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Multicultural Agency Leaders from Nativa Interviewed – Podcast from Nationwide Insurance

By October 3, 2018 No Comments

Last month, Nativa co-founders Natasha Pongonis and Eric Diaz were invited by Nationwide Insurance to be part of the Business Solutions Center Business Spotlight to share their story as business owners and disruptors in technology. Nationwide Business Solutions provides resources and tools to help business owners start, grow and run their business.

Below we share the transcribed podcast of Nativa multicultural agency leaders as they are interviewed by Libby Stagnaro from Nationwide Insurance. Listen to the multicultural agency leaders podcast here.

Libby Stagnaro of Nationwide Business Solutions:

Welcome to the business solution center podcast presented by Nationwide! In this podcast, we typically discuss important topics related to starting, growing and running a business; things like employee benefits or business continuity planning.

Today, however, we have the privilege of sitting down with multicultural agency leaders Natasha Pongonis, and her business partner, Eric Diaz, who are business owners based in Columbus, Ohio and they’ve co-founded two successful businesses, a multicultural marketing agency named Nativa and a multicultural data analytics firm called OYE! Business Intelligence.

Natasha is a native Argentinian and a woman of many talents. She holds a degree in Architecture from the Universidad Católica de Córdoba in Argentina and she speaks four foreign languages; English, Spanish, French and Italian. In 2017, Natasha was invited to participate at a roundtable at the White House to discuss priorities for Latina business owners in America. She is also the recipient of the 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year award by the Latina Style business series and in 2016 she was accepted into the prestigious Stanford Latino Entrepreneur Leaders program to focus on strategic scalability and economic growth. She also received the Women in Business and Leadership award by the US Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation in 2017.

Eric Diaz, her partner, and co-founder for both businesses started Nativa with Natasha in 2010 and established the second office in Phoenix where he lives today. He went to Ohio State for his undergrad and earned his MBA at Northeastern University in Boston. He lived and worked in Shanghai for several years and finished his MBA in 2008. Eric knew he wanted to be an entrepreneur and so far, has seen many great successes. This includes last year in 2017 when OYE! Intelligence, which is the second business he and Natasha started together, won the inaugural Startup Street Pitch $50,000 award out of 100 competitors!

Stagnaro:

To get started, I would love to hear from both of you how your two businesses got off the ground and even how the two of you met and became business partners.

Natasha Pongonis, Partner of Nativa:

The way we started the company is very interesting and I think perhaps many of the listeners can relate to it. Eric and I met networking through the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Columbus, Ohio. We both were working in our own small web design companies and we were actually competitors! Because of that, whenever we saw each other we always shared resources and experiences of what we were doing to help push each other to the next level. And through those conversations, we realized the passion we each had. There was a lot of synergies there, so instead of working against each other, eventually we decided to work together and that’s how Nativa was founded. At the same time (2010-2011) there was devastation in the U.S. economy, many difficulties from a political and economic standpoint, and business creation currently was complex. So, we are one of the success stories of a business that started in this time.

 Eric Diaz, Partner of Nativa:

After a few years of collaborating, we were working for Procter and Gamble and their Charmin brand gathering data analytics on Hispanic consumers. We soon understood that while we were listening to what Hispanic consumers said in Spanish about the Charmin brand, that the way that these social listening tools were analyzing the data didn’t make sense for the U.S. Hispanic market. Using existing tools, we were only understanding what Hispanic consumers were saying in Spanish and we knew from our experience that Hispanics speak more than just Spanish; they speak English and they speak bilingually. We saw this as an opportunity to start a new social listening software and grow Nativa’s offering beyond just the service side expanding into the data analytics world with OYE.

Stagnaro:

You mentioned changing demographics and the different languages that Hispanics speak, can you give us a few examples of some of the key insights that your business is gathering on the Hispanic market?

Pongonis:

We saw that our clients were really looking to have a more in-depth understanding of the online community for Hispanics. And we realized that even though many Hispanics indeed speak Spanish at home or with friends, when they engage online with brands and organizations they do so more often in English. Through OYE we can segregate the conversation among Hispanics and compare what English-speaking and Spanish-speaking Hispanics discuss and how they differ. Also, OYE separates what we call ‘Spanglish’, which is a combination of Spanish and English in a post, which is very common in the conversations we analyze.

Diaz:

The insights we provide to our clients serve as a resource to understand what the Spanish-speaking, English-speaking and bilingual Hispanic consumers say about their industry and which are the cultural shifts that are occurring. Then, when they are creating their brand strategy, they know what the right language and tone are. Understanding the demographics, the gender, the geography, at the same time is a part of the process that we provide to our clients. Additionally, one of our key differentiators is that we do not only focus on the brand but also on the industry in which they sell.

Stagnaro:

So, what are a few more of those differentiators?

