In stories of the tech industry, it’s not uncommon to hear about prodigies who’ve dropped out of college once they have the skills to snag a six-figure salary. Right behind them are high school grads enrolling in hacker schools and alternative programs, and also heading off to hefty salaries.
But for many, the reality is a lot starker. The recession brought hard times across economic strata, but as the economy has revived, it has left many more behind. The U.S. leads the world in low-wage work, and those paychecks have declined by 5% over the 1979–2013 period, despite a generation of productivity gains (64.9%), according to the Economic Policy Institute, which also projects that over one in four workers (28%) will be in low-wage jobs in 2020.
Carmen Rojas witnessed this firsthand. A first-generation Latina, she was raised by parents who didn’t graduate from high school, and with siblings who had no aspirations to attend college. Friends and other family members were all low-wage workers. Rojas chose a different path, graduating from UC Berkeley with a PhD in city and regional planning, and going on to nonprofit work serving the needs of low-income communities and minorities in the Bay Area before landing at Living Cities, where she worked with 22 of the largest foundations and financial institutions in the world to improve opportunities for low-income people.
It would become the springboard to launch The Workers Lab. In less than six months, Rojas and three others developed a strategy for an accelerator that invests in entrepreneurs, community organizers, technologists, economic justice organizations, issue campaigns, and businesses, to create scalable and self-sustaining solutions that improve conditions for low-wage workers.
From the beginning, Rojas admits that even with her PhD, she wasn’t an expert on labor policy, entrepreneurship, or investments, but that actually served her well in making connections. She listened, asked questions, even suspended disbelief when it was called for. “I settled into curiosity in order to satisfy my appetite to be of service,” she writes.
Thus the goal of The Workers Lab to vet ideas, services, and products from a wide range of individuals came into focus. It would attract over 200 applications, the majority of which were nonprofits seeking recoverable grants and 40% of which were startups looking for equity investments to build out ideas like a digital gaming app to retrain fast food workers to get better-paying jobs.
It’s a bit too early to tell how these early bids for investment will fare, but this work and much of Rojas’s career have been a carefully choreographed dance between advocating for low-wage workers and moving the big corporate and governmental institutions capable of taking action to make change. For this, she credits her upbringing and being a Latina woman as competitive advantages.
“Growing up, I was surrounded by people who looked and talked more like me than any of my academic or professional counterparts ever did,” Rojas tells Fast Company. This is still the case, she observes. “Latinas represent nearly 17% of women in the U.S. and only 5% of PhD graduates,” Rojas explains. “On the other hand, women of color represent nearly 60% of full-time minimum-wage workers.”
Rojas views her advanced degree as a gift despite the fact that she had “tens of thousands of dollars in student loans” in addition to having to work throughout the program and take financial aid–in sharp contrast to many of her academic counterparts whose parents could afford to send them to college. “Practically speaking, I spend a lot of time with my family and friends who work in low-wage industries and organize low-wage constituencies, making the reality of low-wage workers ever present in my work,” she says.
As for dedicating herself to service, Rojas recalls that her parents both came from big families. “My mom has 17 siblings and my dad has 10 siblings,” and as conditions in their home countries of Nicaragua and Venezuela deteriorated due to civil war, economic crises, and violence, their siblings and families started to immigrate to the U.S. “Our home represented the first stop for many of those families,” Rojas recounts. “My parents never questioned whether they were going to open their home to families of four or five. They just did it.”
As homeowners, Rojas’s parents were able to give the newly arrived a place of respite before starting a new life, she says. “They showed me that being of service would significantly improve conditions for our entire family, and, in a broader context, to people in need in our greater community,” says Rojas, adding that it remains a lesson she brings to work daily.
Being a woman has also been an advantage because women represent the vast majority of low-wage earners, she says. “Many of these women have children or are caretakers for older family members, and the vast majority of them are working under impossible conditions to make ends meet.” The women in her family were no different, she says. “Many continued to work in childcare, sweatshops, elder care, and food service, all while making sure their kids were fed, dressed, and safe.”
Rojas says it’s impossible to do what she does without being reminded on a daily basis that women–especially women of color–bear the brunt of unequal pay and uneven protection in the workplace. Latina women in the U.S. earn only 53% of what white men earn for comparable work, according to the AAUW (American Association of University Women).
To connect with corporations and other organizations that are profit-driven is a tough but necessary part of advocacy because they have the power to transform working conditions for low-wage earners. For now, Rojas points to current examples of companies such as Costco and Gravity Payments that offer a living wage and benefits such as paid sick time, and the business case for doing the right thing.
“When these conditions are met, corporations and revenue-generating ventures experience less employee turnover and have increased customer loyalty,” she says. “This is great for their corporations as well as for our economy.”