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I went from crunching numbers to testing ideas.

As a young latina, I never imagined myself working in business yet alone startups. I didn’t even know what a startup was until my junior year of college. Growing up my life took many turns, I found out about college in 3rd grade and I was never the same.

I grew up in LA with my drug addicted mother and mentally abusive father. I took my anger from my home life and channeled it into art and math. I became obsessed with math and i’ve always had a competitive drive to be the best at whatever I was doing at the moment. Even though I grew up in poverty, I took any opportunity to learn as much as I can by whatever means possible. Often, I wasn’t the kid with the working computer at home because my mother was too high on meth to understand she cannot take apart computers to make them go faster. I ended up taking advantage of educational computer games when my computer was actually functioning. I also became obsessed with math workbooks from stores like Staples and Office Depot. I would finish them and move onto the next grade because I constantly needed stimulus. Most of the time, I was 2 or 3 grades ahead of my peers.

By the end of 2nd grade, I was recognized by Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth program (CTY) for being the top 3% in the nation in mathematics. I consistently scored in the 99% percentile in all math subjects on the SAT 9’s. I tested at a math level that’s higher than most high school students in the US.

In fifth grade, I graduated from my elementary school in North Hollywood, CA. At my graduation, I spoke on the microphone and said I would become an accountant for Intel. During that time, my dad was a computer engineer for compaq (previously Tandem and would become HP). I learned to build my first computer with him and he introduced me to my first educational computer games. I became obsessed with tech because of him and I knew math was one of my favorites things to do. I learned about accountants and quickly decided that was the route I would take.

In seventh grade, I moved to Arizona suddenly without telling anyone. Living life in LA, I adapted to my environment and became something I never intended to. I had one of the hardest times of my life at home. Mental illness, domestic violence, mental abuse, alcoholism, drug addiction, and gang life – I had to make a drastic change. If I wanted to become the accountant I said I would be on my fifth grade graduation, I needed to start over. My father, at the time, was living in Arizona and was about to get married to his second wife. She had kids and after a short stint of staying with them, I knew this was something I wanted. I wanted to live in a home with a family. It was something I’ve always craved and desperately needed for my next step in life.

I graduated high school in 2010 with Honors from Hamilton High School in Chandler, AZ. I took over 6 AP classes, played 3 sports, volunteered at two organizations, had 2 jobs, and was dedicated to getting into college with a scholarship. In 2010, I received the Dell Scholarship award for $20,000. I applied to 25 universities without paying a single dime in application fees or SAT/ACT exams. I got into 14 universities and I was in between Purdue University and Syracuse University. I had an offer from ASU that would literally pay me to go there every year but I needed to get away from my father and gain back my independence. My very last choice was Chapman University. At the last minute, my financial aid packages didn’t seem as realistic as I thought so I checked Chapman’s package. To my surprise, they had the biggest package out of all the top-tier universities. Chapman ended up being the best decision i’ve ever made in my life.

I got into a car accident a month before I went to college and was thought to be dead from the impact alone. I was going 5 mph and was slammed into by a driver going 55 mph in a 40 mph zone to beat the yellow light. My father asked me shortly after what I was going to do to get to college. Looking at him with disgust and confusion, I went into panic mode. Everything i’ve worked so hard for was being taken from me in an instant. I called one of my friends and convinced her to drive me to college. I sold my rare shoe collection for gas money, food, and miscellaneous stuff we’d need on the way. We got there at 3 am and slept in the car right before she helped move me into my new dorm.

During college, I had no other choice but to work as many hours as possible while going to school full-time. At the time, I was envious of my peers. Most of them were wealthy, had family helping them, and didn’t need to struggle to make ends meet during their college experience. It was a typical private university. Looking back, i’m thankful I had that experience. I was forced to get out of my comfort zone early and to continuously discover myself. Since I was forced to volunteer in high school, I became used to it and continued finding organizations I could help during college. I started volunteering as an Condom Safesite for the Great American Condom Campaign and an Athlete Ally for a new nonprofit called, “Athlete Ally”. I continued to polish my social media skills from my previous position in high school. I then started working at my university’s donation center then I moved onto being a brand ambassador for VitaminWater.

