They all assumed that there had to be a catch. Most were young adults struggling with low-paying jobs, such as those at call centers paying less than $2 an hour. Others were unemployed. Marcela Torres was offering them a chance to take a five-month coding course that would give them computer skills that would help them break out of the cycle of poverty.

To top it off, they wouldn’t have to pay tuition until they landed a job. Instead, they would receive a monthly stipend while they attended classes. Potential students were noticeably nervous when they turned out for a pizza-and-beer party where they would learn more about the program.

Hola Code pays students a monthly stipend while they learn crucial coding skills.

“They thought we were a scam,” says Torres, who had distributed flyers wherever she thought she could find students, including an underground hip-hop club. “Some thought they were going to be kidnapped. But everyone came because they were really desperate.”

Torres is the co-founder of Mexico City’s Hola Code, a coding boot camp that focuses on Mexican citizens who have returned after living for years in the US. Many were the so-called “Dreamers” who were brought to the US by parents who were undocumented immigrants. They had been deported or had decided to leave before being deported, so they had to build a whole new life in Mexico.

She says her students — who were basketball players, sushi chefs, and construction workers in the US — lack the basics, like official identification or a college degree, they need to secure a good job.

Hola Code is a coding boot camp that focuses on Mexican citizens who have returned after living for years in the US.

“Mexico is a classist society, and the university you went to determines your access to certain sectors,” says Torres, a finalist at WeWork’s Creator Awards. “The tech sector was like that, but it can’t continue. The demand for software engineers is too high.”

Based at WeWork Insurgentes Sur 601, the school has attracted students like 22-year-old Miriam Alvarez, who returned to Mexico from the US six years ago. The former call center employee started out with no coding skills, but now she’s helping create a better online registration process for Hola Code.

Alvarez says the project has made her more interested in front-end design.

“I really like the front-end, the client side of the UX,” says Alvarez. “I hope to broaden those skills even more.”

Torres is adamant that her first class, numbering just 22 people, can light a fire under the Mexican tech sector. A social scientist who has worked on technology projects around the world, Torres says she knows exactly what skills her students need. She partnered with San Francisco-based Hack Reactor, which agreed to share its curriculum with Hola Code.

Finding the right investors

Investors were harder to convince. Some were understandably skeptical about a coding boot camp that would pay students about $300 a month while they learned, and only asked them to pay for their tuition of about $6,000 after they found employment as software engineers.

“Most investors were very polite, but didn’t see it as feasible,” says Torres. “They thought it was a beautiful idea, but a bit naïve.”

Others, she says, were blatantly sexist.

“One potential investor loved the idea, but wanted a different CEO,” she says. “They tried to hide it by saying I didn’t have experience, but it was about being a woman.”

Based at Mexico City’s WeWork Insurgentes Sur 601, Hola Code has attracted 22 students in its first class.

She eventually found funding from an angel investor and a Mexican foundation called Promotora Social Mexico.

The gender bias that Torres encountered has only made her more committed to making sure that women are represented in the school. She says that the first class has only three women, but she is proud of the progress they are making.

“Some of these women are single mothers, and becoming developers gives them real opportunities,” says Torres.

Helping students find jobs

For all the drive and passion in the Hola Code office, Torres knows the project will fall apart if students cannot get jobs. She met with the human resources teams at several Mexicans firms, and at first they were a hard sell.

“They didn’t believe that coding boot camps would provide formal training,” says Torres. “Many only recruit developers with degrees, so what we are doing is quite radical.”

That perspective is changing, partly because US companies with offices in Mexico are keen to hire bilingual coders. Mexican companies began taking another look at students like the ones from Hola Code and saw they could match the performance of their in-house developers.

“I look at my team and I see the future creators of technology in this country.”

How can they tell? Torres asks them to provide a coding challenge that their employees would realistically encounter. She doesn’t reveal personal details about the student until a company agrees to hire them.

“Our partners don’t know if they are hiring a woman or a man,” she says. “It’s all very meritocratic.”

