Episode 26: La mejor inversión (The Best Investment)

Would you build a company based on trust? That’s what social entrepreneur Marcela Torres set out to do when she launched her Mexico City-based startup that paid young people to learn to code. No one believed she could do it, until she did.

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Transcript

Martina: When the social entrepreneur Marcela Torres was 29 years old, she met a young man who would change her career path forever.

Marcela: Él tenía 22 años y parecía ser mexicano. Además tenía un pasaporte mexicano, pero hablaba muy poco español.

Martina: That’s because just two days prior, he had been deported from the U.S., where he had lived almost his entire life.

Marcela: Yo lo conocí en un hostal donde llegaban jóvenes deportados como él.

Martina: Marcela was at the hostel to study young immigrants from Central America, but her encounter with this man inspired her to shift her focus. She would study young Mexicans who were returning from the U.S. and landing in a country they had never known or claimed as their own.

Marcela: Estos jóvenes tienen dificultades para estudiar y sus trabajos, si los tienen, no son muy buenos. Por eso quería apoyarlos a encontrar mejores trabajos.

Martina: But she would help them get jobs in a pretty unusual way — by paying them to learn how to code.

Martina: Bienvenidos and welcome back to a new season of the Duolingo Spanish Podcast — I’m Martina Castro. Every episode, we bring you fascinating true stories to help you improve your Spanish listening and gain new perspectives on the world. The storyteller will be using intermediate Spanish and I will be chiming in for context in English. If you miss something, you can always skip back and listen again — and we also offer full transcripts at podcast.duolingo.com.

Martina: These days, Marcela Torres is an up and coming social entrepreneur that appears in magazines like Forbes. But the path that led her there starts back in 2011, before she met that young man who changed the course of her professional life.

Marcela: Ese año yo estaba en Inglaterra, estudiando una maestría en Desarrollo Social en la University College London.

Martina: That was also the year the Arab world was in the middle of a democratic revolution, largely led by young people using social media and other Internet tools to change their countries. This caught Marcela’s attention just around the time she was choosing a focus for her thesis.

Marcela: Yo decidí hacer mi tesis sobre ese tema: cómo las redes sociales pueden ayudar a las personas a participar en la vida democrática. Pero había un problema: yo no sabía nada sobre programación.

Martina: So she decided to get some help. At that point, she held a very common preconception about the tech world…

Marcela: Siempre he escuchado que los hombres dominan el mundo de la programación. Pero una cosa es saberlo y otra cosa es vivirlo.

Martina: She lived it when she went to her university's engineering department to ask a few questions. There she found a room full of men who said they were just too busy to help her. She felt dismissed and ignored.

Marcela: Después de eso, tomé una decisión radical: yo tenía que aprender a programar.

Martina: She got obsessed with this goal, even though she didn’t know the first thing about programming.

Marcela: Programar es como el yoga. Al principio vas a una clase y no puedes tocar tus pies. Pero mejoras poco a poco, y al final lo puedes lograr.

Martina: Marcela finished her masters in Social Development and successfully learned how to code in HTML and JavaScript. Then in 2015, after a decade studying and working abroad, she returned to Mexico.

Marcela: Yo quería usar todo lo que aprendí en el extranjero para hacer un cambio real en la sociedad.

Martina: At first, she landed a bureaucratic job as an urban planning consultant for Mexico City.

Marcela: Y al mismo tiempo busqué inspiración fuera del trabajo.

Martina: In her free time she went to “hackathons”, meetups where programmers worked for days trying to solve one big problem together.

Marcela: Y así aprendí que en México hay muy pocos programadores y que en general ellos son hombres de clase alta.

Martina: One day, a woman mentioned to her that she needed to hire 300 new programmers but could only find 10 qualified candidates. That’s when Marcela understood how desperate companies were to find this kind of talent. And it’s also when she met a man from France named Nicolás.

Marcela: Él dejó su trabajo en un banco para trabajar en proyectos sociales en México. Quería crear empresas para cambiar el mundo. Pero a mí no me gustaba esa idea.

Martina: She thought this was contradictory — companies are part of the problem, not the solution, she told him. To convince her, Nicoláas got a grant from the Netherlands to design a company focused on creating jobs for young people.

Marcela: Él sabía que ese tema me interesaba. Yo hice un estudio para mi trabajo en el gobierno y sabía que había muchísimos jóvenes sin trabajo en la ciudad. Eran muchachos y muchachas que no tenían educación y hacían lo que podían para ganar dinero.

Martina: Marcela saw so much potential in these young people that she quit her job with the city to start working with them full time.