I failed my first exam as an accounting major. Instantly, I dropped that class and retook it with another professor. I went from getting F’s to getting A+’s. After that experience, I learned that I did not want to do this not because i’m not good at it but because I can pay someone else to do it. I started to learn about entrepreneurship as I was looking for other majors or emphasis’ to change to. I scanned the classes that were offered and their descriptions. I instantly fell in love and soon it became an obsession of mine. I took to Twitter to find out as much as I can about entrepreneurship, being an entrepreneur, and how to start a startup. I learned that it was a journey not a race and most entrepreneurs had a skill they started off with. I spent countless hours in the library skimming books because I often had already rented out the maximum. I took time to audit what I am good at and decided on social media. Back then, social media was said to be a “fad”. Many friends and peers told me I was wasting my time but I knew this was the future of communication and marketing. I found my first internship with a start-up shortly after with DreamItAlive.com (DIA) and began to build my first brand.

At the time, Facebook was young in age and valued organic reach. This was prior to the heavy timeline and feed restrictions made by the pay-to-play model. I grew DIA’s Facebook to over 30k likes in one year without spending a dime on marketing. This is when I knew the potential of social media and building brands. I continued to use tactics i’ve learned for my volunteer projects and day jobs (most were brand ambassador positions). Towards the end of junior year, I knew it was crunch time and I needed to find a job that I could turn into a career right after I graduate. Even though I was having success with social media, I didn’t quite have enough knowledge to run my own agency. Between seasons in the beverage industry, I was stuck and needed to find a source of cash quick. I went on craigslist and found a position in solar with gen110. It was positioned as a brand ambassador position and I felt like if I was good at what I do in promotions then i’m sure I can rock it in solar.

I had no idea what I was getting into. My first day I showed up for training and it was this other girl and I in an undecorated room in a ghetto area of Placentia, CA. I had no idea if I was going to get hurt or if I was about to get trained for my new job. I started as a door knocker and quickly climbed to the top of the leaderboard in the first month. During 2013-2014, the solar industry was having the highest period of growth in history. I loved my team, the culture, and the raw skills I was learning/using. Everyday I pitched to people at the comfort of their homes and learned how to flourish in uncomfortable scenarios. I became obsessed with the cause and after a month, I received a secondary position as a recruiter. I eventually was training my recruits, working out in the field with them, and soon started running all Talent Acquisition for the company as a junior in college. I often would answer calls during class time just to make sure my candidates had the best experience possible. Shortly after, I took on a Brand manager position while still running Talent Acquisition. At the time, there was zero social media presence and quickly changed that to be one of the first solar companies to build a strong presence and following (yes, before SolarCity and such). We didn’t spend a dime on social media and grew quickly from the tactics I’ve learned studying/experimenting in social media.

While I was out in the field as a door knocker, I had a lot of time to think while I was on my route. I decided to start my Instagram by taking pictures along my daily route. I also took time to think of everyday problems and solutions. I stumbled upon a recycling technology idea (LEEF) at the same time I was taking a New Product Development class. We needed to create a startup idea and a new product so my team decided to work on it with me. We went through various prototype ideas. First it was a vending machine and then it was an app with an add-on. Working with gen110 (solar startup), I learned what it takes to disrupt an industry and where you do and do not take shortcuts. Recycling has yet to be taken to it’s highest form and what’s fascinating is that it’s an industry that many people mistaken for “cheap” and “you won’t make any money”. With the right system and inputs, it’s a million or even trillion dollar industry. After a few classes and groups working on it, it was looking like a viable startup idea.

I graduated college in 2014 and moved to the Bay Area for gen110’s expansion. I had my first salary, my own office on the 10th floor, and my own team of recruiters/recruitment manager. I thought I had all I needed until that quickly did not become the case. We were acquired my junior year by a larger franchise but merged soon after I moved up to the Bay Area where we began to kill the gen110 brand. We were acting as two different brands due to the brand positioning and culture being vastly different from one another. But, it was time. We rebranded into a new company called, “REPOWER by Solar Universe”.

