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College Access for All: A Chat with Latino U Founder Shirley Acevedo Buontempo

Shirley Acevedo Buontempo is the Founder and Executive Director of Latino U College Access. sheBOOM was inspired to share her story for many reasons. Not only is she a great source of wisdom about launching and growing a non-profit, she is paving the way for female founders.

As we were researching sheBOOM, we discovered this incredible statistic: The biggest increase in women-owned businesses is among the Latina community! Access to education and entrepreneurial skill development is, therefore, a critical need. Shirley (who came to the U.S. at the age of ten, not speaking English) is stepping in and ensuring that Hispanic youth are given the tools they need to succeed in work and life.

She was recently profiled in Time, and we were honored to be able to talk to her about her goals and lessons learned as the founder of a non-profit.

What was your inspiration?

I recognized a need that existed for resources for Latino youth and inequity in opportunities. I myself am a first generation Latina graduate and know first-hand the importance of education. “Something has to be done!” I realized.

What are some of those challenges?

Especially in the county in which I live (Westchester, New York), we have talented students going to great high schools. But if their parents only have an elementary school education or don’t speak English they can’t provide guidance to their kids and can’t afford test prep or college advisors.

The first key lesson I learned as a start-up was finding funders and obtaining grants is difficult the first three years. No one wants to support you if you don’t have metrics…you can’t get metrics until you have funding to deliver programs.


What’s Your Vision of Where the Organization Will Be Five Years From Now?

We plan to expand geographically to serve more school districts in Westchester County, becoming the college access organization for all Latino high school students in this area. We’re also expanding our services beyond college access and enrollment to include college success programs, ensuring that students graduate college and secure their first jobs. We just received a transformational grant from Impact100 Westchesterto help our scholars succeed through college graduation and entry into professional careers.

We’re drowning in opportunity. We get calls from throughout the U.S. asking for advice and programs. Don’t grow too fast or you may lose sight of your mission. We’re currently looking at ways to scale and collaborate with other non-profits to expand our reach.

Shirley’s Insights Into Building  a Non-Profit:

  • Be open to “in-kind” support. If someone has talent and a professional skill set, be open to engaging them.
  • Look for great interns. Partner with a nearby university and find students who will provide “footwork.” Shirley’s interns strengthen the support team.
  •  Your board is critically important. Especially when you’re starting out, choose people who have specific skills sets and talent. Our first board was a governance and management board. Finding people who are passionate and dedicated about your mission. As your organization matures, you need to recruit Board members who will support and lead fundraising efforts to enable the organization to grow.
  • Your organization will change as you go through various phases. Be willing to tap into others’ expertise as you grow and change. Don’t be ashamed to admit when you don’t like something.
  • Plan to work harder than you ever have in your life! Although Shirley worked for ad agencies, raised two daughters, went to grad school, and worked for other non-profits, building Latino U has been her biggest challenge to date.

Shirley didn’t take a salary in the early days of launching her non-profit. She advises founders to plan for those “lean years.”

Thank you Shirley for sharing your experience and insights and for helping tomorrow’s sheBOOM readers get the skills they need today!