Community//

María Teresa Kumar: “The need to ask for help sooner”

I come from a first-generation immigrant, working-class family. I am the first in my family to graduate from college and not work in the service industry. By all accounts, I’ve beaten the odds. Voto Latino has been a wild journey. I’m not sure I can name one. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many […]

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I come from a first-generation immigrant, working-class family. I am the first in my family to graduate from college and not work in the service industry. By all accounts, I’ve beaten the odds. Voto Latino has been a wild journey. I’m not sure I can name one. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many interesting individuals who are passionate about making a greater impact in the world. I’ve held frank discussions about immigration with President Obama, received parenting tips from Vice President Biden, marched with Dolores Huerta and even became friends with Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington.

But I suppose my most interesting story was shortly after starting Voto Latino. My mother and I were at the grocery store and my mother asked the cashier if she had heard of Voto Latino. The young woman started beaming and enthusiastically shared that she had just marched for immigration because of the organization. I felt so much pride because this revolutionary idea at the time of reaching young Latinx, in English, was still in its infancy. Leveraging new technology and emerging digital platforms seemed to strike a chord. It also gave me hope that we were actually tapping into something very powerful.


Ihad the pleasure of interviewing María Teresa Kumar, Voto Latino’s founding president, an American activist and social entrepreneur and an Emmy-nominated MSNBC contributor seeking to shake up the political process. Leveraging youth, technology, social platforms and influencers, Voto Latino reaches 6.5 million monthly. Voto Latino is a key civic engagement organization, registering 500,000+ voters. In 2018, Voto Latino registered 15 percent of new Texas voters.

Fast Company named Kumar among the 100 Creative Minds. Elle named her among the 10 most influential women in DC and Hispanic Executive named her among the 10 most influential Latinos. HBO’s Celebrity Habla profiled her work and Austin College awarded her the Posey Leadership Award.

Kumar serves on the boards of EMILY’s List and the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Council on Foreign Relations Life Member.

Kumar is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School and UC Davis.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to your specific career path?

I’ve always deeply believed in the role of government. I started my career as a legislative aide in Congress. Outside of Voto Latino, it was the best job, hands down. But I also knew that I needed business experience shortly after receiving my masters from the Harvard Kennedy School. I was poised to start working for PricewaterhouseCoopers and then September 11th hit. Like so many others, I re-evaluated how I wanted to spend my time. Around the same time, I shared with my mentor that I wanted to focus my efforts on the Latinx community because I saw the vast need–especially among young Latinxs. I started working as a healthcare consultant but kept pursuing ways to help the community. That same mentor introduced me to Rosario Dawson three years later, who had crafted a media campaign with MTV called Voto Latino. I loved it! Even though I had worked in Congress, gone to a government school, Voto Latino was the first campaign that said out loud what I felt inside: that I was American and my voice mattered. Rosario was clear that Voto Latino was a name and PSAs. Shortly thereafter, I quit my corporate job in NYC, moved back home to Sonoma, California on the eve of my thirtieth birthday and financed Voto Latino, a social enterprise start-up, entirely on my credit card. Never do that!

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

I come from a first-generation immigrant, working-class family. I am the first in my family to graduate from college and not work in the service industry. By all accounts, I’ve beaten the odds. Voto Latino has been a wild journey. I’m not sure I can name one. I’ve been fortunate enough to meet so many interesting individuals who are passionate about making a greater impact in the world. I’ve held frank discussions about immigration with President Obama, received parenting tips from Vice President Biden, marched with Dolores Huerta and even became friends with Thrive Global founder Arianna Huffington.

But I suppose my most interesting story was shortly after starting Voto Latino. My mother and I were at the grocery store and my mother asked the cashier if she had heard of Voto Latino. The young woman started beaming and enthusiastically shared that she had just marched for immigration because of the organization. I felt so much pride because this revolutionary idea at the time of reaching young Latinx, in English, was still in its infancy. Leveraging new technology and emerging digital platforms seemed to strike a chord. It also gave me hope that we were actually tapping into something very powerful.

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?

