This week’s Gateway Cities Leader
Cities are shaped by their citizens. From New Bedford to Pittsfield, passionate young leaders are spearheading innovative efforts to reinvent their communities for a new generation. The Gateway Cities Leaders series profiles their work and introduces their ideas, visions, and aspirations to the wider Gateway City world. Is there a young leader in your city that we should spotlight? Please let us know.
Andy Vargas grew up in Haverhill and last November won a seat on the City Council, at age 22. Andy works as the Marketing Manager for Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll), a nonprofit focused on spurring economic development and social impact in midsized cities through entrepreneurship.
Can you talk to us about your story?
My story starts with my family. They came from the Dominican Republic, like many others, looking for opportunities, with the dream of being able to provide their kids and grandchildren with a better life. My parents, grandparents, uncles, and aunts all worked in diverse and odd jobs. On inauguration day, I couldn’t help but think about how my father labored in one of the last shoe factories in Haverhill, the same city that I now serve as a City Councilor. It was a moment of pride, appreciation, and reaffirmation that the American Dream is still very much alive. Because of my family members, I was able to graduate from Boston University, intern in the U.S. embassy in Madrid, and even be accepted as a White House intern. When I was able to bring my family into the White House, I reminded my grandmothers that I was only there because of their tireless efforts and sacrifices made in the name of family.
Describe EforAll, the work they do, and the communities they serve.
Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll) is an incredible organization that utilizes entrepreneurship as a vehicle to accelerate economic development and social impact. It’s a fascinating model that I think all Gateway Cities especially should take a look at. As a nonprofit, EforAll provides access to the knowledge, mentors, and training needed to start your business—free. We not only help for-profit entrepreneurs, but also those who are looking to start a nonprofit. Those admitted into EforAll’s free accelerator program go through a full year of guidance, training, and mentorship, which begins with a 12-week intensive course.
EforAll focuses on midsized cities because entrepreneurship has largely been a strong and driving presence in bigger cities like Boston, which has reaped tremendous benefits. Accelerator and incubator programs are many in Boston, but midsized cities are largely missing out. That’s why we’re in Lowell, Lawrence, New Bedford, Fall River, and Lynn.
I think our local, state, and federal government should all be interested in EforAll’s work. Our impact numbers are a strong indication that: (1) we’re reaching individuals who otherwise wouldn’t have access to these resources, and (2) the entrepreneurs that graduate from our program are creating jobs and real economic benefits.
Here’s the breakdown of EforAll’s 2015 impact numbers:
70% of startups have a female founder / co-founder
40% of startups have an immigrant founder / co-founder
60% of startups have a founder / co-founder who was unemployed prior to entering the accelerator
$3.5 million in estimated total revenue in 2015 of accelerator graduates
$4.5 million in total capital raised among accelerator graduates from personal savings, loans, and other external funds
140 (and counting) total full- and part-time staff hired (apart from entrepreneurs)
80% of accelerator graduates are still active with their business or nonprofit.
What made you want to run for office?
At every family party growing up, there was some debate going on—whether it was education, immigration, foreign policy, or gay rights—until one of my aunts would come in and say “Ya ta bien” or “that’s enough!” I grew up in this culture of discussing important topics, often resulting in fervent debate, but always ending with all family members sitting at the table to enjoy a meal. That culture and experience certainly influenced my passion for public service.
One organization I need to mention is Teens Leading The Way. The organization is based out of Lowell, within the United Teen Equality Center, and serves as a statewide coalition of young people seeking to make a positive impact in our communities through public policy. I was a part of TLTW in high school and helped draft legislation to reinstate civic education as a high school graduation requirement across the Commonwealth. We received 48 co-sponsors in the MA legislature. While we did not get the bill to the floor, the organization instilled a passion for public policy and civic engagement that endures to this day, making me a strong advocate for youth development programs.
Finally, I interned in Washington D.C. during my final semester as an undergrad, with the intention of getting an internship and then a full-time job. However, there was a turning point during my time in Washington, when the President came to speak to his interns and said, “think about what you want to do, not who you want to be.” I realized my plan to work in DC was about who I wanted to be—a young DC politico, instead of what I wanted to do, and what issues were important to me. I started to think about home, and how so many talented and passionate students grow up with the mentality that they will go off to a great university and never return to Haverhill, causing a devastating brain drain. I found meaning in coming back to serve my community and to further generate pride in our city.
What perspective do you bring to the city council as an employee of a nonprofit?
This is a great question. In many ways, working for a nonprofit involves strict scrutiny from government, donors, and those we serve. I think this is exactly how government itself should function. In a nonprofit you’re required to report on your results, in order to comply with grants and donors. You’re asked to prove the value of your work. Every election cycle, voters have a review process, similar to a nonprofit grant, where they are able to evaluate how effectively their government has served them. As a city councilor, I intend to operate under this model—proving the value of each citizen’s vote and tax dollars.
To revitalize neighborhood groups. In the past, Haverhill has had up to 13 neighborhood groups at onetime. At the beginning of my campaign, we had one active neighborhood group. Today we have three. Historically, neighborhood groups have served as driving forces for civic engagement and advocacy not only in Haverhill, but in municipalities across the country, serving as a body of influence for constituents.
Municipal websites across the Commonwealth (the most innovative state) lack the sophistication and clean user interface that the private sector has quickly adopted. I intend to work with our mayor to create a user friendly website that provides constituents with easy access to communicating with city government or finding the information they need.
I’d also like to take care of the Haverhill businesses we already have, while also encouraging new business and entrepreneurship. Working for EforAll has made me an evangelist for entrepreneurship as a driver of economic and social impact.
What have been some of your greatest challenges?
My greatest challenge has been understanding that you can’t do it all. Somehow the phrase “Rome wasn’t built in a day” doesn’t always register with me. I feel blessed with creativity and energy, which reap incredible benefits and ideas that can solve complex problems. However, I’ve quickly learned that you’ve got to prioritize and take on manageable goals. I also could work on healthier eating and sleeping habits.What do you consider to be your greatest success?
After results were in on election night, a Haverhill resident coming from a difficult background told me that watching my campaign and our victory made her believe that she could achieve her dreams too. I believe that this is my greatest success—inspiring others to believe that they too can achieve their goals through hard work, perseverance and passion.