During my time in the Bay, I had plans to meet with investors about LEEF. In theory, it was the perfect situation. I had a smash and grab with my car leaving me with my backpack stolen. My backpack had my company laptop, some valuables, and most importantly my pitch deck for investors that I had just finished for LEEF. At this time, I was working on my second startup idea called, “SuitePitch”. I gravitated towards my second idea and started to see it as a sign that I wasn’t meant to bring it (LEEF) to life. I decided shortly after that I would find someone to give it to. I didn’t care about selling it but I did care that it went to someone that cared and had the means to bring it to life. While browsing on LinkedIn, I found a recycling technology startup with a similar idea but LEEF had put more thought into certain aspects and processes. I got in contact with the team. The founders were lawyers and it was a perfect match for the complexity of the product/service. I scheduled a Google Hangout with them during my lunch break and explained/gave them everything. I shared the deck I had and gave them key insights into how to build certain partnerships i.e. who they should talk to and where they can find them.

After I gave it away, I was done forever. I started to spend more time on my second idea. During the same time, I started my consulting agency, socialomical.com. I knew that whatever I did in business I would be able to integrate social media and do it at an economical price. This is how I  came up with socialomical. I took on my first client, BlissWineImports.com, for free. I consulted the founder on social media direction, branding, and growth through organic reach. Shortly after, I got my first paid client, Kohana Coffee, from Twitter. I grew their social media following within a few months and hired a social media manager for them.

I got laid off in the solar industry due to decentralization of our franchise network. I built processes, documents, brand bibles, DIY Recruitment manuals, and audiobooks to help franchise owners do in-home recruitment and culture development at low-cost. After that, they no longer needed me and my team.

Scrambling for what was to come next, I got a call from someone I had recently met at a friend’s wine get together. He spoke about his startup when we met and was intrigued about what I do for brands/growth. He mentioned he would love to work with me and I nodded as I didn’t want to commit to anything. Oddly enough, that call was from him, Peter Dickinson of WeGreenlight.com. He apologized about my circumstances and knew how much the brand/team meant to me. He then took the opportunity to ask if i’d be open to meeting about WeGreenlight (WGL). I agreed and we met at a Whole Foods. He didn’t have much money to pay me at all and it wouldn’t even pay my rent but I agreed under one condition. I would lead the rebrand of WGL as long as I can throw away every single thing that pertained to branding and marketing. His face instantly showed that he was caught off guard and terrified. After a brief pause, he says with a cracking voice, “OK”.

After less than one year, we rebranded and brought the brand back from the dead. The community was built to over 65k with $1800 marketing spend within a year. Twitter hit over 10k and Instagram over 5k. We’ve had multiple success stories with our community members ranging from raising crowdfunding, pivoting to a new idea, pivoting to a new market, finding their target market, raising investment money, launching their products, and merging with competitors from the community.

Peter went from pitching to people that didn’t care at all about the company or brand to firms that instantly get the platform and concept. I also coached Peter along the way as I saw that he had the ambitions to disrupt an industry but didn’t have the attitude and mannerisms to make it out alive. Seeing first hand what it takes from the solar industry and the founders that made gen110 what it was, I knew with a little coaching and tough love that Peter would get there.

With WGL it’s been a bumpy ride, I had to eventually bring on more clients during that time to make up for the loss of income from being laid off and the lack of capital WGL could provide. Eventually seeing the potential, I fired all my clients except for WGL. I decided that WGL would be the client that I wanted to take to the next level together. It got really good. I brought in Fortune 500 clients to the table for marketing assessments but with these new clients WGL began to evolve into something different beyond our original expectations. We soon realized we would require both capital and development to truly grow. This chicken-egg scenario has caused WGL to pivot further and we are currently fundraising to take us to the next level. In the meantime, I had to find a new position.

I started contracting through Adecco for the Google Maps project working on-site with Google. It came at the perfect time for me as I was about to lose everything I had due to financial hardship. I still consult on the side but my main client is WeGreenlight. I am still working on SuitePitch and I am developing a new idea within the laundry industry.

You will constantly fail and you will constantly win. It’s about getting right back up and going back to the drawing board. You have to continuously reinvent yourself to get to where you need to be. Change is your friend and your circumstances will never define you. Take a chance with your crazy ideas. You never know where it will take you.

Diego Kamiha
Startup Weekend Campinas Organizer