South Charlotte resident, Raquel Velez's eyes lit up as she described the collaborative power in her recently launched virtual community for Latinas called Escuchame. Velez along with her mother, Deborah Aguiar-Velez, have cofounded the organization that boasts membership and information sharing among Latina experts, entrepreneurs and women across a broad spectrum of interests. Velez said the purpose and mission behind Escuchame is to help change the way the world views Hispanics and to support them as they profit from their expertise.
"We want people to see and understand what we know," Velez said. "Latinas are as varied and diverse as any other culture and there are many smart, knowledgeable Hispanic women who have a great deal of broad-ranging expertise to offer." According to Velez, the Spanish term Escuchame directly translates as "listen to me" though is commonly understood to mean "I need to be heard."
The online virtual community of Escuchame grew from an idea that Aguiar-Velez had as part of her participation in a leadership development program sponsored by the National Hispana Leadership Institute. The institute promotes women of Hispanic origin and works to develop Latinas as ethical leaders through training, professional development, relationship building and community activism. Aguiar-Velez saw there weren't many vehicles for Hispanas to speak out, share their knowledge and expertise and overcome negative stereotypes.
According to the Center for American Progress Action Fund, Latinas are quickly becoming a large and influential segment of the U.S. population. Currently, 14.4 million live in the U.S.
Aguiar-Velez envisioned a virtual community where Latina women could network, exchange ideas and collaboratively present themselves to broader markets. She is an engineer and founder, president and chief executive officer of Sistemas Corporation, a computer consulting and training firm that specializes in engineering and financial applications. After her work with NHLI, she approached her daughter with a proposal.
"I'd never seen her so excited," said Velez, "She told me she just had to launch Escuchame and wanted me to join her in creating this platform. I saw tremendous potential for connecting smart Latinas and each of us benefiting from all our experience."
Velez joined her mother in cofounding Escuchame, which officially launched earlier this year.
The online community has two membership components.
Everyone who joins Escuchame.org is a community member. Membership is free and provides access to the site, which provides informational videos, blog posts and practical advice by featured experts.
Featured experts are those individuals who pay a nominal membership fee to highlight their particular expertise, market their products/services and be featured in a speaker's bureau promoted by Escuchame.
Expertise is as varied as the women themselves.
Cristina Cassidy is a Charlotte-based video producer and documentary filmmaker.
"I am a Latina professional and I think that Escuchame provides an excellent platform for Latinas to join forces to lend a voice to the Latina experience in our local communities and nationally," Cassidy said.
Velez is no stranger to birthing innovative projects with educational components. After graduating from Cal Tech with her engineering degree, Velez worked for MIT's Lincoln Laboratory outside of Boston. There she founded a robotics outreach program targeting high school kids. "There is such a great need for math and science education for today's youth and making it accessible and fun can be a key to successful learning," said Velez.
She is bringing similar enthusiasm to Escuchame.