This entrepreneur wanted a Latino SXSW festival, so he made one – NBC Bay Area

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What do music mogul Emilio Estefan, filmmaker Robert Rodriguez and Oscar Muñoz, the first Latino CEO of United Airlines, have in common?

They’ve all done business with Gary Acosta.

From starting his own mortgage brokerage at 26 to founding one of the largest Hispanic trade organizations in the U.S., Acosta has never stopped thinking about what he could do next.

But despite becoming a highly regarded businessman, Acosta initially thought he was going to become a successful chemist — until one day he decided to try something different.

Gary Acosta speaks during 2021 L’Attitude conference. (Via Gary Acosta)

A young prodigy

Born in Southern California, Acosta has always been very academic. Though he didn’t always know what he wanted to study, he majored in chemistry at Pomona College after finding a strong aptitude in the subject.

“I was pretty good at math and when I was at Pomona, everybody said that general chemistry was the toughest freshman course that anybody could take,” Acosta said.

He then got an A, which pushed him to pursue a career in chemistry upon graduation.

“You learn a lot when you study chemistry about figuring out problems, and there’s certain applications that you end up using in different ways down the line,” he said.

However, once he graduated, Acosta’s love for chemistry was short-lived. He started his first post-grad job at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego and learned maybe the field wasn’t his future.

“I started to realize, this isn’t really what I’m cut out for,” Acosta explained. “Is this really what I want to do for the rest of my life?”

A leap to banking

After looking around for a while, Acosta became a junior underwriter at a community bank, where he learned firsthand about real estate and finance.

What he learned at that bank led him to start his first mortgage brokerage at age 26, which he thought initially was just going to be a resume builder for his MBA applications.

Play for the stage that you want to be on. Not for the one that you’re on now

Gary Acosta

“I did the business thing as much for the experience as anything else,” Acosta said. “I didn’t necessarily expect it to be a big success, but it was successful.”

“We went from becoming a mortgage broker to being a mortgage banker, which is a whole different ballgame altogether, and that’s where it really got interesting for me.”

Business is built on friendships

And then, just as his business was flourishing, he was introduced to his future business partner, Ernie Reyes, who at the time was a real estate broker.

“I was looking for relationships where I could get business referrals,” Acosta said. “Ernie ended up being a very interesting character. He was about 20 years older than me, so he was sort of a mentor.”

“We would get together every time we would close a transaction and philosophize about bigger things, about life, about politics.”

After meeting Reyes, Acosta went to a technology conference in 1999, where he learned everything new in the industry and — most importantly — about a new technology at the time: the internet.

“I remember the internet was really starting to become a thing back then, and how it was going to change the industry, how technology was going to change everything.”

“It was eye-opening,” Acosta said. “A little bit scary because you see all these changes happening and you think, ‘oh man, where am I going to fit in all of this?'”

The road to success is always under construction

Following the conference and the explosion of the internet, Acosta realized the tides were changing and he needed to unite all the Hispanic real estate professionals under one roof.

“Ernie and I met a few days later and we chatted for a couple of hours,” Acosta said. “In that meeting, we wrote out the acronym NAHREP for the first time.”

And so the idea of creating a national trade organization for Hispanic realtors was born. The organization was then named the National Association of Hispanic Real Estate Professionals.



Gary Acosta

NAHREP conference.

Different from other trade organizations, where they usually advocate to protect their members’ interests, NAHREP’s mission statement was to advance Hispanic home ownership in the U.S., which Acosta said was a “very consumer-facing goal.”

“We were a group of real estate professionals that wanted to support consumers and help them acquire homeownership and participate in homeownership,” Acosta said.

As they prepared to launch NAHREP, Reyes brought up to Acosta one big problem: they needed someone reputable to back their organization.

“We were three months out, and, I was feeling pretty good and he said ‘neither one of us is really qualified to lead a national trade association,”‘ Acosta said.

So they picked up the phone in hope of finding someone with the experience to help them back their organization. They eventually zeroed in on Henry Cisneros, who at the time had just completed his tenure as the United States Secretary of Housing and Urban Development under former President Bill Clinton.