Rosario was filming Rent in San Francisco around the same time that I had moved back to Sonoma. It was complete serendipity! Because she was filming, she met then Mayor Gavin Newsom who generously offered to help. I took him up on the offer and asked him to throw us a fundraiser. He obliged. I’ll never forget when his finance director called asking for our fundraising list and our budget for the event. I politely shared that we didn’t have a list nor any funding for an event. At the time, I didn’t know anything about fundraising or that it was unusual not to have a list or the costs of events. Again, I was financing everything on my credit card. Gavin and his team didn’t skip a beat. He generously hosted us at PlumpJack, invited twenty guests and officially threw Voto Latino’s first fundraiser. From that experience, I learned to ask for what I needed, and more importantly, the generosity of others to help us succeed. Over the years, as a scrappy start-up, Voto Latino has been fortunate to meet so many unlikely allies on our journey who have gone above and beyond to ensure our success.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

The Latinx community will be the second-largest voting bloc for the first time in the 2020 presidential election — 10 million Latinxs who are eligible but not registered to vote are under 33. Voto Latino’s work is centered around young Latinxs, and young Latinas, in particular, because we recognize the outsized influence that young people play in their immigrant families. Young Latinxs are navigating America on their family’s behalf, whether it’s helping to decide a major purchase or translating at the doctor’s office. At Voto Latino, the idea was to demonstrate the need and to convince them to use that experience to drive change in our democracy, as well.

Voto Latino is focused on working every day to educate, engage, and empower the Latinx community. We reach over 8.5 million people a month and received over 92 million impressions in June alone. In June, we registered 98,361 voters — 80,027 came from Texas alone. Overall, the majority of the folks we’ve registered are under 33 and mostly young women. We have registered over 712,000 new voters to date and we aren’t stopping!

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

We’ve seen a host of young, passionate leaders emerging across the country. Young people who see the inequities in their communities, the neglect their communities have faced from their elected officials. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, or AOC as she is affectionately known, is one of them. She saw the need for new, bold leadership in her community, and she organized, ran for office, and won. AOC is also an alumnus of the Voto Latino Power Summit, an annual training for Latinx activists we’ve hosted since 2012. A 29-year-old political novice is not someone the establishment would have ever expected to unseat a seasoned politician, but the community recognized the need for change and saw that opportunity for change in her. Those are the people I’m hoping Voto Latino inspires every day.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

1) Register to vote at https://votolatino.org/register​and then tell three friends to do it too — we need our community to claim our power and participate and learn about the issues

2) Contact Congress and let them know you want to be able to vote safely during COVID-19, whether that is by mail or early in person, or on Election Day. States can only help so much without the support of the federal government. You can learn how at https://votolatino.org/article/protect-our-vote/

3) Sign up to volunteer to help people get registered, take the census, and get out the vote!

https://votolatino.org/get-involved/ We create volunteer opportunities that you can do from the comfort of your home, safely!

Help pass the HEROES Act, which includes 3.7 billion dollars to protect elections. You can text ‘voto latino’ to 73179 to get involved and advocate for greater relief during this crisis.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is surrounding yourself with talented people to make an impact on the organization or cause you wish to participate in.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.

  • The need to ask for help sooner. In Latinx culture, we have a tendency to not want to ask for help. Once I realized that Voto Latino was about impacting people, I started looking for the allies that we’d need to be successful.
  • Nonprofits are a misnomer because they require capital to function. They require the rigor of a small business while maximizing social impact. It takes a good degree of business acumen to get off the ground and keep it moving, which was unexpected. I didn’t anticipate having to wear the two hats of small business leader and advocacy organization leader.
  • A nonprofit tech startup is much easier than it sounds. I was 28 years old when VL started and it seemed like it was going to be a lot easier than it actually turned out.
  • When we started VL, we thought it was just about registering voters, but we didn’t realize it would also be about changing the narrative of “who is a Latinx in this country?” Talking to young people was revolutionary at the time. We needed to change mindsets, especially the establishment mindset.
  • Recognizing early on that talking to a Latinx person about voting wasn’t sufficient if they perceived the system as being broken. Empowering people to understand that they were part of the solution. There were real obstacles to starting this organization as a young Latina. That is still not resolved, but there is more awareness today than there was back then.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

Voting. In 2018, for the first time we saw young voters outvoting boomers and they ushered in the most diverse Congress ever. We have a blueprint as to what we as a diverse nation need for our future. In 2020, there will be 12 million more young Gen Z and millennial voters than older generations, and it’s time they flex. They have so much at stake for the direction of the country.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

My grandmother was 13 years old when she was married. She had 8 children by 26. Her husband, who was 14 years her senior, left her due to “the responsibilities of raising 8 kids.” She would always say, “If you take every single no to heart, you’re not going to go anywhere. ‘No’ is for other people.” Her resilience and tenacity as a poor woman in Colombia inspired me to fight for my vision. You don’t need everyone to say yes, just the right people.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

My dad. He passed several years ago, but he was always my biggest champion and most loving critic. I’d love to have dinner with him one more time.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can find me on Twitter ​(@MariaTeresa1)​ and on Instagram at ​mariateresakumar​.

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

Thanks!

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