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Taking care of everything while giving it our all

Name: Andrea Orrego Startup: Founder, Atelier home design app | Carbondale, Colorado

Hometown: Lima, Peru

Breyana Ray: What is your connection to rural?

Andrea Orrego: When I first moved to Colorado, I moved to Vail. I ended up getting a job in Snowmass, which made me move to the Roaring Fork Valley, which is the area where I'm at now. And once I moved here and started developing my professional career, I got involved with local communities. One of the programs I got involved with is called the Roaring Fork Technologists, which later evolved into the West Slope Technologists — and we’re just a group of people associated with tech in some fashion. … That also opened up doors for me to get involved with Startup Colorado, which is a rural-focused program that helped me get started in developing my business.

BR: When you were growing up, what did you want to be?

AO: So many things! I actually trained to be an architect, that’s what I went to school to become. Before I started my architectural journey, I wanted to go to film school. Along those lines there were also thoughts of doing different things in business — I think I’ve been making things since I was very young, trying to sell them to my family, hustling everyone. But my professional career started in architecture, even when I moved here to colorado. Later on I decided to launch a startup, and that’s what brought me to tech.

BR: What is your current job? What are you doing now?

AO: I am the founder of the Atelier app. The app is an early-stage startup. We developed a visualizer for home design that connects people trying to remodel and decorate their homes with sustainable brands that are usually small- and medium-sized businesses. We are just trying to create a platform that would compete — go beyond competing, but give an opportunity to smaller brands against Wayfair, against Amazon, against very cheaply manufactured products, and bring the industry back into more sustainable practice.

BR: And how did you get there?

AO: It was actually in my professional practice as an architect that I started seeing more and more clients coming to us with very specific ideas of what they wanted. Because all the information is available now so they could see pictures online, and me being their project manager, I would end up creating multiple 3D views and shopping lists and things that were more interior-oriented than my actual job. They didn't want to hire an interior designer because they already thought they knew what they wanted, so I would just iterate 3D models over and over for them. And if it wasn't for how sophisticated CAD software is, I feel like that would be something that anybody could really do — so that made me want to create a visualizer that was easy enough for anybody to adopt. It was with this idea that I started testing different things and was able to meet the team that I have right now to create this app.

We always knew that we wanted to create impact with the business that we had. And we had some elements that we didn't have a clear path to create impact that we could track, and when we started interviewing brands that we could bring on board we realized that there was a huge need for a product like ours for smaller brands to be able to go direct to consumer, because most of the time they don't have any budget or time for marketing or being presented in front of people. So we saw it as a great opportunity to create impact, make the industry more sustainable, and really catch on this trend — but we know it’s the future of the industry, sustainability, and hopefully it'll just be a mindset shift to happen sooner than later.

BR: How do you feel the lack of representation in tech affects women of color?

AO: It’s very tangible in every step of building your business. Early on, when you just have an idea, you either have the choice of going at it with your own resources or relying on someone else’s resources — meaning an investor or getting someone that can help you push the idea forward. If you go with the latter then, unfortunately, the perception of people you present that to when you’re a woman of color is not the same perception that they would get from someone else. There are a lot of biases implied and I was reluctant to believe this until it was so tangible that I could not deny it. But it’s very true. There’s a lot of biases that people don’t recognize or even understand, and after you go after those initial funding rounds, or try to talk to people, try to grow your network — even trying to find a cofounder, for me, in the beginning, was very hard because of this. I would have a seasoned technologist come and talk to me and be talking down to me, telling me how my product needed to be instead of looking at it as a partnership with me, trying to build this together. …

That had me look at my own resources and my own network and what I could do for myself, and not have to rely on anything else. It was kind of like a strength at the end of the day but also a step back. I built my skills but at the same time I was behind a lot of people who were starting at the same place or even behind me, because I had everything built and they were just starting out. But because they came from a different background they were able to get ahead faster. That’s been sort of a recurring theme and, unfortunately, it’s made me not want to work with certain people or certain brands or go after certain VCs because I know that bias is present. But it’s also helped me turn around, look at myself and look at my community, and I started finding all the resources and support I needed from communities of people that look like me or people that had similar difficulties growing on their entrepreneurial journey.

BR: Do you feel like those biases are the biggest challenge for someone who's, essentially, trying to disrupt the industry, or do you feel like there's another challenge, or a larger challenge?

AO: Everything about trying to create a company is a challenge. Every step of the way there’s going to be an obstacle and if you’re continuing to be held back just because of those biases, then that becomes the biggest wall you have to overcome. It’s really taken me to understand that I need to look at my value and not just believe in my value, but also sell that value to other people and not just assume that they’re going to see it — because they don’t. So I have to present myself with all my strength listed on a piece of paper and be like, “Here I am. Here I am.” You can’t afford to be humble anymore. You can’t afford to just hope things will happen to you. You’ve got to be in their face about your strengths and what you can do. And it’s taken a lot of growing to be able to get to that place because women are not naturally programmed to be that way. It’s taken a long time for me to understand that that’s the mentality I have to have.

BR: Looking back, when was the first time you realized that being a woman of color in this tech space would be so challenging to you?

AO: The first time I noticed it was when I was participating in a five-week program, competing for a grant to get my business started. I was at the top of the class the whole time, up until the very last judgment. And watching the video, how we were judged, there was a person there that said, “Who is the most likely to make this work for our community?” That all of a sudden put me at the bottom of a list when everything else I had proven that my idea was better. I had all the resources. I had been working on this for longer than other people. So that felt like a hit. At first I didn’t want to believe that it was because of what I looked like or who I was or where I came from. But then, later on, when I continued to talk to people, especially in a rural area, I feel like biases are more obvious or amplified than when you’re in bigger cities. … I always had to prove that I had already done it in order to be considered, and that’s something that I didn’t see in other companies that were far behind me but they were maybe different-looking than me.

