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Nancy Santiago of Ureeka: “We must leapfrog”

Create more opportunities for women to establish closer working relationships with financial institutions and investors. If you are an investor that isn’t talking to women founders on the regular, you are part of the problem. Seek us out. We are here. How diverse is your portfolio? How many women led companies are represented? Set a […]

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Create more opportunities for women to establish closer working relationships with financial institutions and investors. If you are an investor that isn’t talking to women founders on the regular, you are part of the problem. Seek us out. We are here. How diverse is your portfolio? How many women led companies are represented? Set a goal. Make it a stretch goal and then meet that goal. We won’t be able to make up the gaps if we are just seeking to catch up. We must leapfrog.


As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Santiago.

Nancy is a seasoned professional with over two decades of experience in economic development, federal policy, and philanthropy including two terms in the Obama Administration — including serving as a leader of the Women’s Bureau in the U.S. Department of Labor. Nancy’s most recent initiatives include leading a transition strategy at Hispanics in Philanthropy which included the development of an investment fund for Latino led enterprises: the PowerUp Fund. As Community Impact lead at Ureeka, Nancy focuses on outcomes providing unprecedented access to funds, sponsorships, pitch competition among other resources.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

The path to this important work was not a straight line. It was a path that took many curves along the way but always focused on equity: racial, gender, and economic equity. I started my career path in education, because for me, education was my vehicle for upward economic mobility. But over the decades, the opportunity to receive a quality education in the K-12 system was dramatically restricted because of lack of funding for public education. I battled hard at the local and state levels for fair and equitable funding for low income students, and students of color in public education systems. The reality that faced me as the Administrator for the Office of School Management is that half the battle we face in public education is resource inequity. That reality forced me to focus on developing my financial acumen if I truly wanted to make a difference in the lives of students. After working with a U.S. Secretary of Education that was also keenly focused on resource inequities, I understood that the next battle that needed to be won, was the battle for economic equity.

The focus on economic equity took me to work with community development financial institutions, philanthropy, and now Ureeka.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

The most interesting story involved a hard lesson that I had to learn. As I said, I worked for a very involved and committed-to-community Secretary of Education. During my tenure there, the government experienced a shutdown. Thousand of people were going without paychecks during that stretch of a few very long weeks. Our Secretary directed us to check on our staff in the department to make sure folks were surviving.

It was a hard time for all, but most especially for our cleaning staff. They were not government workers — they were contracted staff. We had one couple on the evening cleaning crew; a husband and wife team. The shutdown meant that neither the mother nor father of three children received any pay during the shutdown. The loss of income can be debilitating for any family but it was even tougher on immigrant families that did not qualify for any type of government support like unemployment.

Because I worked late hours, I had become friendly with the woman who cleaned my office. When we all returned to work, I saw my colleague from the cleaning crew, and asked her how she had fared during the shutdown. She started to cry in that instant. She explained that the loss of both incomes put them so far behind that they had to use bill money to cover their rent. As a result, her children were sitting at home alone without electricity. It was the late fall, somewhere near Halloween, which meant that it was already dark by 4:30PM. I could not allow children to be at home alone in the dark, while their mother went to work with the heavy burden of worrying about the safety and well being of her children. So I acted quickly. Better said — I REacted. I closed my office door, got us all on a conference call with the electricity provider and I paid her bill on my credit card. Her power was able to be restored within 30 minutes. She left grateful and relieved. I was feeling pretty good myself.

Then as I sat alone in my office thinking about the situation, I realized that my action (paying the bill) may have just qualified as breaking the law. There is something called the Hatch Act in the federal government that prohibits government employees from receiving or giving “gifts” to/from a government contractor. Did paying the electricity bill for a woman that worked for a government contractor constitute a gift? Had I just broken the law?!

I swallowed hard and did what I had to do. I called on the Deputy Chief of Staff and told him what I had done and what I was fearful of. He was incredibly gracious and kind. He did not judge me at all but explained that he needed to check with our general counsel about whether or not I had broken a law. I hung up the phone and immediately started to worry. I didn’t want to embarrass the Secretary or the President, so I needed to do what I needed to do to make things right. I started to get myself mentally prepared for having to leave my appointed position.

