Laura Sanchez, one of a tiny number of Latinas who own IT companies in the Chicago area, is proud to be a link between Chicago’s STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) and Hispanic communities. Sanchez was born in Mexico got her degree from Tec de Monterrey, a school she describes as the “MIT of Mexico.” She was 23, with a degree in international business and a minor in marketing, when she decided to start a life here in the United States, obtaining a green card as a child through family members already here.
The United States was hardly new to her. She had been traveling back and forth between Mexico and the United States her whole life. She had spent short stints in D.C. and Nashville, Tennessee, working at the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO) and the Tennessee Hispanic Chamber of Commerce respectively. There, Sanchez had realized that the IT industry was not doing a good job connecting technology people and business people, especially entrepreneurial Hispanics. So, when she moved to Cook County, right outside Chicago, she was determined to start her own company to address such issues. In 2008, Sanchez and her husband started SWATware LLC, an IT company, aimed at providing top-notch IT consulting and personalized customer service to firms of all kinds, including those run by other Hispanics.
At first, Sanchez worked merely to get a foothold in the industry. She leveraged her bilingual and bicultural skills to communicate complicated technology concepts to local business owners in her neighborhood. She knocked on doors and handed out fliers until finally a local hair salon gave her her first opportunity. She started simple, designing business cards and creating websites. “Once they knew us,” Sanchez says, “We could switch to the IT business. The IT industry is a very intimate business. Usually people don’t give business to someone they don’t know. We first needed to get people’s trust and build a good reputation.”
Sanchez believes her Mexican roots were key to hear early success. “Coming from Mexico, resources are limited. You have to be creative to solve problems,” she says. “You needed to work with what you have and not just buy replacements.” She says that’s the reason her company excels at solving problems at affordable rates—a skill that proved invaluable since she was starting her firm initially at the start of the Great Recession.
Sometimes, you can’t find more than 100 people in the whole state of Illinois who knows certain technologies.
Today, SWATware is a full service IT company that focuses on systems integration, IT telecommunications and cyber security. Sanchez estimates that, since SWATware’s founding, she has worked with 250 small and medium-sized businesses, doing everything from producing business cards to setting up network architectures. She currently works with about 30 ongoing clients, and she has a team of about 7 employees. Her firm also provides business to a host of outside contractors and other businesses—including insurance, accounting companies and HR firms.
Sanchez says her goal is to keep small businesses safe from hackers. “Small businesses need to make sure they have a secure network to keep their information safe and maintain compliance for accepting credit card payments,” she says. “Anything connected to the Internet needs to be protected.” SWATware now also focuses on providing training to their customers’ employees to help protect their information. In this, Sanchez says she is often benefitted by her native fluency in Spanish. “Because we are bilingual and bicultural,” Sanchez says, “We can communicate complex IT concepts to everyone from the warehouse workers to the CEOs of a firm.”
All this innovation has led to some well-deserved recognition. In 2013 Sanchez was a recipient of the Nueva Latina Estrella Award for technology, an award Verizon created to celebrate the achievements of Latinas in the Midwest across different fields, and subsequently, in 2015, she was featured in Latino Leaders magazine as a Technology leader. She now hopes that her volunteer work with projects like Scientists for Tomorrow, a local youth STEM outreach program, will lead more Latinos into technology fields. Currently, she says, there is a shortage of talented IT workers, “Sometimes, you can’t find more than 100 people in the whole state of Illinois who knows certain technologies,” she says of some of her most in-depth work.
Sanchez knows we need to invest in our immigrants and give them opportunities to remedy our nation’s STEM shortage. Of her fellow immigrants she says, “We can be the solution to the scant resources that exist in STEM.”