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SoCal Storylines: Innovating for our communities

Wednesday, December 14, 2016, 7:30pm - 9:00pm
KPCC's Crawford Family Forum 474 S Raymond Ave Pasadena, CA 91105 Map and directions

On Wednesday, December 14, KPCC senior reporter Ben Bergman moderated a conversation on the unique opportunities and challenges facing social entrepreneurs in Southern California and more broadly. Make in L.A. cofounder Noramay Cadena and Everytable CEO Sam Polk discussed their journeys toward entrepreneurship and community involvement, the stark inequality of opportunity facing young female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color and their visions for Southern California – and the nation – in the 21st century. The event was the fourth and final installment in the “SoCal Storylines: Conversations with movers and shakers” series, a collaboration with the Milken Institute.



Noramay Cadena is a nationally recognized leader for her technical contributions in the corporate world as well as for her work in the community. Cadena is the cofounder and general manager of Make in L.A., the first hardware accelerator located in the San Fernando Valley. Cadena also leads the Latinas in STEM Foundation. Previously, Cadena spent more than a dozen years working at Boeing. She holds three degrees from MIT.

What is an accelerator?

Cadena: I tell my mom it is a little like “Shark Tank,” but we are a little bit nicer. An accelerator is a program that takes in, in our case, early stage hardware founders – people trying to develop a product. We help them through mentorship, capital investment, a place to work and partnerships with a prototype lab and a contract manufacturer … [We take] a group of people with a great idea and build a community of resources around them to make them successful.

Why did you start Make in L.A.?

Cadena: I [spent] over 10 years at the Boeing company … After business school, I was really feeling like I wanted something fast-paced. I knew I could do more, and my career had reached a point at which it was difficult to grow. That’s when I cofounded Latinas in STEM. I was doing a lot of work in the community, and that organization filled a passion – a gap for me. We were able to grow the organization from something that started here in L.A. to something that impacts thousands of students and parents all across the country.

After running that for about three and a half years, I again started to feel idle. Friends were joining startups; I really wanted to break in and learn about venture capital and I got on AngelList, which is a platform for startups and founders. That’s where I met my cofounder Shaun.

How many companies does Make in L.A. have?

Cadena: We’ve been around for about a year and a half. We have 11 companies in our portfolio.

You wrote: “Hustle trumps capability and capability trumps ideas.” Explain.

Cadena: Yes. Everyone has an idea. Moving beyond the idea, there has to be a level of capability, experience, background. Beyond that is hustle: how hard is this team willing to work … The founders who are the most successful are those that have that level of grit and that level of hustle and they’re able to say “yes” and take on every challenge head on.

Why Los Angeles?

Cadena: Talent, history of manufacturing, the port of L.A. – it’s an incredible city where everything converges to really help a startup. Over 200 languages are spoken here in L.A. It makes it a prime location for just about any industry trying to validate product and market fit.

What are some challenges specific to a hardware startup?

Cadena: Speed is one. Getting a product to market is incredibly difficult. You have to build something in order to get it in front of customers and validate. There are a lot of entrepreneurs coming up with products that don’t really solve a problem. They’re great, they’re fun, they’re exciting, but when we go and talk to potential customers, they don’t want to spend money on it … Manufacturing is also a challenge.

For people who are not familiar with your story, let’s review: You grew up here; you went to San Fernando High School. You got pregnant at 16 and then, as a single mom, headed to MIT. You were the first in your family to go to college. Was it a hard decision to pack up and move across the country as a single mom?

Cadena: Every time someone says what I did, it still sounds incredible to me. My daughter is actually a first-year college student now. She just had her first final on Tuesday, and she called me after, and she said, “I don’t know how you did it.”… Was it difficult? Absolutely. I tell people that poverty is a great motivator, and as first-generation Mexican immigrants, we definitely had a lot of challenges growing up. I may not have known what I wanted to do with my life, but I definitely knew what I didn’t want. That was my motivation. I took every opportunity to improve my life.

You’ve said that it was seeing your parents work in factories that made you know what you did want to do.

Cadena: Correct. In fact, my parents worked in a factory in Chatsworth, which is where Make in L.A. is now, so it is bittersweet.

What is your advice to young hardware entrepreneurs?

Cadena: Building community is our number one piece of advice. We have a saying at Make in L.A.: “It’s great to learn from mistakes, but you don’t have to make them all yourself.” We stress for entrepreneurs to find other entrepreneurs and find community where they can work together, leverage lessons learned, leverage equipment … Community.

