it is important to share our own journey as an entrepreneur, and what lessons can you share with us?
I'm very candid because usually, the media only showcases the end of the journey. I talk about the parts before finding success: sleeplessness and worrying about not being able to make payroll. Entrepreneurship is really hard...but exciting!...work. You have to be satisfied with what you're creating, beyond the aspirations of becoming a millionaire.
In my own journey, I'm unapologetic about certain principles. One is, it's important, make deliberate decisions that need to be right for you. For example, I made the mistake of cashing all of my stock options from my corporate life and drained all of my bank accounts to start my business. It seemed like the "Super Woman" move at the time, but it was dumb! You see startup founders getting funded for an idea sketched on a napkin in Silicon Valley because they asked for the funding. It may seem noble to not ask for money. If I could do it again, I would have the humility to ask for money and not self-sacrifice and drain my own funds to launch.
Another principle I follow: I'm a big believer that if you're the smartest person in the room you're actually stupid. If you "know it all"...that's a really bad sign. How will you grow if you do? So I have people on speed dial whom I can consult with, whom I can go to at any time and say, "I don't know what to do." I hope that with Dreamers Ventures, we can provide that experience for many entrepreneurs.
Watch scenes from Dreamers Ventures' kick off event at Google NYC
You can access Google's resources for entrepreneurs, too:
Photo of Lili: Carlos Peralta
Photo of Lili and Enrique: courtesy Dreamers Ventures