Diaz:

We often serve as the Hispanic center of excellence for our clients, so that any communication that has to do with Hispanic consumers, our brands come to us first and say, “Does this look right?” They want to ensure that it makes sense and has the right cultural feel because to this day in 2018 there’s a tendency for brands to want to basically do what we call the ‘slap a sombrero on it’ approach or to get ‘Hector from Accounting’ and get him to translate their website for them. None of those tactics work and really that’s the main thing. That’s why brands hire companies like Nativa to really look at the whole message that they’re trying to communicate to the Hispanic community. Because it’s all about, “Who is your company? What are the benefits you’re providing? How does that make sense for the Hispanic audience?” That is what our company helps clients with. We guide them that it’s not necessarily about the language; it’s about what is culturally relevant. The message could be totally in English but really have the Hispanic feel where it’s going to be of value for the Hispanic audience.

Pongonis:

Yes, and even the language. We mentioned the fusion of Spanish and English; the creation of Spanglish. I studied Spanish in Latin American Studies in college and I remember talking about how even some words in English have been translated into Spanish in a way so where the Spanish word for lunch might be ‘lonche’. So, it makes sense that now we’re not just translating purely into Spanish as this doesn’t often work for today’s Hispanic audience.

Diaz:

When we’re talking about marketing and communications, the key is not really to speak; it’s to listen and by doing this you learn and understand the consumer in a deeper way. This leads to creating the right approach and that starts by listening to those authentic voices that are engaged online and based on what we hear we provide recommendations. Even though we might focus on the Hispanic consumer, each client is completely different.

We’ve seen that the younger generations now are highly engaged on social media and how they share their opinions and their affinity with a product and a brand. Being able to analyze across different generations and see the difference of those consumers towards the same product is so important. It’s really taking advantage of the technology that we have available today to deliver an excellent service and product which is so critical.

Stagnaro:

That was a great summary of what your businesses do! Let’s shift gears a bit and talk about some of the challenges related to starting and growing a business. So, you both started both Nativa and OYE, what would you say were some of your biggest challenges or obstacles in launching and growing either business?

Diaz:

Many of the challenges that we’ve had throughout the years have really been about whether we should get funding or if we should internally fund ourselves. We’ve always opted for self-funding or bootstrapping, and at certain points we have looked back and asked, “Was that the right move?” So far, we believe self-funding has been correct, but it’s something that we’re examining every year to see if this is the year that we do need to take funding from somebody else. Or if we need to consider a merger and acquisition to get bigger. Because, while we have been successful, we’ve been doing this for almost a decade now. We need to make sure that we’re growing, that we have the right talent in place to allow us to grow.

Pongonis:

Most small business owners and start-ups have as one of the main challenges is the access to capital and understanding what the long-term impact on the company is if you do. Something that I encourage anyone in a startup is to go out there, ask questions, talk to other businesses that have taken funding. Try to learn what has been their experience with funding and if that applies to your case.

I think part of the success for us even though we decided not to take funding, is being that we have two offices, one in the Midwest, and we have an office on the west coast. Eric and I are very proactive in attending conferences, seminars and events and networking is a key to success for us. And it’s important to develop those relationships and partnerships so that when you have limited resources from capital, that you do have the right partners that you can collaborate with.

Diaz:

Regarding guidance from peers about funding, it can be complex. Half the people I speak to say to take funding. And half the people I speak to say, “Never take funding!” So, you really must apply your own situation and that’s what’s worked for us so far. We had our best year for both companies last year in 2017, so this year we’re evaluating again whether now is the time to take funding, as obviously the best time to look is after a successful year.

Stagnaro:

You mentioned the networking and the partnerships, does that also help you with finding the right talent to grow your business? Because I know that’s a challenge that a lot of entrepreneurs and business owners face as well.

Diaz:

The good thing for us has been the fact that we are really close to Ohio State University and Arizona State University. We get the brightest students to do an internship with us and hire many of those interns. They’re becoming part of our team and having this proximity advantage has allowed us to stay competitive by finding this young talent.

Pongonis:

We’re also receiving interest from other applicants that are interested in creating a partnership. For example, right now we work with a data scientist who loves what we’re doing and he’s working with us on very specific projects because he’s interested in the innovation that we’re providing to our clients.

Stagnaro:

Those are some of the challenges that you faced with access to capital and growing your business, but let’s talk about some of the fun stuff related to starting a business. So, what are some of the major milestones that you’re proud of when it comes to your businesses and can you talk a little bit about how you were able to reach those milestones?

Diaz:

Thank you for mentioning that. Last year we were selected in Phoenix as the inaugural Phoenix Startup Street Pitch winner of $50,000. We were one of a hundred competitors and out of those hundred, they picked ten teams to pitch in front of the audience of 600 people and our team was fortunate enough to win. That was a big win for us and led to a lot of press to this day. We still get inquiries about it.

I would say that one of the other things this year that I’m most proud of is from our team’s perspective that we are more regular as far as our own marketing content were able to put out. Our software tool has gotten to the point where we’re able to put out a new downloadable case study of what Hispanics say about an industry in one day. Topics of these reports range from life insurance, to cars, sports or whatever the trending category might be.