Marcela: Y fue ahí cuando conocí al joven deportado que me cambió la vida.

Martina: This was the same young man from the beginning of the story. After meeting him, Marcela started doing workshops with people in their 20s and 30s, who had been deported from the U.S., or whose parents had been deported, forcing them to come along as well.

Marcela: Muchos son bilingües, tienen educación y conocen dos culturas: la de sus padres y la de los Estados Unidos. Cuando son adultos, muchas veces tienen problemas con la policía por cosas pequeñas como conducir sin licencia. Y cuando el gobierno se entera de que no tienen documentos, los deportan.

Martina: After they arrive in Mexico, their lives aren’t easy. Universities don’t let them transfer their credits from the U.S., often because their transcripts are in English and they don’t satisfy requirements built into the Mexican education system.

Marcela: Y si no hablan español, tienen que tomar clases. Como hablan perfecto inglés, muchos trabajan en call centers… donde ganan entre 150 y 500 dólares por mes. No tienen muchas oportunidades para avanzar, por eso Nicoláas y yo queríamos apoyarlos.

Martina: With all that insight, Marcela finally decided she knew enough to launch a business to support them.

Marcela: Por primera vez pensé que una empresa privada podía crear un cambio social. Me hice colega de Nicoláas y él se convirtió en mi mentor.

Martina: Marcela and Nicoláas would spend a year developing a for-profit company that would train immigrants returning to Mexico to be programmers. But here’s the catch — they would train them for free.

Marcela: El nombre de la empresa sería Hola Code.

Martina: Marcela and Nicoláas knew that their potential students at Hola Code didn’t have the money for the kind of training they wanted to offer them. So they knew the training would have to be free. But their company would go one step further.

Marcela: Los estudiantes iban a recibir un salario semanal para mantenerse a ellos y a sus familias durante los cinco meses del programa.

Martina: Once the students got jobs, they would pay Hola Code back for the cost of their training. It was a business model built entirely on trust. Sounded great in theory, but the investors, los inversionistas, would need some convincing.

Marcela: La primera vez que les expliqué el proyecto yo tenía solo dos minutos. Perdí mi oportunidad solo hablando del potencial que los chicos tenían.

Martina: The investors had five minutes at the end of Marcela’s pitch to ask questions, but they didn’t.

Marcela: Ellos solo me criticaron. Uno me dijo: "Tienes una buena idea de cómo puede ser el mundo, pero no tienes idea de cómo funciona realmente”. Ese día terminó muy triste.

Martina: The more she presented Hola Code to investors, the better her pitch got. It went like this:

Marcela: Hola Code es un programa de cinco meses que ofrece a los migrantes que vuelven a México un programa de ingeniería en software, asistencia psicológica y otros beneficios. Además, ofrece un sueldo de $250 que depende de su asistencia.

Martina: But Marcela’s idea continued to face sharp skepticism over the business model. They couldn’t understand how her bottom line depended on trust alone? They also thought it was backwards to pay the students a weekly salary... usually students pay YOU when you teach them.

Marcela: Me dijeron: “No puedes enseñarles a programar gratis y también darles un salario porque se van a llevar tu dinero y salir corriendo”. Yo no creía eso para nada. Yo sabía que las empresas necesitaban muchos programadores y que los alumnos iban a encontrar trabajo.

Martina: And she strongly believed if they got jobs they would pay back the program, instead of taking the money and running, as the investors were implying. But Marcela got used to investors saying “no” to her idea.

Marcela: Después de casi un año, ya no tenía dinero. Vivía haciendo trabajos de traducción y usando mi tarjeta de crédito.

Martina: And then, in the fall of 2017, she attended an important conference where she’d get to pitch investors from the U.S. There were many other entrepreneurs trying to sell their ideas there, too. Marcela pitched and once again, she wasn’t selected.

Marcela: Yo estaba muy triste. Solo quería ir a casa para estar en la cama y beber vino sola.

Martina: As she was leaving the conference, a woman she knew invited her to a cocktail party for the investors and hopeful entrepreneurs. Marcela decided it was worth one last try.

Marcela: En la fiesta, conocí a un inversionista privado. Le hablé de mi idea y me dio su tarjeta. Recuerdo que a él le encantaba la idea de apoyar a una compañía que ayuda al país.

Martina: Marcela put away his card. And then moments later, she fell into conversation with an analyst for a company that invested in ideas with social impact.

Marcela: Me dijo: "¿Por qué no vienes a las oficinas y nos hablas más sobre eso?" Yo ya había escuchado "no" mil veces, así que respondí sin mucha esperanza: "Genial, me parece bien".

