Once he made enough, he started investing his own money into start-ups. Unlike most other VCs, he didn't have to answer to investors. On the downside, though, he had limited funds: "I was still on the outside," he says.
Leza says the Latino business community has been disadvantaged by lack of cash. In his speeches around the valley, Leza pours out grim statistics: 60 percent of Latino businesses are started by entrepreneurs who borrow money, compared to only 5 percent to 10 percent of whites who borrow, he says, citing statistics compiled by Hispanic Business magazine and Information Week. Whites have much more access to "equity," or money granted to them with no obligation to pay it back, Leza says.
Latino and black entrepreneurs pay an average of about 10 percent to 12 percent interest rates, compared to only 8 percent for whites, according to Hispanic Business magazine. Nowhere do Latinos lag more, he says, than in high tech.
To be sure, there are visible Latino CEOs and high-level executives in the valley: Hector Ruiz, chief executive of Sunnyvale's Advanced Micro Devices; Greg Reyes, chief executive of San Jose's Brocade Communications; and Ramon Nunez, chief executive of San Jose's Ikos, recently acquired by Mentor Graphics.
That's a start, but Latinos need to go further, Leza argues. That includes breaking through the 1 percent to 2 percent barrier in the highest executive ranks. It also means accessing venture capital.
Recently, Leza has been trying to raise a venture fund specifically for investing in Latino high-tech start-ups. He's lobbying big institutions, among them the federal Small Business Administration.
There are no Latino-run venture funds in the Bay Area. Statewide, there are only about 30 Latino "angels," people like himself who invest their own money, he says.
He founded Hispanic-Net two years ago, an idea inspired over coffee at Le Boulanger on Mountain View's Castro Street, with Renaldo Gil, chief executive of Fremont's Commendo Software, and Roberto Medrano, chief executive of Mountain View's PoliVec.
"After a while, he got a few of us together and said 'We've got to create an organization that can cater to people who don't have contacts,'" Medrano said.
Leza's investment company, AI Research, continues to make a small number of investments. Leza won't reveal too many details, but says he has sold eight of the 16 companies he's invested in. He's achieved an annual return of about 43 percent, compared with about 18 percent to 20 percent of most VCs, he says.
He's driven, he says, by a conviction that Latinos are trailing needlessly. It's not conscious discrimination holding Latinos back, he says, it's something more subtle, a "cultural gap," a reticence among the white establishment to trust others outside their own.
"It comes down to the comfort level they have with people If it's someone outside of their circle, they need to see a superstar," he says.
During speeches, Leza puts it this way: "Certain people are sending out invitations to the party, and if you don't know anyone who is sending out the invitations, you're not going to get to the party."
Many venture firms, Leza notes, appointed Asian partners to be able to better attract capital from wealthy Asian investors. His hope is that stronger economic growth in Latin America will mean more jobs for Latino venture capitalists.
At a San Jose gathering in September, he recounted how an early employer, Byron Jackson Pumps in Vernon, wanted to pay Leza less money than other workers, citing his lesser degree. Leza, in protest, handed in his two-week notice.
The company's vice president offered him a 50 percent pay raise to change his mind. For Leza, the switch was too late: "I said: 'I'm walking out today.'"
The story resonated with the crowd of Latino onlookers. Among them was Sarah Taylor, a recent Stanford graduate. She said she wasn't interested in business school early on because she didn't have any role models. Now she's changing that. She soon plans to enter Santa Clara University's program.
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