Drive To 'Create Stuff' Brings Immigrant Success

Entrepreneur Fernando Espuelas speaks with host Michel Martin about why he thinks more Latino business leaders need to step up to the plate. Espuelas was named by PODER Magazine as one of "The Nation's 100 Most Influential Hispanics" in 2012.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Coming up, we're going to talk about how Latinos are making their presence known on social media, and we'll look at how marketers are using social networking to reach you during this Hispanic Heritage Month.

First, though, we want to talk business with Fernando Espuelas. He worked in advertising in New York. He was then recruited by AT&T to launch their brand throughout Latin America. After that, he launched the StarMedia Internet portal and turned it into a multibillion dollar enterprise, which is a big reason he was named by Poder Magazine as one of the nation's 100 most influential Hispanics in 2012. Today, he's host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which is a bilingual radio program based here in Washington, D.C., but he was nice enough to join us in our Washington, D.C. studios. Welcome.

FERNANDO ESPUELAS: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: Thank you so much for joining us. Tell us a little bit about your story.

ESPUELAS: Well, I'm an immigrant to this country. I was able to get a great education thanks to my mom's hard work and the lucky sort of draw of the straw. We landed in Connecticut at a good time when public education worked, and my drive really was to create stuff and - in business and in journalism, and eventually, I found myself with the Internet and I was one of the first creators, I guess, of Internet companies in the '90s.

MARTIN: Tell us about the idea for StarMedia. What were you able to accomplish and what this company did for Latin America?

ESPUELAS: Well, I had - I literally had a vision on a mountain in Nepal. I thought the Internet would really shift the Latin-American reality forever because it would give individuals power over information and communication, which they didn't have before. These are countries that were controlled by monopolies of different sorts, and I was really just convinced this would happen. So I brought it back to AT&T. We launched the first portal at that point. AT&T said, you're absolutely crazy. So I said, OK, I'll be crazy my own. I started the company, and as you said, it became a $4 billion company.

MARTIN: A lot a people point to you - you've been written up in any number of business magazines, not just those particularly focused on the Latino community, but also other general audience business magazines. What would you want people to draw from your story?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think, first of all - and it's such a big cliche - but in the United States, no one cares where you come from. My mom and I arrived with a hundred bucks. She cleaned houses.

MARTIN: From Uruguay.

ESPUELAS: From Uruguay. She cleaned houses during the day and offices at night, so I could go to school. But that allowed me still to be able to get David Rockefeller to invest in my firm, to get J.P. Morgan to invest in my firm. So that openness was critical.

MARTIN: Are there emerging businesses where you think people - Latinos are making a particular mark?

ESPUELAS: Well, I do think technology is a huge area. As I know, you know, Hispanics are the number one users of social media, of broadband, of cell phones, etc. And from there, there's been a tremendous amount of entrepreneurial activity and I think that's an area to watch. And as media shifts, because the audiences are now shifting. They're more - if you don't have Latinos watching your TV show or listening to your radio program, you will have a diminishing economic opportunity. I think that there's a whole range of media opportunities that are opening up that were not there just 10 years ago.

MARTIN: Why, though, do you feel - given that this is a very large and emerging market, and you also have a number of Latino business leaders who are transnational. I mean, I'm thinking about the Mexican - Telecom...

ESPUELAS: Carlos Slim, yeah.

MARTIN: Carlos Slim - that there are so few...

ESPUELAS: Right.

MARTIN: ...CEOs, say, of Fortune 500 companies and Fortune 1,000 companies...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...From Latino heritage. Why do you think that is?

ESPUELAS: You know, I think I would call that social inertia, which is that people hire people that they know, and we are still at the tail end - or maybe we're still in the middle, I don't know - of having white men owning, controlling most of capital in this country, and, therefore, they hire people that they know. And you can say the same thing for women, African-Americans, Asian-Americans - almost any group, probably.

MARTIN: Do you think that's changing?

ESPUELAS: I do, and I think it is more - it's changing primarily because of this market shift. And people understand that - wow, how do I reach the fastest-growing group of Americans? How do I reach the 50,000 Hispanics that turn 18 every single month in this country? And, therefore, I need to figure this out, and how do I figure it out? I can translate it or I can have someone who understands it intuitively, and I think that's creating, possibly, some opportunities.

MARTIN: Now, I'm just curious for yourself, as an entrepreneur - and I do want to talk about your media career, as well, as a radio host - as a fellow host, I'm really dying to know why you decided to take that route. But I am wondering, as an entrepreneur of Latino heritage, do you feel any particular responsibility to mentor or to - or just - or not? I mean, some people say, no, you know, the best thing I can do is to be successful. But I just wonder if you think you see your role in any different way because of your background? And does your interest in that extend beyond the Latino community, to other groups that have been left out?

ESPUELAS: Well, I think that's a perfect segue to the radio - why I do radio. I started the radio program because I felt I needed to do something to activate Latinos through media, not just creating companies, but actually having a message of, look, if I was able to do it, you can do it. Let me show you or let me share with you my experience. And that really was what sparked my idea for an experiment. I had never done radio five years ago and I somehow was able to convince Univision to put me on air. They said, don't do politics, no cares about politics. I said, OK, I'll do pop culture. And of course I did politics from day one, and that was of course was compelling for people because people do care.

MARTIN: Well, and you've been able to get in a very short period of time, you know, newsmakers - major newsmakers...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...From across the political spectrum...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...To come on your program. You got my John McCain interview. I'm just letting you know that...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...I'm still filled with rage...

ESPUELAS: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...And envy about that.

ESPUELAS: I had it twice. I had him on twice.

MARTIN: Oh, now you're rubbing it in.

ESPUELAS: Well, as an entrepreneur, I am relentless...

MARTIN: OK.

ESPUELAS: ...And I will not take no, and so I keep pushing and pushing and pushing and pushing.

MARTIN: But what can you do with this radio show that you couldn't do as a business person? I mean, I think a lot of people would think it would be the opposite way, that you'd start out on the air and then go into business because you can have more reach.

ESPUELAS: Well...

MARTIN: Tell me about - yeah.

ESPUELAS: Yeah, well, you know, I think it's a conflict because I do like to be in charge. I like being the CEO, and when you're talent - you're a little bit - you're in a weird situation where you're, you know - you're valued behind the microphone, but once you leave the studio, you're some sort of idiot, right? No one cares what you think or say, even though you've run companies bigger than the company that's broadcasting you, perhaps.

But what I found was that I could build a relationship with an audience and because my own story is the story of millions of people - Latino and non-Latinos in this country - I could be, perhaps, a bridge, and because I grew up in Connecticut in the 1970s, when we were the only Hispanic family in our town, I understand the non-Hispanic American very well. I can play that person. I can understand that person, and my goal is to be a bridge and not to get people to stop being Hispanic or whatever, but to really connect the dots. Why is this happening? Well, it's happening because of this, that or the other thing. And try to create that connection.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you to stick around. Fernando Espuelas was named by Poder Magazine as one of the nation's 100 most influential Hispanics in 2012. He's the host of "The Fernando Espuelas Show," which is based here in Washington, D.C. I'm going to ask you to stick around while we bring in - we're going to take a drill-down and take a little closer look into the Latino experience in social media along with traditional media.

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