In the hours that followed, I sat at my desk drafting my letter of resignation and cleaning up my desk in case I wasn’t able to return. I received a call at my desk at about 9pm that evening. It was the Secretary. He had been informed about what I had done, he also told me that I had done the right, decent thing. He explained that the way he saw it, I was just following his orders. So if I was in trouble, he was in trouble, too, because I was acting on his directive. He instructed me to stop what I was doing and to go home and “not worry” any more about it. Easier said than done. But I promised to go home.

That evening, I heard from the Deputy Chief of Staff with kind words of support. I heard from our Chief General Counsel, who also assured me that I had done the “right, human thing to do”. He assured me that we would figure it out together. The next morning I returned to work and found an interoffice envelope on my desk from the White House. Inside of it there was a thank you note and cash from a staff member of the First Lady’s office. The note read something like: ‘Thank you for being you and for doing right. If you are in trouble for taking care of staff, then so am I. Here is my contribution to the electric bill you paid.” The envelope also included several tickets for the White House Halloween Party to share with the cleaning staff involved so that she could bring her children to celebrate Halloween at the White House with the President and the First Lady.

Then, the Deputy Chief of Staff stopped by my office. I thought I was going to get read the riot act, but instead he handed me 50 dollars. He said to put it towards the electric bill that I paid. We were in it together.

On and on it went. Now it seems like everyone knew and the entire team was supportive. By the time our Chief Attorney came by to tell me the good news that I was in the clear, team members had all contributed to help pay the cleaning staff person’s bill. (BTW: Our Chief Counsel did report the incident and was informed that it did not qualify as a violation of the Hatch Act because the cleaning staff were part time, freelance workers and did not represent the government contractor itself. Whew!)

I learned a bunch of lessons that day. Ask first, then act. Great bosses are great not because of their intellect or resume, but because of their character. And, a great team is the single most important part of any job, company or career path.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

My first meeting in the White House, I sat in the wrong chair. I didn’t know White House protocols yet. I took a seat at the middle of the table because I am short and needed to be able to see everyone. I assumed the President would sit at the head of the table. I was wrong. I turned out I plopped myself down in his seat. Someone had to whisper in my ear to move and why. I was mortified.

I learned that the President’s chair has a back that is taller than the rest of the chairs around the table — that is how you know it is the POTUS’ chair.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

There are too many to name. I have been blessed with some great mentors and guides along the way. They start with my mother who was a pioneer and barrier breaker. The list is long and includes my sister, teachers, professors, colleagues and friends who are never afraid to be brutally honest with me. One key person along the path, I get the opportunity to work with everyday: Melissa Bradley. We met before our time working together for a presidential administration. The relationship grew because we both believe in the value of non-transactional relationships. We are helpers and connectors by nature. We push each other hard because we know what the end goal is and we know who loses out if we don’t accomplish that goal.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Again, too many to name, but one that made a huge impact on me as a young person was The Alchemist. I was a planner and thought that I needed to have my path all planned out in order to be successful. That book got me to question that rationale, and I am so glad it did. If I had followed that rigid plan I created for myself, I would have missed out on some of the very best experiences that I had later in life — experiences that were completely unplanned.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“You can call me whatever you want, just don’t call me late to dinner.” — Coach John Chaney. I worked in the athletic training room as part of a graduate assistantship that helped me pay for graduate school. I got to watch Coach work — up close and personally — during that time. He had some of the best quotes ever. The relevance of that quote in my life is: Don’t worry about what others think or say about you, just focus on what matters most to you.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I hope that I am using my voice and my platform to make the world a more just and equitable place.

Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?

What is holding them back is a system that has historically discriminated against women. It wasn’t too long ago that a woman could not even have a credit card in her name; it had to belong to a man (her father or husband). That history also results in other problems of equity like the gender-based pay gap. Less access to credit, less access to capital, less opportunities to lead, and then in certain sectors (like tech) women have to make up all of those gaps while being the only woman in the room trying to advocate for herself. It’s unfair AND exhausting AND expensive.

