When Ximena Hartsock first began looking for a solution to the lack of digital grassroots tools for advocacy in late 2012, she quickly learned she was up against some major obstacles. She was a Latina woman, with no entrepreneurial or tech experience, in a room full of skeptics. Hartsock was telling them something they couldn’t foresee: that a smartphone advocacy application geared toward empowering the masses could succeed.
Hartsock knew that people of all backgrounds, including those in minority and low-income communities, wanted to engage—but they might not know how. Some techies however, told her that the majority of those individuals would “never have enough means to buy a smartphone,” she recalls. “It was not my intention to start a company initially. I was just looking for a solution to a problem we had in advocacy. Because I was shut down, I decided to pursue it on my own.”
Every single person cares about something and wants to take action.
Hartsock launched Phone2Action later that year with the help of a co-founder and a Kansas City startup accelerator. The platform is used by organizations to give supporters a hassle-free way to contact policymakers in a variety of ways, especially via mobile. “The idea behind it has always been that people care,” she says. “Every single person cares about something and wants to take action.”
Her decision to go against the skeptics has certainly paid off. Phone2Action, now based in Northern Virginia, is growing fast and just closed a $4.7-million Series A round of funding. The firm is active in all 50 states and 10 countries, and is now available in eight languages. Her company has also created jobs: 25 people work at Phone2Action today, 20 of whom were born in America.
“It really was a bit of leap of faith, and it took a little bit of risk to start Phone2Action,” Hartsock says.
It’s the kind of risk-taking that she believes characterizes immigrants, who begin life in their new homeland in a state of what Hartsock calls “survival mode.” “We human beings do our best when we overachieve and we over-perform, when we are in survival mode,” she says. “When you are alone in a new geography, you develop a sense of alertness that helps you get things done faster. Immigrants’ sense of urgency is, in my opinion, the driving force behind the passion and dedication we have, which are key to succeed as an entrepreneur.”
Hartsock was raised in Santiago, Chile. Her mother was a housewife, her father a hardware store clerk and manager. He extolled the value of education, and she sought that education in the United States, applying to study abroad in high school.
“I had heard all of the stories of the American Dream, and I wanted to make it my own,” she says.
She finally made it to America after finishing degrees in philosophy and education in Chile. Hartsock flew to Washington, DC, with $500 and worked “pretty much every job,” including as a housecleaner and nanny, while picking up college courses. In 2004, she earned a doctorate from George Washington University in policy studies and administration.
“I started from the very bottom and worked very hard in every job,” she says. She went from teacher’s aide to teacher, parent coordinator to assistant principal, then principal to assistant superintendent of schools, and finally director of Parks and Recreation and member of the Cabinet of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty.
“I never had a career plan. My goal has always been to work hard and find love in what I do. I didn’t get to pick all of my jobs, so finding something exciting in about every one of them was key,” she says. “I work hard at anything, and I find pride in doing excellent work.”
In the end it was the range of her work experience that allowed her to see what the tech geeks had not: that people from all backgrounds would soon be harnessing mobile technology. As a school principal, she noticed that the first employees with iPhones were the lowest-paid workers. In government, she saw officials react when they heard from constituents. In advocacy, she saw how people lacked a fast, convenient way to transfer the passion they felt at a rally into action.
You find talent across the world in the most unthinkable places.
“Your education, your industry, and your background don’t define you,” Hartsock says. “What defines you is how resourceful you are with the information and the knowledge you have.”
Hartsock would like to see a U.S. immigration policy that allows immigrants who are studying and working here “to stay in the country that they are contributing to.”
“People choose a lot in life, but they certainly don’t choose where they were born,” she says. “You find talent across the world in the most unthinkable places. Talent does not have a zip code.”