by Stephanie Bermudez, Startup Unidos Director
What do you get when you put five aspiring young entrepreneurs from Nogales together with mentors and new opportunities? The kind of curiosity, creativity, and energy that sparks innovation in the U.S.-Mexico borderlands.
That’s the vision of VozFrontera’s Startup Unidos Youth, Economic Development and Entrepreneurship program, which kicked off last month with its first cohort of participants. The nine-week program works with five high school graduates to explore the state of entrepreneurship in Ambos Nogales and develop new ideas for solving challenges.
The first session was magic! Pure magic!
We gathered at a local law office in Nogales, Arizona. I spent extra time setting up the room and filling it with inspiration: the right music, the perfect quotes on the wall, all the best diagrams. I focused on making the space ours a place of learning but with no traditional barriers. It is super important to me that the space is right, that the relationship fits. Startup Unidos Youth is teaching Nogales youth what may not be taught in any traditional school for another 10 or more years. I am proud to be the first to bring these teachings to my hometown.
One of the first things I told the students was that space was theirs.
“No bells will ring here. You are welcome to get up whenever you’d like. You do not need to return to the same seat every time. The snacks are all yours. You can speak at any time and for any reason. I am not your teacher or authority.”
I could see brightness in the students’ eyes.
Our objective was to get to know one another and orient to the program. We began with an introduction to local, national, and global economic development, with a focus on Ambos Nogales. We also talked about “startup culture.” In just a few years, 50 percent of the workforce will be freelancing, telecommuting, launching a startup or working for a startup – exposing the students to present day workplace culture allows them to begin to value creative problem solving and establish open communication strategies.
Their futures are wide open. None of the five students in the cohort will be staying in Nogales after high school, and only half see themselves returning in the future. But right now they are here and they committed to contributing in any way to contribute to their hometown.
Students’ parents have been very receptive to the program. Which is key, because we consider them not solely parents, but partners. Nogales is a family town, shaped by family history and narratives. This is how we dig in and this is also how we create change.
There were smiles across the board when Nils Urman, Executive Director of Nogales Community Development Corporation and our guest speaker, stood before them. “No matter what it is, big or small, we need each of you to not forget Nogales and return to share your experiences and expertise gained elsewhere. We need you to return so that we can learn from you or else we risk not growing simply because we may not understand you.”
This is the underlying philosophy of this project—to invest in this community and to create a change in the way we envision and speak about it. The dialogue, the narrative must change—one person at a time.
In this first cohort we start with five bright-eyed young people and are inspired every time to meet.
Here’s why Luis Felipe Parra, a senior at Nogales High School, signed up for the program, in his own words:
“Nogi raised” is what I always reply with when people ask me where I’m from. I say it loud and proud too. Not only am I proud to be from Nogales, but I am very fortunate to have grown up here. The vibes and feelings that this little border town gives out is unreal. Startup Unidos Youth, is such a wonderful opportunity to prove how distinct and special Nogales really is. I am confident that I will learn a lot and graduate with a different mindset on my beloved hometown.
We look forward to sharing more from each of the students enrolled in this inaugural cohort.