Martina: Later that week, Marcela arrived at a very chic building with marble floors. The analyst, she had met at the cocktail party, a woman, was there with three men in suits.

Marcela: Yo no me preparé de manera especial, pero dije mi pitch. Me dieron sus tarjetas y nos dijimos adiós rápidamente. Era gente muy importante y yo pensé: “Bueno, otro grupo que no está interesado”.

Martina: A week later, Marcela got a phone call. It was the company's director of investment and he said they wanted to invest in Hola Code!

Marcela: Me dijo: “Más que creer en Hola Code, creemos en ti, en la jefa de la empresa”. ¡Estaba muy emocionada! Pero al oír todo eso pensé en la gran responsabilidad que tenía.

Martina: They would give Marcela only half of the money she needed. So she still had to find someone who would finance the other half.

Marcela: Yo recordé al inversionista privado que me dio su tarjeta en la fiesta y le envié un correo electrónico. Y él me respondió.

Martina: Those two contacts she made at the party were her first investors in Hola Code.

Marcela: Me puse en acción inmediatamente después de recibir el dinero.

Martina: She hired a team and rented an office space. She began recruiting students. Finally, the easy part! Who wouldn’t want to earn money while studying?

Martina: But it turned out to be tougher than she had imagined.

Marcela: Nadie creía que era real. Decían: “¿Cómo me van a dar una computadora, dinero, comida y me van a enseñar a programar, yo no tengo que pagar hasta tener un trabajo?" Otra vez, no me creían.

Martina: Marcela posted fliers at call centers. She invited potential students to information sessions. She even provided pizza and drinks. But if 30 people showed up, half of them would leave without asking any questions.

Marcela: Después de muchas noches como esa, encontramos 29 estudiantes. Uno de ellos fue Eddy. Él tenía 26 años.

Martina: Eddy had a wife and two daughters back in the U.S. He had been deported a few months earlier, and was working in a call center when he saw the advertisement for Hola Code.

Marcela: Él trabajaba muy duro para aprender en clases. Pero sin su familia, se sentía muy solo. Comenzó a quedarse en la oficina para sentirse acompañado. Otros estudiantes hicieron lo mismo.

Martina: Those students were learning more than how to code. Every week they had meetings where they would vote on what they wanted to change about the program.

Marcela: Así, empezaron a creer en ellos mismos. La primera clase se graduó en abril de 2018. Como casi todos los estudiantes crecieron en los Estados Unidos, hicimos una ceremonia americana. Alguien dijo unas palabras y al final todos lanzaron sus sombreros al aire.

Martina: Of the 29 students who started the program, 21 completed it and 20 already have jobs as programmers at a mix of companies, including banks and e-commerce businesses.

Marcela: Esas 20 personas están pagando sus estudios, así que nuestro modelo de negocios funciona.

Martina: And the word about Hola Code is spreading fast: they received 230 applications this fall. Some of them were from people in the "migrant caravan" passing through Mexico from Central America.

Marcela: Ahora que este proyecto es real, veo a los estudiantes y me parecen pequeños pollitos que tienen que salir de sus huevos. Así que les llamo “my little chickens”.

Martina: The students don’t see themselves quite that way. This Christmas they gave Marcela a pair of socks with the phrase “Mother of Dragons”, a reference to the fierce warrior queen on HBO’s Game of Thrones.

Marcela: ¡Y me encanta! Ellos y yo compartimos el sentido del humor, diferentes experiencias como inmigrantes y también la sensación de no pertenecer totalmente a un solo lugar.

Martina: Marcela Torres is a social entrepreneur and cofounder of Hola Code along with Nicoláas Demeillers. This story was written by Emily Green, a freelance journalist based in Mexico City.

We’d love to know what you thought of this episode! Send us an email with your feedback at podcast@duolingo.com. And if you liked the story, please share it! You can find the audio and a transcript of each episode at podcast.duolingo.com. You can also subscribe at Apple Podcasts or your favorite listening app so you never miss an episode.

Duolingo is the world's leading language learning platform, and the #1 education app, with over 300 million users worldwide. Duolingo believes in making education free, fun and accessible to everyone. To join, download the app today, or find out more at duolingo.com. I’m the podcast’s executive producer, Martina Castro – gracias por escuchar.

Credits

This episode was produced by Duolingo and Adonde Media.

Author: Emily Green
Narrator: Marcela Torres
Script Editor: Marco Avilés
Senior Editor: Catalina May
Mixer: Ana Lucia Murillo
Sound Design & Mastering Engineer: Martín Cruz
Executive Producer/Editor: Martina Castro