What advice do you have for someone young and inexperienced who wants to make an impact?

Cadena: If you have the passion and the conviction to support a cause, I’m sure you have talents and skills that can be applied … The youngest founder we took on at Make in L.A. was 23. And our more experienced team is in their 50s. So, it’s a pretty wide range… Just find an organization that is specializing in the cause you really care about, and I’m sure you’ll find a way to really contribute.

Sam Polk is cofounder and CEO of Everytable, a food startup whose mission is to bring healthy, affordable food to every table in the country. It prices its meals according to the neighborhoods the individual location serves. Polk is also the founder and executive director of the nonprofit Groceryships, which helps family food providers make healthy choices through nutrition education, cooking classes, free produce and support group meetings. Prior to becoming a social entrepreneur, Polk was a hedge fund trader on Wall Street. His memoir is called “For The Love of Money.”

Why did you start Groceryships?

Polk: [After leaving Wall Street,] I basically spent the next two or three years working on [my] book and doing volunteer work. And then one weekend my girlfriend, who’s now my wife, and I went on a Netflix binge-watching spree of all the food documentaries … what really blew my mind was the argument [“A Place at The Table”] made about the intersection of poverty and food-related health issues like obesity and diabetes. [The film] described the existence of these things called food deserts, where there’s very little fresh produce for sale and tons and tons of fast food. I come from a family that struggles deeply with food issues … I struggle to eat healthy as well.

Everytable’s model prices food according to neighborhood. Do you think that the people in Santa Monica are going to feel like they’re getting ripped off?

Polk: Again, meals there are $8, so it’s a really big bargain. But second… especially since November 8, people are looking for a way to help and be part of a solution and be part of a movement that brings this city together. I love this city, and I think that Los Angeles is having this incredible moment, and it’s also a deeply segregated and deeply unequal city … There’s this entire swath of Los Angeles that people don’t go to and they are unexposed to, but the truth is that they are some of densest parts of the city… I do think people are tired of this old model… and want to find things that work for them and work for the system as a whole.

You could have stayed on Wall Street, made a lot of money and donated 90 percent of it. Why not?

Polk: There is this belief that the money is all-powerful. But the truth is that we all are unique snowflakes that have a certain experience and certain talents a certain perspective … I generally believe that people are more powerful than money. If you have $100 million or you have the next big idea – which is more important in the world? I used to believe it was money, and now I believe it’s the idea.

What led you to Wall Street?

Polk: Since I was very young, I was incredibly ambitious. I think a lot of it came from my dad … We grew up in Glendale, and I went to La Cañada High School … My dad was a salesman who had these huge dreams … He was so captivated by the fantasy, but the reality was that we drove junkie cars and lived paycheck to paycheck and the electricity would get turned off. So I sort of believed my dad’s dream, but I also felt the anxiety that pervaded our life. When I was about to graduate college, it felt like stepping off the precipice of the edge of the world … Wall Street was recruiting … They would always be these young people … wearing great watches … For a kid who hadn’t seen anything like that before, it was just this world that I was like, “Yes.”

When and why did you decide to leave?

Polk: By the time I made it to Wall Street, I was sort of stumbling around in my life and I ended up getting dumped by this girl that I was deeply in love with. That – for whatever reason – was this very painful thing that caused me to start seeing this counselor … We started grappling with issues of character and integrity and purpose. In 2008, I started to see this side of Wall Street that I hadn’t seen before. I knew Wall Street wasn’t about saving the children, but I started to see that this whole fantasy I had about meritocracy and masters of the universe – that it actually wasn’t like that.

What advice do you have for someone young and inexperienced who wants to make an impact?

Polk: First, your 20s and 30s are really about building experience and building skills so find a job or something to do that is really challenging ­– that challenges your talents and that you learn something, some skill. Also, I would say take off the pressure that says you have to decide right now. A lot of times life makes sense in retrospect, but not at the moment. I think one of the hardest things about being a young person is you have this feeling like “I should decide right now what my entire future is going to be,” and for me it didn’t look like that. It’s a journey, and you figure out the path along the way and all you can do at any given time is make the next right decision. The third piece of advice is just don’t settle. There’s a lot of accepted beliefs out there like you can either make money or you can follow your passion. But somewhere is a job that is fully fulfilling and exciting and will earn you enough money for whatever you need.