Lessons from a Latino Entrepreneur: Tom Kadala

Have you ever wondered how entrepreneurs get started?  …and once they become an entrepreneur, what happens next?  These and so many more questions come to us on a regular basis, and we thought it might be time to get some answers.  To that end we decided to catch up with a prominent Latino serial entrepreneur, Tom Kadala, currently Founder & CEO of Alternative Technology Corporation, President of ResearchPAYS®, Inc. and CFO/Partner of Fenix Bioenergy.  Here’s what he had to say.

Diversity MBA Magazine: You’ve been an entrepreneur for most of your life, not only in the US but elsewhere.  How did you get started?  What made you follow this career path?…or do you even consider it a career?

Mr. Kadala: For me, entrepreneurship began with my never-ending need to make money.  With scarce resources from home, the direct connection between my dreams, which I had plenty, and reality, was having cash-on-hand.  So, early on I took a paper route, but hated it.  That lasted only a few weeks.  I mowed lawns for neighbors but at $1 a cut, that grew old fast too.  I really wasn’t your usual budding entrepreneur that equated pain with making money.  Instead I dreamt, planned, then spent.

At the age of 12, I qualified for a full scholarship to a student exchange program in  Mexico City.  They covered all of my expenses for one year with the exception of the airfare to and from home.  With less than a week to come up with the minimum $132, I experienced for the first time, entrepreneurship as I still see it today.

To raise the funds, I had to sell everything I owned, which did not amount to much.  I soon discovered the extraordinary power of a 12 year old with a dream.  My pitch to study abroad and my earnest efforts to sell my belongings to raise the needed funds, caught my supporter’s attention.  I received enough money to cover two roundtrip tickets, spending money, and passports expenses.  My parents were quite surprised especially when they never expected me to make the deadline.  I guess that was why they agreed to let me go in the first place.  Aha!  Never underestimate a budding entrepreneur!

The good-grades strategy paid off with a 4-year scholarship to Cornell University’s Civil & Environmental Engineering program.  Making extra money was important then as it was earlier in my life.  This time I learned to work the system and quickly noted that a work-study option for minimum wages would interfere with my demanding and rigorous engineering schedule.  So I scouted the student unions and inquired about teaching photography.  My request led to a management position, Darkroom Manager, West Campus, that began with a budget of $50 and ended two years later with a net balance of over $5,000.  It wasn’t just my salesmanship that made it work, (I wasn’t 12 years old anymore) but rather a comprehensive, self-perpetuating business model that I developed and caught on.  It was simple!  I had students teach other students the art of photography, which in turn, built my membership base exponentially.

My entire business operated practically on its own.  Management at Cornell thought I walked on water.  Just to make my meager student earnings quota, I had to punch in before leaving for the library and punch out on my way home, otherwise my boss didn’t know how else to compensate me since he had to use the standard hourly rate system.  This experience taught me to appreciate the time value from a well-conceived business plan.

After a two-year stunt launching a construction firm in Venezuela with my brother, I entered the Harvard Business School with a partial scholarship from the Venezuelan government.

HBS was tough for many reasons.  It was the first time that I was regarded in less than friendly terms as Hispanic or Latino.  The burning issues surrounding Diversity and Racism was totally new to me.  Never before had I felt more constrained by invisible influences that were forcing me to defend my ethnicity as a form of self-identity.  To me, I didn’t need this battle nor did I seek it.  Entrepreneurship had made my world boundless, accessible, engaging, and profitable.  Now the 12 year old in me was no longer.  I was 24 and believe it or not was being personally blamed for the Latin American debt crisis by my HBS peers!  Some even demanded that I pay up the millions owed to US banks!

After HBS, I tried a couple of corporate jobs.  I guess they ranked up there with my paper boy or lawn cutting experiences.  They were either too boring, too constrained, or just not worth the trouble.  When I started to tell the CEO how to run his company, I knew it was time for me to leave and start my own.  I did.  For several years I roamed convention halls, wrote business plans, sought venture capital, cut deals of all kinds with the hopes of finding something or someone that would trigger my entrepreneurial ‘nerve’.

Entrepreneurialism had by now become a twitch, a gut feel, an inherent sense for value, and a skillful art.  It was not just about the numbers or the data.  It was also about the people, the location, and the time in my personal life.  I would often ask myself, am I ready for this new opportunity?  What will it cost me personally, (i.e. time away from home, health, happiness)?  What will I or others gain from my involvement, (i.e. family, charities, legacy value).  If the difference came in favor of a positive return and the bank account wasn’t on empty, I was game.

Image courtesy of http://www.internetentrepreneurconnection.com/

Picture of Tom Kadala
Tom Kadala
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