Pongonis:

As we said, we have been in business for over a decade and really what has helped us get where we are today is that we’re willing to adapt to the changes that we see in our client’s needs. When we started the company, we started with few services we focused on such as websites and translations. What we do today is far more than that. It’s really understanding what the trends are so that we see those gaps and the needs our clients have from social content to technology and keep them focused on these.

For example, we started primarily focused on the Hispanic market but one of the great successes that we have this year is that we are expanding to other demographics. Now we have clients that we’re not only providing data analytics on the Hispanic market, but also on African American consumers. And more and more today, children are being raised in bicultural households. That’s where we come in with our software platform and a team who really represents the market to provide those insights.

Stagnaro:

Is that what you say is the vision for your companies; to be that bridge between those different types of people?

Diaz:

We, as multicultural agency leaders, want to be the central data source providing technology that allows organizations to better understand the changes in demographics and provides the right resources when needed. We focus on online communications, which is where most communications are taking place today and growing. We’re very proud of the many great success stories with our clients to help them in having the right product delivered to the right audience in the right channels.

One of the things that we’ve done well this last year primarily has been right here in the Columbus office. We have is called an 8a certification which allows our agency to get federal contracts directly as a prime contractor and Natasha and her team here have really spearheaded that. Natasha knows over the years that government paperwork and certifications aren’t my passion, so she’s really taken that over. I’m happy about that because this 8a direction might well be the future of where our company is going so we’re happy about where we’ve gone with the 8a process.

Pongonis:

Eric made a good point that when you start a business and you’re looking for a co-founder or partner, many entrepreneurs look for someone who is like them, who thinks like them. You must find someone who compliments you, who is willing to do what you won’t. That’s something that has really worked between Eric and I; thinking outside the box and thinking long-term about what is going to be more beneficial.

Stagnaro:

Does that help with running two businesses at once also? Because I can imagine there are some challenges with that.

Diaz:

One of the other important things we did this year is differentiating our roles. Natasha is now taking over as the head of Nativa whereas I’m the head of OYE! That helps us to realign exactly who’s making the hardest decisions for both companies and assists us with strategizing and organizing our days a bit more as well.

Stagnaro:

Can you tell us about any challenges you may have faced as multicultural agency leaders and how that has inspired you to advocate for other Hispanic owned businesses?

Diaz:

As we mentioned, one of the things we’re always unsure about is if we should take funding. There are several studies out there that talk about the reason that Latino businesses don’t grow past the $500,000 mark. There are many Latino businesses out there, and that’s great. But the problem is they don’t get past a certain dollar amount of revenue. Access to funding is the thing, because as Latinos, it’s ingrained in our culture that you don’t take debt and that’s just something that we grew up with and learned. I know that’s part of the reason why we haven’t taken debt, so we must fight past that feeling. That’s something that we try to advocate, to not just take debt because ‘that’s what the successful companies do’. But to fully examine your situation and options.

Pongonis:

For me, as a Latina entrepreneur business owner, we started the company in the startup technology world, in the Midwest. When I go to a ballroom and I talk or pitch, it’s almost always male investors, right? I might be the only female in the room. We (Eric and I) might be the only two people of color in the room and on top of that in my case I have an accent. I’ve been in the United States for almost eighteen years now, so I must overcome all these challenges. There are stereotypes, so I must work harder perhaps than other people do to validate the work that we do and keep the audience focused on the business that we do and not necessarily on, “are we qualified to be there?” It just adds another layer of challenges that we must face and over time I learned to enjoy and welcome them. I think as long you are confident in what you’re doing, and you truly believe in the product or services that you provide, that you can really overcome many challenges.

I think one of the things that keeps me motivated, and I heard this in one of the Ted Talks, is that you must learn to accept rejection and that’s something that I always keep in mind.  We have to go there and we’re going to meet people, there are going to be twenty ’No’s’ but it might be the twenty-first person that you talk to that finally says ‘Yes’.

Stagnaro:

That’s a great segue into my last question which is, what do you want your legacy to be?

Diaz:

We think of ourselves as innovators in the multicultural space and we’re providing insights to brands that want to know, ‘How can I better create content?’ or ‘How can I find topics that are going to be relevant with our audience?” my client brands want to become household names with the multicultural audience.

We’re always trying to focus on what is next. We need to be aware of this for the benefit of our clients.

We were just talking about this in our annual review. We discussed with our team that what we’re doing today, there’s no way we’ll be doing the same thing two years from now. I explained that that’s just how it always is. Like we look back at where we started; Natasha and I were both in web design because that’s what it was back then. We evolved into social media and into translations and after that was influencers. But it won’t be that in two years we know, so we just must keep ahead of that curve.

Pongonis:

What I would like is for people to remember us and Nativa – that we really worked hard in breaking stereotypes when it comes to different minority groups and being the provider of the technology that helps companies to no longer see individuals in a myopic way.

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Learn more about Eric Diaz and Natasha Pongonis.

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