Can you share with our readers what you are doing to help empower women to become founders?

The very mission of Ureeka is to reduce the cost and friction for underrepresented entrepreneurs in growing and scaling their businesses. We are built around the needs of entrepreneurs that are women and/or people of color. We push each other and our partners every step of the way to stay focused on the racial and gender inequities because if we design our work with that at the center, everything we do will help empower women founders. We seek to support women founders with the skills they need to develop, the people they need around them, and the capital they need to grow. We arm women founders with the tools, community and capital they need to succeed.

This might be intuitive to you but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?

Women excel at collaboration, at problem solving, at managing money, and at building and managing relationships — all critical skills needed to build a successful business. More importantly because of their role in families, when they succeed entire families move ahead. Communities succeed.

Simply put, women’s economic equality is good for business. When women’s economic success grows; businesses grow; economies grow. So make access to capital for women founders a priority.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Can you please share 5 things that can be done or should be done to help empower more women to become founders? If you can, please share an example or story for each.

  1. Move out of the way and let women lead. We know what is needed (no man-splaining, please). We just need others not to impede women founders from leading or from letting their voices be heard. If you are an investor, you should be looking at the makeup of the leadership team of companies. Ask the question when you don’t see women leaders as co-founders, members of the leadership team or members of the board.
  2. Create more opportunities for women to establish closer working relationships with financial institutions and investors. If you are an investor that isn’t talking to women founders on the regular, you are part of the problem. Seek us out. We are here. How diverse is your portfolio? How many women led companies are represented? Set a goal. Make it a stretch goal and then meet that goal. We won’t be able to make up the gaps if we are just seeking to catch up. We must leapfrog.
  3. Given the amount of harassment women have had to endure in all workplaces — even more present in tech — make sure that there are safe places for women founders to gather and share insight and information, even concerns. Support women founder networks financially. Help those networks grow and create more safe spaces to be an unapologetically female founder. Also, this sounds like an easy one, but you’d be surprised…hold meetings in places that are safe and appropriate for women. No, I don’t want to have a meeting with you in your favorite pub. And, hey maybe a ball game isn’t the best place for me to have a serious business conversation.
  4. When was the last time you advocated for a woman founder? You can always find a way to serve as a reference, a door-opener, or a mentor for a woman founder. Do it on the regular. Make it a regular practice.
  5. Finally — it is more expensive for a woman to start a business than their white male counterparts. That plus lack of relationships with financial institutions, plus the gender pay gap, plus the minuscule amount of VC money that goes to women founders — you know where I am going with this — FUND WOMEN FOUNDERS.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

Changing the credit box in the U.S. is the priority. The constriction of credit post the 2007–2009 recession was bad enough, but now, the pandemic is shrinking the mortgage credit box even further. I just received a call today about an investor that was more worried about a women founder’s personal credit score than they were about her success as a business owner. Would the credit score worry have been the same if the founder were a white man with several business failures under their belt? But one woman founder, with huge success, may get passed over because of her credit score when she was young, during the middle of a recession. The credit score is an obstacle for many, but an even bigger obstacle for women and people of color who were hard hit during the recession, and now the pandemic. The algorithm for determining your credit score hasn’t changed in decades even though our economy has.

Removing the historic and systemic discrimination that is pervasive in our financial system is critical and it can start with addressing the credit box. That alone would change so much for so many. It would democratize opportunity. It would help provide greater access to lower cost capital which would increase opportunities for women founders. Addressing the discriminatory practices in our financial system can help reduce the gender and racial wealth gap in this country.

We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Bey or JLo. They are successful businesswomen and unapologetically so. They know what it is like to have to make it in a world that is designed to make them fail (as women of color), yet they persisted. We would help provide them the platform and the pipeline to women founders so that they can be radical and aggressive investors in women-founded companies.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

If you heard my rant and still want to follow my work online, you can find me on linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/nancysantiago/

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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