Everyday Masters: Voto Latino’s Maria Teresa Kumar On the Power Of Latino Youth

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Latinos are one of the youngest, fastest growing segments in America — yet they remain on the fringes of our politics.

Maria Teresa Kumar has made it her mission to change that. For eleven years, Kumar has been at the helm of Voto Latino, a nonpartisan organization that empowers Latino millennials to claim a better future for themselves and their community. What started as a self-funded labor of love has transformed into a huge force of political change for young Latinos. Not only do Kumar and VL work to register new voters and encourage Latino political candidates, they also train young Hispanics with the leadership skills they need to run for office and become agents of change.

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Kumar, a 41-year-old mother of two, has drawn international acclaim for her work in Latino politics: Elle named her at one of the Top 10 Most Influential Women In Washington D.C.; Fast Company recognized her as one of the 100 Most Creative Minds; Hispanic Executive called her one of the 10 Most Influential Latinos in America, and the World Economic Forum labeled her a Young Global Leader.

She says she owes her success to her mother and her abuelita, a no-nonsense, hardworking mother of eight children. “When I started with Voto Latino and told her about the “no’s” I was getting, [my grandma] said to me, “No is for everyone else, not for you! Just one kindred spirit will give you hope and a pathway,” Kumar told us. “That really has become the motto of Voto Latino.”

We sat down to chat with this incredible, inspiring Latina about her work with Voto Latino, her best piece of advice for the future leaders of America, and her Latina role models:

What prompted you to establish Voto Latino?

Rosario Dawson is the co-founder, and I came onboard six weeks after Voto Latino was started under her leadership. [Dawson] brought in half a dozen celebrities, like Jennifer Lopez and Zoe Saldana, to create the organization. I had been in politics for my first job, but when I was asked to join this initiative, it was the first time I was being recognized as being both Latina and American. Nobody in mainstream media was talking about us — let alone to us. We simply had to do this, to help map out the course of this country.

Dawson gave me the opportunity and I just ran with her idea. I quit my job in New York City, packed my bags and moved to northern California with my mom. We did a web-first strategy, not because it was the cool thing to do, but simply because we had zero funding. The first three years I funded the venture with credit cards. I don´t recommend it though [laughs]. I felt passionate about the project. We did eventually get incredible funders in Silicon Valley. As a Latino initiative we were doing things differently: we communicated with young Latinos in English, using technology. We recognized the leadership of our youth, sometimes within their household, even before they turned 18. As an example of what this means, I recently had to take my son to the ER — he’s fine now. So two doors down in the hospital, I could hear a little girl translating to her mom that her baby brother needed an MRI. I can only imagine what it must feel like to be put in this position in her home. This little girl is, in fact, a leader. Latinos care deeply about the family, and our leadership begins right there at home.

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