Richard Leza broke into Silicon Valley's high-tech community the hard way.
He grew up poor in a town in southern New Mexico, encountered life-threatening cancer at 22, then confronted what he says was the biggest obstacle of all: a white establishment business world that shut him out.
Yet none of these challenges was enough to keep him out forever.
"If they're not going to let me in the front door," Leza vowed years ago, after being rejected by the valley's venture capital community, "I'm going through the back door."
Leza banged down the back door, but didn't stop there. He became an evangelist, seeing in himself a toehold for Latinos following in his footsteps. Two years ago, Leza founded Hispanic-Net, a Bay Area group that nurtures high-tech Latino entrepreneurs, and has about a hundred active members. He spends much of his time giving speeches, exhorting his fellow minorities not to give up hope.
The problem with places like the venture community on Menlo Park's Sand Hill Road, he explains to his audiences, is that it doesn't look beyond its own circle. To make it, Latinos need to leverage the Latino community's increasing number of business players: "We have the mass," he says, "now we've got to create synergies."
Leza recently told his story over lunch at Il Fornaio, the place where the power crowd in Palo Alto talks business.
His journey began when he obtained degrees in computer technology and engineering from East Los Angeles College and New Mexico State University. While he was still in college, he was diagnosed with cancer and told he had only a few months to live. He said he risked some experimental treatment, and two years later got better.
He worked as an engineer for six years. Then, while getting an MBA from Stanford, he worked as a financial analyst for a Sand Hill Road firm, Envirotech, where he evaluated companies for potential acquisition -- and rubbed shoulders with venture capitalists. Soon, he explains, he wanted to become one.
Interviewing up and down Sand Hill Road, though, he was confronted with "1,001 excuses" for why he couldn't, he says. Mostly, he recalls, venture capitalists at top firms like Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, Sutter Hill and Institutional Venture Partners told him he didn't have enough "start-up" experience. Still, they were hiring people without his technical background.
He joined Qume, a San Jose start-up that enabled word processing programs to print documents.
Here, he noticed how VCs moved as a herd. The same venture capitalists argued that computers would make paper obsolete, he recalls, and dismissed Qume's chances. But conversations with lawyers convinced him that law firms, for one, would print out more paper, not less.
Leza took the job when Qume had only 15 people. He led the company's manufacturing operations, starting with two employees in Puerto Rico, and building to 350. Soon, Qume was acquired, turning Leza's $100 of personal investment into $500,000 overnight. As a return, he says, it was "off the scale."
With the start-up experience under his belt, Leza went back to Sand Hill Road again. But the VCs didn't bite. That's when he vowed to enter "through the back door."
To earn more cash, he helped start four more companies. First, he joined some entrepreneurs who planned to enter the disk-drive space. Seeing too many competitors, Leza encouraged them instead to cater to the 40 or 50 start-ups in the space by offering specialized testing equipment. The VCs though it was a crazy idea, says Leza. But again, they were wrong, and he and the team built the start-up, FlexStar, into a company with $50 million sales before selling to Core Industries.
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