As the first class prepares to graduate, Torres says she’s pleased with the progress her students have made.

“I look at my team and I see the future creators of technology in this country,” she says. “They are resilient, they are hard working. They come with this hunger. I’ve never seen a group so determined to create something.”

“Ten years ago most people here did not know what this brown paste was,” says Anthony Brahimsha of the chickpea dip that is now nearly ubiquitous on menus in the U.S..

Born to Syrian parents, Brahimsha knew that hummus in the Middle East is much better than that found in American grocery stores. With the help of Mike McCloskey, owner of Select Milk Producers, the sixth largest dairy cooperative in the country, he developed a hummus called Prommus that is higher in protein –– three times that of other dips. It preserves the traditional flavor by using cold pressure, rather than heat, in the kitchen.

“What Halo Top is to ice cream and Chobani is to yogurt, we are to hummus,” Brahimsha says, by way of explaining that Prommus is also changing the industry.

The company name is a combination of the words “protein” and “hummus,” but is also a play on the word “promise.” With 1 percent of sales benefitting the World Food Program to fight global hunger, Brahimsha hopes that the product can have a significant effect on ending hunger and making nutritious foods available wherever they are needed.

Prommus cofounder Anthony Brahimsha, who has spent a lot of time on humanitarian missions, believes his hummus could help feed the world.

While the initial idea was born out of his humanitarian work in refugee camps along the Turkish/Syrian border, Brahimsha has even bigger dreams. The world needs to find more ways to make nutritious foods for people who are going hungry, and he thinks Prommus and its innovative production process are part of the solution. Two patents are currently pending.

The company’s four varieties (original, red pepper, olive, and avocado) are sold in the Midwest, primarily in Illinois and Michigan. These flavors were taste-tested by Brahimsha’s fellow members at Chicago’s WeWork River North, a community that he says has been invaluable to the startup.

“There are a lot of co-working spaces, but not everywhere is a community of social entrepreneurs who are rooting for their peers,” he says.

A winner in the business venture category at the Nashville Creator Awards, he says he’ll be able to start the next stage of expansion for his company, primarily by adding staff.

“As soon as you win this award, all the blood sweat and tears that you put into the company comes together,” he says. “Everything that you have been doing, the people that were with you along the way, finally, it feels like an affirmation that you were doing the right thing.”

 

Melanie Faye grew up in Nashville, but she doesn’t credit Music City with her success. She credits Guitar Hero. Yes, that Guitar Hero, the video game that allows players to mimic the sounds and moves of their favorite stars. For Faye, it was Michael Jackson.

“I don’t think growing up in Nashville introduced me to guitar players,” Faye says. “My parents were chemists. I was not able to go to bars and see local shows. Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to. Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

So, perhaps it shouldn’t be a surprise that Faye, now 20, has found fame via YouTube. After dropping out of college three semesters in to pursue her music career, Faye posted videos of herself sitting in her bedroom and playing covers of John Mayer and Mariah Carey.

“Guitar Hero introduced me to all this music I was not exposed to,” says Melanie Faye. “Guitar Hero looked really cool. It made me feel empowered.”

She also used the platform to debut some of her original work, which she describes as a mixture of R&B, hip hop, and pop. Her voice, serious guitar-playing chops, and friendly demeanor propelled those videos to more than 10 million views. She was so popular that the guitar company Fender tapped her to demo a new line of the instrument.

“I thought, ‘This is it! I’m viral. I made it!’ But it does not work that way,” she says. Faye makes ends meet by working at a local doughnut shop and teaches guitar. She also keeps working on her music the old-fashioned way, having been tapped to be the opening act for musicians like Noname and Mac Demarco. Her most recent gig was at the Nashville Creator Awards.

She is working on her first album, which she hopes will be out by the year’s end. A self-proclaimed perfectionist, Faye has been working on Homophone for years.

“If I had known it was going to take this long,” she says, “I wouldn’t have told people it was going to be out soon.”

Faye is also working to relieve the jitters that come with performing live, rather than in front of a camera. A recent show at the Hollywood Palladium was a game changer.

