The Spark: How We Started Digital Union
How did we start Digital Union? We get this question so much that I decided to put it down on paper in the hopes of sharing and inspiring the authentic story of our formation. I figure there is no better way to begin than to tell you through the lens of my background.
I grew up in Mexico City until the age of 16. My father was an active politician back then and a political consultant, with his ideology favoring socialist ideals. I grew up not hearing fairy tales at bedtime, but stories about revolutionaries around the world that gave their lives for helping those in need. My entire upbringing was surrounded by these stories and actions to help people. Our lives were secure and my father was often gone launching “projects for the people.” One day, my father picked an “ideology fight” with a man that eventually ended up in a very important position of power.
In short, we had to flee the country when I was 16 years old with a one-hour notice. There is something indescribable about leaving your life behind. It also reaffirmed for me how little those “things” really mattered. My mother took my two younger siblings and me to South Texas while my father spent six years living in political exile in Europe. I didn’t see or rarely got to speak to him during that time… all of this because his ideals were not compatible with somebody else’s who happened to be at the top of political influence at the time. It was strange growing up through the teenage years with his absence, worried about my Mom and my siblings as the new “male leader” of the house.
I spent my last two years of high school in Brownsville Texas. I found that you know who your friends and family really are during hard times. I got to experience this first-hand as the last of our money ran out and my mother had to resort to asking friends and family for help. She didn’t just call anybody, she called people that had greatly benefited from my father during better times. One by one, they all turned their backs on her. It broke my heart and worried me for my Mom and siblings.
Once I finished high school, I moved to Austin to attend the University of Texas and to start a career in technology. Through the 90’s, I worked for a myriad of tech startups including my first job at Dell in 1993. I eventually ended up at IBM in 1999; I owe so much to IBM for mentoring me and giving me the tool and confidence necessary to eventually start my own tech company, Verdtek, in 2008.
The core sentiment for me during those early years in Austin was that I decided to block from my mind and heart everything that had to do with the ideals of my upbringing. All I wanted was to focus on what I needed to do to become financially successful so we would never have to experience what I did when we left Mexico. During my years in Austin, I had never volunteered and never donated anything for any cause.
In 2011, a friend called me asking me for a donation for the nonprofit she was serving as a board member. That was the first time that somebody had asked me directly for a donation. Thanks to Verdtek being successful, I agreed to be the main sponsor for their next event. Four months later, the Board member called me to remind me of the event the following night. I had not planned to attend. In fact, I had totally forgotten I donated and did not even know what the non-profit did.
After I gave a non-committal answer over the phone, I went directly to DiscoverHope’s web page to understand their mission. I was immediately drawn to their cause: helping women living on a dollar a day with microloans and education to start small businesses. As I checked out the Board of Director’s page, I couldn’t help but notice that every board member was white and I did not see any Hispanics on the list. This made me feel mad—not at them, but at myself. I felt guilt and anger at myself for being so disconnected from the needs of others, especially Latinos in poverty that were my culture. These amazing people at DiscoverHope had created an incredible handUP program that was changing lives in an area of extreme poverty, just because they cared. This was the fire that opened up my heart, mind and soul forever.
I quickly got involved in the organization and traveled to Cajamarca, Northern Peru to witness firsthand what the project had produced. One distinct moment on the trip I spoke with a mother and microcredit borrower that had three new micro businesses. She had come to thank us for her support, despite the fact that her own Mom had died two hours earlier. Humility swept through me like never before. I couldn’t believe the changes that were being made in lives of people who had to resolve to lift their lives for their families, and the spark they had for moving out of poverty. This became my guiding spark.
That trip changed my life in profound ways. Maggie, the Founder of DiscoverHope and later my Digital Union partner, started then talking about how to combine our worlds. Maggie was an established social sector leader in Austin and beyond, with over 18 years of experience building and fundraising for nonprofit organizations. Combined with my experience as a tech entrepreneur and executive management background, we thought we could use our skillsets for creating great things and inspiring organizational leaders.
One night after dinner in downtown Austin, we started ideating about social impact and how we could create systemic change by helping companies be an active part of the equation of solving social issues. That night, Digital Union and the fusion of PROFIT + PURPOSE was born…and we’ve never looked back!
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