BR: Is there a woman of color in your field that you look up to in your professional journey? And if not, what difference would it have made for you if you had someone to kind of help mentor you?

AO: Yes. There’s a woman of color in Denver that’s doing something similar. She was farther along than we are — they are like Series C or D right now. And it was definitely good for me to see that as a North Star, and be able to see, OK, if she achieved it, I can achieve it too. But there were definitely other differences that when you’re starting out you feel like it’s kind of like you’re comparing yourself all the time — she has all these things that I don’t have, all these things that, maybe, I’m not good enough. Those things started becoming more tangible once I started pitching to investors in Denver because they would always compare me to her. And I’m like, “This is not a competition. I’m not here to take your business, she’s not here to take my business, we’re just in the same field.” And, unfortunately, it ended up playing against me. But, in general terms, my biggest heroes, my role models, are mostly women of color and these life forces that have accomplished so much and have been successful because of their effort. Beyonce is one of them, Serena Williams, even Jennifer Lopez and Jessica Alba, I see them as these powerhouses that have been working and hustling and able to overcome a lot. But I also see, for instance, Jennifer Lopez, it took her 50 years to get to the place in her career where she feels like it’s at the top of the world — and she started so young.

BR: What do you feel like is changing for women of color? And what do you think is staying the same in terms of women of color in tech?

AO: I feel like what's changing is that we're speaking up more. We're more willing to help each other out and show everybody what we can do. We help each other out and make more public those acts of support, building our communities. I think that's super important. I really doubt that the people that have been running the show for so many years are all of a sudden going to have a change of heart and decide that they need to face their biases and be more open with how they distribute money. But I do see that people in older generations that have been working towards creating this change are more willing than anybody to lend a hand, to create platforms for people that are starting out, to continue to support the community, and I think that's going to be the biggest change for us for sure. And that's part of my personal purpose, too. I want to succeed so that I can lend a hand to the next person that's coming behind me, and hopefully pull a bunch of them up to where I am as well. I'm very hopeful about that.

BR: How should allies and employers and supporters step up for women of color in tech? Or even women in tech in general?

AO: First of all, to be 100% clear on how our life circumstances are different than other people, to realize where the gaps are. A lot of us are mothers and we don't have families that can give us a support system so that we can leave our children with someone so that we can continue to work. I think employers need to see that, they need to see that we need to create space for mothers to continue to be mothers but also to be able to succeed in our careers without having to sacrifice anything. I feel like there's a lot of talk of diversity and inclusion, and I've actually been a part of these conversations for companies that I've worked for. But it needs to be more than just a policy. It needs to be more than, “Hey, we're gonna check these boxes.” This needs to be a cultural shift. This needs to be recognition of us as human beings. And it needs to be also a conversation with the people that you work with —like, for instance, in my team, something that I can do for them at this very early stage, when I don't have a lot of benefits that I can offer them, is to sit down with them and ask them, “Where do you want to take your career? What are the things that you need to work on while we're building this company together that are going to take you to that next step?” … So that's something I can do for them that they can put in their resume later on and say, “Hey, I did all these things for this company — I took this company from this level to this level.” So that's one of the things we can do and I feel like more companies should do that, and just realize we're all human and create the space for people to be human.

BR: What does an inclusive tech culture for women of color look like in an ideal world?

AO: For me, it’s a space where we’re organized in terms of our background, our education, where we know how to identify our gaps and help each other fill those gaps. Obviously, equal pay is, I think, the basic standard. We need more pay, actually — women who have children should get paid a little bit more so they can fill those gaps so they can put their kids in daycare or they could have someone help them. Even to have a maid come into their house once a month would make a huge difference to a lot of us right now, someone to take care of laundry once a month would be amazing. And just create more opportunities. Unfortunately, in order to get everybody on an equal playing field, that means we need to step in and help the ones that are carrying everything, and that tends to be the women, and especially women of color.

Culturally I feel like — and I speak in particular about Hispanic culture — like we're expected to take care of everything house-related, and even if you’ve been lucky enough to have a partner that puts in the same amount of effort that you do or even more, mentally you have the programming that it should be you who's been taking care of that. So then there's guilt associated with that. There's shame, there's a lot of stuff that we carry. So we need to give all the support that we can to women so that they feel like they're entitled to their success, which is a huge thing that most of us don't really know that we are until we've suffered enough to feel worthy of it. And that's the complete opposite with a young white male. They’ve always felt like they're entitled to their success, and don't feel like they need to work for it.

BR: Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I would have, or anything I didn’t ask that you feel is relevant or important?

AO: I would say, especially for rural communities, it is very important for our local governments to look at the opportunity that there is in supporting women to start their businesses — whatever business it is, it doesn't even need to be STEM. Because one generation of successful women is going to raise another generation of successful women that might go into a different field and that might become the hub of economic development that their community needs. Every community should look at their people in long-term success, like generational success, not just the people affected in the current election term. That's the only way that we're going to be able to help our community succeed, going to help women and people of color get to what they dreamt of getting to. Look at it in the long term, and make sure that the resources are going to be there and that they're not going to be wiped out by the next party that thinks opposite of them. Because that's the hardest thing about trying to create long-lasting success, making sure that people are on board because they believe in the big vision and not just because they want to prove the other party wrong.

If you would like to be part of the Rural Slice, please be sure to fill out our application form. Our team is always looking to chat with women in tech.

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