In talking to bilingual education crusader Deborah Castillero, one thing comes across loud and clear: this is a woman who never backs down, never settles. She sees something, or, more often, conceives of something others don’t see, and pours her energy into it until she wills her vision into being. She’s been doing this for three decades, first as a Hispanic marketing director for a political campaign (back when campaigns didn’t usually have Hispanic marketing directors), then as the brains behind SONY Music Entertainment’s Latin crossover effort, which propelled Ricky Martin, Shakira, Marc Anthony, and Jennifer Lopez into the U.S. pop markets.
I interviewed Castillero about her start-up, Bilingual Children’s Enterprises, which seeks to close the education gap between Latino children and the general U.S. population with fun, kid-friendly edutainment tools (like her new app, Tipi Tom Tales). The conversation started out as a simple background on Deborah as an entrepreneur, but what I learned, which I now share with you, is an inspiring story about passionate engagement, much larger than any one business.
Here is a condensed text of our conversation:
HL: When did you first get the idea for your start-up, Bilingual Children’s Enterprises, and how did the project evolve from there?
DC: I became aware of the U.S.-Latino education crisis and wanted to do something. English language learners are growing seven times faster than the general student population, but fewer than 50% of Latino kids attend pre-K, and an incredible 40-50% of Latino and African American kids are not graduating from high school.
This information spoke to me on a personal level. I feel like the adult version of these children. I grew up with a single mother who was an immigrant, but she surrounded herself with mixed race PhD’s and people who were excelling. I learned the value of education from my mother.
HL: You mentioned once that your mother came from a large family in Panama—how did she end up coming to the states and where did you grow up?
DC: To this day, my mom is a daily inspiration to me. We come from very different backgrounds, but she still has tremendous wisdom to share with me.
She came from a little tiny town called Guararé (four hours outside Panama City). To this day it’s as if time stands still—as you still see people on horses. She came from a family 14 siblings (nine brothers and sisters survived to adulthood.) My mom is the youngest of the 14. Her eldest sister married a soldier based in the U.S. and moved to Scranton, PA. She moved there to study English when she was 19, so that’s how she wound up in the U.S.
HL: What is at the root of the U.S. Latino education problem, in your opinion?
DC: There is a 30 million word-gap depending on socio-economic level, which means that between the ages of 0-3, children in lower income homes with Spanish dominate parents are hearing about four million English words per year. Educated, wealthier children in the same age group hear 40 million words per year.
This is something everyone should be concerned about, because if we’re not graduating literate people, that has huge implications for the US.
HL: Other than having a strong mother who emphasized the importance of education in your household, what helped you the most when you were starting out in your career?
DC: The biggest help for me was simply being bilingual. I worked with the United Way out of college, as Hispanic liaison. They wanted someone who was bilingual who could reach the Dominican population in Providence, RI. After three months, the head of the labor union asked for a meeting with me. He introduced me to Buddy Cianci, a mayoral candidate who wanted to court the Hispanic population. That set my career on this trajectory of educating people about the Hispanic community, and seeing their importance.
HL: What has been the most surprising thing about working on a start-up?
DC: How difficult it is, and how many skill sets you have to develop (like whether or not to make your company an LLC or C Corp for stock purposes, how to write a business plan, and how to present your project to investors, etc. There’s this motto in Silicon Valley: Build, Measure, Learn, and that’s all true. You have to be a good networker with a great team and with an ability to pivot.
I wanted to start this project because I feel a sense of responsibility to the community. I consider myself a social-impact entrepreneur. I have a lot of fear surrounding doing this company—like spending my savings, and having to speak publicly—but my commitment to this community is greater than my fear.
HL: What inspires you the most these days?
DC: Addressing a societal need that needs attention. I have a strong affinity with children and I want to help them grow and be successful.
Also my son and my mom, my two favorite people.