To truly understand the borderland, you have to spend time learning, observing and listening here.
Carlos Martinez-Vela is using what he’s studied, seen and heard to help startup businesses gain footing and resilience.
Martinez-Vela is the president and CEO of Pioneers 21, a nonprofit in Downtown that provides training, education and resources for startups and small businesses in El Paso. It receives the majority of its funding from the city of El Paso.
Pioneers 21 rebranded earlier this year from its previous name, the Hub of Human Innovation. The nonprofit works with a small-business accelerator and startup incubator in Juárez, called Technology Hub.
“I think I’ve always been driven to intersections,” Martinez-Vela said. “I was happy when this idea of the intersection of possibilities came up. I’ve always ended up working in places that are in the middle, and building bridges.”
Martinez-Vela first started connecting with El Paso in 2015 after he was invited to give a talk at the Hub of Human Innovation and the Technology Hub in Juárez. He was able to make connections that led him to an opportunity to work in El Paso full time.
Martinez-Vela is from Monterrey, Mexico. He received a bachelor’s degree in engineering and physics from Tecnológico de Monterrey and a master’s degree in technology and policy from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He also has a doctorate from MIT.
He spent an hour on the phone with El Paso Inc. last week and talked about Pioneers 21 and its new flag, the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on startups and his love of El Paso’s joyful sunsets.
Q: How’d you get involved with Pioneers 21?
In 2015, I ran the Venture Cafe in Boston. Ricardo Mora, founder and CEO of the Tech Hub in Juárez, was in Boston for a training program. We met, and out of that meeting came an invitation to give a talk in El Paso and Juárez.
I gave a talk at what was at the time the Hub of Human Innovation, and at the Tech Hub in Juárez. I had never been to this border, to any border like this. My experience with the border was going shopping from time to time in McAllen from Monterrey.
That summer, in 2016, I was going back for what would be my last year in Boston to work on a research project at MIT on economic development in Brazil. I told one of my colleagues that it’s so interesting what’s going on here in El Paso, we need to do something. We applied for a grant and got funding to start a research project about the emergence of an innovation economy here.
Because of that project, over the course of three years, I kept coming back, whether to give a talk or do fieldwork and meet with business and government leaders. I established some relationships and got to know the place better.
I got a job offer in San Diego. So in August 2016, I drove across the country from Boston to San Diego to take a job. I lasted for about a year. Then an opportunity here at the Hub came up. Because of those relationships I had established, I was encouraged to apply for the position. I sent my resumé, was invited to interview and realized I wanted to be here. The rest of the story is here.
Q: Talk to us about the name change. Why, and why now?
There were practical issues. In this case, change was a good thing. I think the Hub had a great track record of supporting business. But part of my job in coming here was to bring new life to it. It was well known, but I saw after I arrived more opportunities for engaging with the community. A name change and new branding was a part of that.
The phrase behind Pioneers 21 is that the U.S. and Mexico border is the land of the pioneers of the 21st century. That whole idea and phrase is to help us think differently about ourselves. We’re not stuck here. There’s a pioneering spirit here, and it’s been here for a long time.
When I arrived, this idea kept coming back. I brought it back up to the board and they liked it and approved it. Then I saw Pioneer Plaza in Downtown. The idea of a pioneer for us is a beautiful one because it’s rooted in history and it’s about getting to new places that nobody’s been.
Q: What about the new Pioneers 21 flag?
When we worked with our graphic designers to do this, we were very insistent that we need to fully embrace who we are as a community and region, to not try to be Silicon Valley – not that there’s anything wrong with Silicon Valley.
Our logo is the flag of a pioneer. It’s divided diagonally, that’s the border. There’s the letter P. The colors are yellow which is for sands and sun. I love the sunsets here. The blue is the sky and water. It’s a beautiful thing.
Q: What kind of work does Pioneers 21 do?
We’re a civic entity, here for the community, even more so because 60% of our funding comes from the city of El Paso. We’re committed to the common good of the community, specifically in the area of economic development.
We do this primarily in two ways. One is by supporting entrepreneurs, startups and small businesses in the process of concept development, launch and growth. We do that across all sectors of the economy, as long as they’re legal. Specifically in areas where we see high growth potential. We have an emphasis on technology, but we’re not just for that. We’ve helped food and beverage, e-commerce, marketing, VR.
