Spotlight On: Latino Entrepreneurship in the United States
Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative’s Natassia Rodriguez Ott discusses the organization’s latest study and being part of an organization you believe in
By KC Forsythe
Natassia Rodriguez Ott, new member of The Alumni Society, is the lead researcher for the Stanford Latino Entrepreneurship Initiative (SLEI). Each year, the organization introduces new research on the current state of Latino entrepreneurship. In 2016, SLEI surveyed more than 4,900 companies in the United States to create The State of Latino Entrepreneurship Report. The Alumni Society recently sat down with Rodriguez Ott to discuss her background, the study’s findings, and the power of being part of an organization you believe in.
The Alumni Society: Take me back to the start of your academic career. What made you to want to study sociology?
Natassia Rodriguez Ott: I am a first-generation college student from a low income background, coming from a family where almost nobody had ever heard of a PhD and fewer had heard of “sociology.” My interest in studying sociology came from a desire to understand how aspects of our society perpetuate disadvantages for some people while helping others rise to achieve the “American Dream.” I remember seeing (and experiencing) structural issues of poverty, discrimination, and inequality way before knowing what to call them. I recall feelings of frustration while volunteering in schools and recreation centers toward the system that I was a part of but knew very little about. I wanted to help create positive change, but felt that I didn’t know enough about what caused programs to work or not work to hold an informed opinion on how to make things better.
Sociology is one of those misunderstood majors—for example, many think that studying sociology means you are looking for a career in social work. However, to me, sociology provides a critical lens through which to see policies, structures, organizations, and interactions.
I decided to pursue my PhD in sociology and education policy to gather tools I could use to create positive social change. Specifically, studying sociology and education policy gave me tools with which to evaluate and understand social systems and interpersonal interactions. I learned how to critically analyze social issues and think deeply about how existing policies could be restructured for positive change.
TAS: When did you first become involved with SLEI and what surprised you about what the organization provided you as a member?
NRO: I first became involved with SLEI in the Spring of 2016. Someone in my network was listed as a contact person for the organization, and I wrote him to learn more. Little did I know, networks are a major strength of this organization. As I became more entrenched in my work at SLEI, I learned more about the strong connections held by my colleagues across all sorts of industries. The organization ecosystem touches everyone from Stanford faculty and MBA alumni, to owners of multimillion dollar companies and heads of trade associations, to owners of bodegas and tech companies. I quickly learned that the people involved in SLEI at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and our collaborator the Latino Business Action Network seemed to know someone everywhere in every space. This network has continued to grow since I joined the team in July 2016 thanks, in part, to the growing education program—the Stanford Latino Entrepreneur Leaders Program—that facilitates mentorship and partnerships between old and new business owners. I’m proud to be a part of this “familia” and encouraged to see the network continue growing.
TAS: The recent study you completed concerns the state of Latino entrepreneurship in the United States. Were you at all surprised by your findings?
NRO: A number of findings from our recent research surprised me, but all were happy surprises when it comes to the current and future state of Latino businesses. Most surprising was just how many Latino businesses are serving non-Latino stakeholders. There is a commonly held belief that Latino businesses are smaller than non-Latino businesses because they are located in Latino-only markets, rather than being integrated into the broader US economy. Our survey of almost five thousand Latino business owners provides evidence to the contrary: most Latino businesses are located outside of “ethnic enclave” communities, serving majority non-Latino clients, and employing majority non-Latino workers. This is an extremely important finding because it speaks to the potential positive impact Latino businesses can have on the broader US economy as they grow.
TAS: Based on your research as well as the current environment, how do you anticipate Latino-owned businesses in the United States will trend in 2017?
NRO: Latino businesses have been on a very positive trajectory over the last fifteen years. Latino businesses are growing in number faster than any other group in the US and the rate of business creation has even outpaced that of growth in the population. Perhaps most promising is that business creation continued over the Recession of 2008/09 for Latinos while it slowed for non-Latinos—a phenomenon that research shows may have saved the unemployment rate from rising above 10 percent. While we cannot predict the future, we have no reason to expect business creation to slow in 2017.
The separate question is whether Latino businesses will be able to grow in size over the coming years. While Latino businesses grew in number, average sales levels among Latino businesses remained stagnant over the last fifteen years. Research points to knowledge about financial capital, willingness to take risks, and of having business mentors as necessary elements for successful business growth. Training or education programs intervening on these fronts may help jumpstart the growth of Latino businesses moving forward.