Edward Avila was a Silicon Valley tech veteran when he launched his first startup a few years ago. As he made the rounds at networking events, though, he noticed something jarring.
"Out of hundreds of entrepreneurs," he said, "I felt like I was the only Latino in the room."
He's not far off: Numbers from venture capital clearinghouse CB Insights indicate less than 1 percent of venture-backed startups have a Latino co-founder. It's an especially sobering statistic in a valley where census figures show a quarter of the population is Hispanic.
Avila's job-placement startup never got off the ground, but the experience inspired him to found another venture that's now set to debut: a tech incubator to help Latinos break into startups.
"Everybody said, 'You're nuts,' but what I do well is bring in the right resources," said Avila, 44, who spent two decades in human resources for tech giants like Intersil and Philips Semiconductors.
"Class" begins Monday for the first seven startups participating in San Jose-based Manos Accelerator, which takes its name from the Spanish word for hands. Avila -- whose mother worked in a cannery after immigrating to the valley from Costa Rica -- and his co-founders say the name reflects the Latino work ethic.
Yet while Latino tech leaders praised the move, they cautioned it will face tough sledding.
"I think it's going to take another generation, maybe two, to get out of the mode of an immigrant culture," said Hector Ruiz, the former chief executive of chip giant AMD.
Ruiz, who now runs a New York nanotechnology startup, said Latino parents tend to urge their children to land steady jobs rather than risk starting their own businesses.
Too, Ruiz pointed to the low numbers of Latinos who study science or business in college -- or even finish high school.
Despite a decade of considerable gains, just 50 percent of Latino students in California public schools rate "proficient" or above in math, state figures show. That compares with 71 percent of whites and 85 percent of Asians.
"Look, I grew up in a town where the dropout rate for Hispanics was like 90 percent," said Texas-born Richard Leza, a longtime valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist who's tried for more than a decade to pull more Latinos into tech.
A dozen years ago, Leza helped launch Hispanic Network, modeled on the hugely influential networking group TiE. The latter, which started out as a way for South Asian entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley to meet, has grown into a global organization. But Hi-Net has struggled for altitude, Leza admitted.
Avila is well aware that others have gone before him with limited success. One of the co-founders of Manos, Sylvia Flores, worked a decade ago with Mexico's then-president, Vicente Fox, to found TechBA, which helps Mexican tech companies do business in Silicon Valley.
Flores, a former IBM engineer, brought in the third member of the founding team, David Lopez -- a longtime computer technician whose daughter happens to be J-Lo. Flores built the website for a restaurant David and Jennifer Lopez once owned in Pasadena; Avila said the 12-week Manos program will include a trip to Los Angeles for the entrepreneurs to pitch their ideas to Latino celebrities including Mario Lopez and Eva Longoria.
Downtown San Jose's Irish Innovation Center is providing Manos with reduced-rate office space, and Google's global entrepreneurship outreach program is kicking in advice, software tools and a small amount of operating cash.
Unlike startups chosen for more established incubators like Y Combinator, Avila's fledglings won't receive funding, though he hopes to raise an investment pool for future participants. And, since most of the founders in the first batch hail from outside the Bay Area, Avila has hooked them up with housing. At his mom's place.
In exchange for a 4 percent piece of their companies, entrepreneurs in the program will gain access to mentors from Stanford, Apple (AAPL) and WalmartLabs, among others. The program will culminate in a November "demo day" at Google, where the entrepreneurs will strut their stuff for venture capitalists and angel investors.
Francisco Nieto, an Oakland schoolteacher who's one of the founders of a participating startup called sleek-geek, said he's eager for introductions to the program's mentors and prospective funders. "We liked their mission and focus," he said of Manos.
Nieto, whose year-old startup makes apps to help kids improve their reading skills, teaches technology to middle school students in Oakland's Fruitvale neighborhood. "I constantly remind my students, who are primarily Latino, that they are living in the most technologically innovative region on Earth," he said, "and that they should take advantage of the opportunities so that our communities are not left behind."
Avila said Manos received 75 submissions after the program was announced in July. About a third came from Latin America.
Staff writer Sharon Noguchi contributed to this report. Contact Peter Delevett at 408-271-3638. Follow him at Twitter.com/mercwiretap.
Here are the seven startups chosen for the inaugural Manos Accelerator program:
BoomZip (Raleigh, N.C.): Helps companies analyze and manage their cloud utilization
Blyve (San Jose): Real-time marketing platform
Hemheist (Phoenix): eCommerce site for women's clothing and accessories
HostSpot (Mexico City): Helps businesses optimize marketing, merchandising and operations
Interesante (Menlo Park): Delivers real-time news and video to your mobile device based on your interests
Qritiqr (Mexico City): Crowd "mystery shopping" network
sleek-geek (Oakland): Teacher-led software company builds mobile solutions for students, parents and schools.