“I typically am really shy and inhibited on stage. But I felt so much support and positive energy, I just let loose,” she remembers. “I think to an extent you just have to have fake confidence at first. I walked up and had a confident demeanor and once I heard crowd cheering, then I was confident.”

“It happens overnight,” Maria Vertkin says. “An immigrant moves to the U.S. and goes from being a surgeon to washing toilets.”

College degrees and professional experience from their home country don’t always mean as much as they should when an immigrant starts a new life abroad, says Vertkin. She knows from experience: She spent her childhood in Russia and Israel before immigrating to the United States. But she realized that they have one thing that will always be of use to them: their language skills.

“It doesn’t make sense if you have something as valuable as a second language to not use it,” says Vertkin, who speaks English, Russian, Hebrew, Spanish, and Portuguese.

Vertkin, a Boston-based social worker, wanted to help train women to use their multilingual skills to their advantage. She saw a need that they could fill in the medical field. Hospitals in Massachusetts struggled to find interpreters for their patients who aren’t native English speakers. Without interpreters, expensive and even potentially fatal medical errors are possible.

A Found in Translation graduate shows off her diploma.

“The jobs are plentiful and the demographics are shifting,” says Vertkin. “Not only do they serve the local population, but medical tourists come from other countries and they need interpreters.”

The idea was a hit with the judges of WeWork’s Nashville Creator Awards. Found in Translation took home a $72,000 prize in the nonprofit category.

In 2011, Vertkin started Found in Translation to help homeless and low-income women achieve economic security by making their language skills an asset, rather than a liability. Within a few weeks of announcing the first class, she had 200 applications.

The nonprofit offers medical interpreter certificate training as well as other interpreter programs. And the training includes more than the core curriculum — childcare, transportation, job placement, and access to mentors for professional development are also part of the program.

The 186 graduates of Found in Translation classes between 2012 and 2017 earned approximately $1.86 million cumulatively more per year than they did before enrollment. That’s about $10,000 more per person annually. She says that if she wins in the nonprofit category at the Nashville Creator Awards, she can expand the program.

Classes currently take place in Boston, where Vertkin estimates they could easily double in size with the right funding. Every city in the U.S., she says, has the potential for success with Found in Translation.

“There is opportunity and need and we are connecting them,” Vertkin says. “The biggest risk is for employers not hiring multilingual employees.”

If Janett Liriano has her way, you won’t be using your FitBit much longer.

Liriano is CEO of Loomia, a New York-based firm at the intersection of tech and fashion. The company creates “intelligent drapeable circuits” that are soft enough to be embedded into textiles and can be safely washed and dried. Instead of wearing a step tracker on your wrist, it could be embedded into your running shoes.

That’s just the beginning of what these circuits can do. Those shoes might not just track your steps, but can also measure the pressure on your feet, giving you information on how you should adjust your gait. They might heat up and keep your feet warm in winter. And a light might keep you safer on a nighttime jog.

Loomia’s CEO Janett Liriano and founder Maddy Maxey

Liriano has two patents for her product and others in the pipeline for the smart fabric-enabling circuits. Her team is working with more than 80 brands on how they can integrate the smart technology into their designs. The current emphasis is on clothing, but the flexibility of the circuit opens the door to other products in the future.

“We are category agnostic,” Liriano says. “If you can make a washable circuit, you can put it on the floor. You can put it in wallpaper.”

Liriano, who took home third place in the business ventures category at the Nashville Creator Awards, sees potential in fields ranging from medicine to transportation.

Not only can Loomia transform the ways smart devices are used, it can also change what happens to all that data once it is collected. The company is looking at ways that consumers can sell their data to interested parties — or choose not to share it.

Liriano, a “born-and-bred New Yorker,” thinks the city is the right place for the firm. It’s one of the country’s great fashion hubs, but it also has a strong startup scene.

New Yorkers are inherently scrappy and resourceful,” she says. “For a business that is not super capitalized, that’s a good network. We are hard-core hustlers.”