TAMPA — Elías Torres came to the United States from Managua, Nicaragua with his mother and two younger brothers when he was 17 years old. It was not the first time he had visited US territory.
At age ten, Torres’ mother sent him to live with his father in California to avoid being recruited “to go to war,” said Torres, 45, referring to the situation in Nicaragua. In the 1980s, Nicaragua was taken over by the Sandinista Revolution that usurped peasant lands, recruited children and youth, and expropriated millions of families. The Torres family was no exception.
In 1986, Torres lived with his father in Los Angeles, where he discovered his taste for technology.
“He (his father) purchased a stolen computer, as they do with Latinos. He brought it home and kept it in the garage. Nobody paid attention to that computer, but I started by myself without any information to touch it; and I printed and did my homework. I learned how to use Wordperfect (software),” said Torres, who is currently the co-founder of Drift, Inc., a successful sales and marketing technology company based in Boston.
“Drift is a company that, with 6 years, already has an estimated value of more than 1 billion dollars,” said Torres. “It is a success that two Hispanics have a company that reaches that level.”
Torres was the keynote speaker at Latinos Unidos, an event organized by Mayors Hispanic Advisory Council to raise funds for scholarships directed Hispanics in the area.
During the speech, Torres surprised the attendees in form of Fairy Tale about his American Dream and how his family arrived in 1993 with nothing. Torres goes on to explain that now he is an entrepreneur in the big technological leagues.
Torres challenged the crowd of 480 attendees that included the Tampa Mayor, the Hillsborough Sheriff, and elected officials in the area. Torres asked for $25K in donations and he promise to match the amount. Little by little a big percentage of the tables were stepping up with donations
Tampa, a new beginning
“In countries that convert to communism or socialism or something similar, it turns out that those in government have a dictatorship and tend to seize private property. My mom didn’t have a house when I was born. When the revolution came, she was left to take care of a private house,” Torres said, about the place in Nicaragua where they stayed for 15 years. “I lived my whole life in a borrowed house.”
In 1993 according to Torres, when the owner of the place returned, his mother was left homeless.
“My mom is a, a veterinarian, and she taught at the university. But She said that she didn’t want to live in the United States cleaning offices…. but when we lost the house, we had nowhere to go, and everything accelerated. I wanted to go to college, and I wanted a better future,” Torres said.
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Luckily, the ‘Green Card’ (residence card) had come to them through his grandmother who lived in the US since 1975 and had worked as a nanny for years.
Torres, his mother, and his brothers arrived in Tampa. They lived in a subsidized apartment at Himes and Waters and had to use food stamps.
“Like the beginning of many immigrants… I went to Leto High School. At night we cleaned offices and during the afternoon I worked at McDonald’s” said Torres.
Torres made it into the University of South Florida where he studied Business Administration. Many of his friends went to colleges upstate, but he preferred to stay in Tampa to help his mom and save money while he studied.
“I should have studied engineering, but following a friend who spoke better English, I studied Business Administration. It cost me a bit. That’s why the scholarship I’m giving to USF is for Computer Science and for women,” said Torres, who lives in Boston but still has strong ties to Tampa.
While he was studying, he and his mother managed to buy their first house. Torres said that by then with her mother they were able to qualify for an FHA loan. Torres earned $17 an hour and only had a credit card with a $100 credit.
“I reached my first dream,” he said.
Torres had the opportunity to work for IBM.
“It was a super interesting thing because I didn’t study engineering. Constantly, the Latino has to be the impostor,” said Torres, who had previously worked in a bank but did not like the experience.
While in Boston he began to see news about tech entrepreneurs and startups in the newspapers.
“At IBM I learned to be an engineer. In Tampa everyone spoke English and I didn’t speak English at IBM everyone was an engineer, and I wasn’t an engineer. When I left IBM, everyone was an entrepreneur and I was not an entrepreneur,” said Torres, who after efforts and taking extraordinary classes managed to get into Harvard and studied for a master’s degree in computer science after being rejected.
Upon completion of his master’s degree, he set himself the task of becoming an entrepreneur.
“I started working nights and weekends as a contractor at a startup… and there I met David (Cancel), who was successful and had sold several companies. He was the first successful Hispanic I met in Boston, and we connected immediately. He told me “come work with me’”.
In 2008, Torres went to work with Cancel.
“As soon as I left IBM, the market collapsed. I have 3 children. I have no savings. I have nothing … Crash! That was the best lesson: everything that falls, rises again,” said Torres, who affirmed that with Cancel they have worked in four companies. The first of 10 people did not work.
Then he asked to cofound a new company, and Torres have no job, nothing to do, no money. That was the first company that Torres and Cancel founded. Almost two years later, they sold it for $25 million to HubSpot.
Currently, the entrepreneurs have 600 people working for Drift, a company that was born in 2015, with a “giant scope.”
Torres’ motivational speech during the 23rd Latinos Unidos Luncheon raised the bar.
“We’ve raised more than $100,000 (just with the entrance tickets and sponsors). It’s the first time we’ve reached this level,” said Araseli Martínez-Peña, chair of the event and member of the Mayors Hispanic advisory Council.
Since 1983, the mission of the Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council is to serve as a liaison between city government and the Hispanic community.
“We are super proud, in a year that has had its difficulties for the Council we have also reached very high levels. Even if you are a volunteer, organizing Latinos Unidos is like planning a wedding,” said Martínez-Peña.