“He was his housing secretary, the very first Latino to hold that position,” Acosta said. “If we can get that guy to endorse us, then we’re golden, we’re set.”

Don’t just try to figure out how to build a successful business, try to figure out how to solve a major problem

Gary Acosta

So in a Hail Mary attempt, Acosta and Reyes sent Cisneros a letter, in hope he would accept to join the pair in the launch of NAHREP. And he agreed.

The organization launched in 2000, the same year the U.S. Census was set to take place and where Hispanics were projected to become the largest minority group in the United States

“The were corporations that were starting to think about that, so we launched right at that time,” he said. “There was also some momentum in the housing industry, a lot of first-time homebuyers were from black and brown communities.”

The 2008 mortgage crisis

But, as the organization grew in membership and employees, it faced its first hurdle since its founding: the 2008 financial crisis.

“A lot of the companies — they were our partners, our funders, our entryway into the marketplace — went away overnight,” Acosta said. “Our budget went from $2 million to $500,000.”

The organization had to close its Washington, D.C., office and lay off 99% of its staff. But despite the sea of darkness, its membership grew closer together and tried to keep it alive.

“Our members responded in such an inspirational way,” Acosta said.”They would not let the organization die… we actually became larger and more formidable as an organization.”

Meanwhile, the National Association of Realtors lost 20 to 25% of its membership.

With the help of its membership and connections in the industry, in 2009 NAHREP was able to get back on its feet and become a hub for business exchanges among realtors.

In response to the Great Recession, in 2014 NAHREP founded Hispanic Wealth Project, a new project aimed at helping Hispanics recover from the 2008 financial crisis.

“Homeownership rates need to go up, small businesses need to scale and people had to learn how to diversify their assets a little bit,” Acosta explained.

L’Attitude

Among the lessons learned during the financial crisis, Acosta also learned that homeownership was not always the endgame for some families, some simply just wanted a better quality of life.

Acosta then began investigating what was going to be his next venture. He attended the South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, a conference that showcases the intersection of film, music, tech, education, and culture.

The conference is so large that in 2023 it drew a crowd of nearly 350,000 people in nine days.

“I was really fascinated by the fact that it had this very strange, eclectic agenda,” Acosta said.

Gary Acosta
2024 L’Attitude conference. (Via Gary Acosta)

“You had this music festival that sort of celebrated, the live music scene in Austin, Texas, with this tech conference that was showcasing southwestern tech hubs.”

So Acosta decided he and NAHREP needed to expand and create an equivalent to SXSW, but for Hispanics.

In the process he met Sol Trujillo, who was the first U.S.-born Hispanic to be the CEO of a Fortune 200 company in America.

“(Trujillo) believed that the narrative about Hispanics was wrong,” Acosta explained. “It was the misperception that Latinos were a drain in our economy and not drivers of growth.”

After meeting Trujillo, Acosta pitched to him the idea of a Hispanic SXSW.

“South by Southwest started off as a small conference to showcase southwestern culture. Why don’t we have something like that?” Acosta said. “We have people in all these different sectors. It should be a celebration of all that Latinos bring to our economy, to our culture.”

And after a year of brainstorming ideas, the pair came up with L’Attitude.

Gary Acosta
Gary Acosta with Solomon Dennis “Sol” Trujillo. (Via Gary Acosta)

“We wanted to change the way Latinos perceive themselves. The idea of Latino and attitude sort of merged.”

In 2018 L’Attitude hosted its first conference, which included big-ticket guests such as the CEOs of Uber, Boeing, United Airlines, and celebrities like Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez.

L’Attitude then developed its investment arm, L’Attitude Ventures, which raised $100 million to invest exclusively in Latino-led startups.

“The vision for L’Attitude from the very beginning was ‘this has to become a marketplace,'” Acosta said. “It had to be a place not just where people go and listen to cool speeches, (but) where deals get done, where business gets moved forward.”

Since its founding, L’Attitude Ventures has funded several startups in different sectors, including Nopalera, which was named the organization’s startup of the year in 2022.

Acosta was interviewed for Bísness School, a series that tells the inspiring stories of Latino founders. Subscribe to Bísness School wherever you get your podcasts to get future episodes automatically. Remember, Business school is expensive. Bísness School is free.

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