According to the National Women’s Law Center, Latinas earn only 53 cents for every dollar a non-Hispanic white male earns. This disparity equates to more than a $1 million difference in earnings over a lifetime of employment! The good news is that more Hispanics are going to college and graduating with degrees, a key factor to narrowing this wage gap. Between 2000 and 2015, the college attendance rate among Hispanic high school graduates increased from 22% to 37% according to the U.S. Department of Education with Latinas making up slightly more than half of these students.

As higher education attainment has increased, Latina-owned businesses have also increased from 800,000 to 1.5 million — an 88% increase according to a 2016 report from the U.S. Department of Commerce. Latinas are the fastest growing entrepreneur base in the U.S. of any female business ownership of any race or ethnicity.

Have higher education institutions recognized this emergence and how are they taking advantage of the burgeoning opportunities? Have they recognized changes in the student population and addressed those demands with new curricula and programs?

About 12 years ago, the University of Texas at Austin created the Division of Diversity and Community Engagement targeting students of color and offering support to students who might be the first in their families to attend college. Despite their best efforts of offering tutoring and other backing, the university recognized there were aspects of the institution itself and society at large that required innovative thinking.

In fall of 2018, UT hired Rubén Cantú as Executive Director of Inclusive Innovation and Entrepreneurship. It’s Cantú’s job to identify UT students of diverse backgrounds who have an entrepreneurial spirit and help them develop their dream product, managerial skills, or business idea in order to increase their wealth and subsequently their respective community’s wealth. The programs UT is developing are worthy of all higher education institutions to take note and take charge.

“You can’t talk about equality without talking about equity,” Cantú said. “We need to pave a path for generational wealth to make the difference. We had to stop talking and start acting — one person at a time — to become business owners who then raise the wealth of his or her respective community.”

This approach is innovative and requires an application process for acceptance. Cantú helps identify diverse students with the qualities or ideas to put into the right programs. The programs include WIELD Texas, the women’s executive career incubator, which helps women of color at UT hone their leadership skills with the goal of reaching mid to upper management in Corporate America within 10 years of graduating. Another program called the Product Prodigy Institute — a two-semester course that gives students the skills to launch their own venture — has just graduated its first cohort of 13 students of which several graduates have received six-figure starting salaries. TechStars, a globally renowned accelerator, is a partnership with UT to get entrepreneurial-minded graduates accepted into a pipeline of companies that would support and invest in their big idea to become a start-up reality. 

“Now the conversation is on diversity and design,” Cantú said. “By focusing on the next majority of business owners and leaders, we can make a generational shift.”

Speaking specifically about Latina entrepreneurs he added, “This is a ‘do-it-yourself generation’ with role models like Jessica Alba. They don’t have to wait for permission. They want to create their own path, discover their own power, and they recognize the game is rigged if they don’t.”

All of these programs are potential gamechangers for a Hispanic population that will determine the lifestyle of almost 20% of the U.S. population. Higher education institutions across the country will have to think creatively with these entrepreneurs in mind, if they hope to stay relevant. Universities need to challenge themselves on the programs and innovation they offer diverse students as well as how they are marketing to this group to differentiate themselves.