We also do this through entrepreneurship education, and this takes the form of workshops, and through coaching and mentoring. We have a highly customized approach. We believe every entrepreneur is different and every business is different, and we need to meet them where they are and listen first.
We just try to be out in the community as much as we can. Last year, we had 40 mostly entrepreneurs traveling by bus from Silicon Valley to New Orleans. They stopped here for a couple of hours. When they called to see if they could come we said of course. We have 40 individuals who have never come to the borderland and can go out and share the story.
Q: How about the work Pioneers 21 does across the border with the Technology Hub in Juárez?
We have an ongoing conversation about how we can work together. On an informal basis, our people here know that those in Juárez, that they can go to the Tech Hub and vice versa. We’ve been trying to formalize that.
We were partners with the Tech Hub in the launch of the Bridge Accelerator. The first cohort went through the program last summer. Manufacturing companies in the region purchase about $40 billion a year from suppliers but only 2% from local suppliers. It’s a huge opportunity to increase the participation of small and medium suppliers in that manufacturing supply chain.
Q: How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting startups and their access to capital?
There are at least two sides to this crisis. One is the crisis itself. It creates tremendous challenges for everyone in our economy. We know that, we see that devastation and downturn that’s very unfortunate for local businesses, small businesses, main-street business.
There’s also been a sense of how to get access to support programs that have been launched.
We’re also seeing a drive to solve problems, change the direction of business, to pivot, take advantage of new opportunities and help meet needs emanating from this crisis.
For us, it is a matter of identifying and formulating the opportunities and pursuing them. That’s where Pioneers 21 and others come into play. I hope we’re going to see entrepreneurial drive. Our main task is to help people navigate the process.
Q: How else are you helping startups navigate through this crisis?
One of the ways is by doing our work and being available. Consistent with our mission and roots, if startups want to reformulate their propositions to adapt, that’s what we’re going to keep doing. I think to everyone else, this has meant a period of adaptation.
One of the lessons we’ve learned is that there are tasks of supporting businesses right now – if we don’t know the answer, to know who to connect them with.
My thoughts right now are to the future. As we think about recovery, what are the ways to not only recover but to reinvent our economy?
Q: What do you like to do outside of work?
I love the desert and the sunsets and the mountains. They’re eternal here, they last a very long time. I never get tired of looking outside the window or taking a walk during sunset.
I’ve been lucky to make very good friends. I love spending time with my friends, with a beer or two. I love Deadbeach brewery. I try to keep supporting them now by going to get takeout beer once a week.
I love road trips. This place is privileged in terms of the landscapes we have, if you venture out in every direction, whether it’s going to the Guadalupe mountains or somewhere in Mexico. I love Highway 28 and driving on Doniphan and Paisano. There’s something about that road.
I think people need to be open to see El Paso’s beauty.
I love Segundo Barrio. I think it’s one of the only real urban neighborhoods we have with significant street life, commerce and mixed-use. I’m involved with Sacred Heart parish; it’s part of my involvement in the community. I help with the food bank there. In general, I love Segundo Barrio for its history and architecture.
Q: What other neighborhoods do you enjoy?
I live here near Rim and Stanton, so all this area. No other border city has the architectural beauty we have here. The buildings we have Downtown are unbelievable. The potential is huge, and this crisis, it’ll probably slow down change. But it’ll probably bring new appreciation for who we are and what we have, and work towards preserving and growing it.
Q: How do you think UTEP contributes to the economic development and economy of our region?
UTEP is a gem in the region. Our first pioneer conversation was with (former UTEP President) Dr. Natalicio when she was about to retire. The transformation of UTEP from a relatively minor university to a tier-one university is a remarkable one and creates an incredible platform for increased impact in the regional economy.
Without a doubt, (UTEP President) Dr. Wilson is pursuing that. She visited Pioneers 21 back in December. We are beginning to see increased activity building on what has been done.
UTEP has done an incredible job, as well as the other higher education institutions we have here, in educating citizens and workers in our community. We need to look at the contribution of UTEP and any university in multiple ways. We tend to only look at it in terms of tech transfer and innovation. But it’s one of the many ways a university can have an impact on a local economy.
Email El Paso Inc. reporter Sara Sanchez at email@example.com or call
(915) 534-4422, ext. 105.