In 2018, Founder Keith Hernandez decided to make a change: he left his corporate career in marketing, advertising, and revenue strategy and fulfilled his lifelong dream of entrepreneurship by starting his own company, Launch Angle.
Launch Angle’s multicultural, multidisciplinary teams provide expert advice and solutions to individuals and companies looking to revamp their operations, launch new products, and transform their teams. In short, the company helps business leaders who are in the exact same place Hernandez was in four years ago. Leaders who are ready “for that next breakthrough moment,” as Launch Angle puts it on their website.
Hernandez is now very familiar with the concept of change, having not only grown his own business but also seen and supported countless others as they start off on a new path of their own. The cofounder and partner spoke with Hispanic Executive about what it takes to make that kind of change, his commitment to empowering Latinos, and how like-minded leaders can drive change for the Latino community while realizing their dreams of entrepreneurship.
Can you tell us a bit about your journey as a corporate leader? What are some of your proudest achievements from your previous roles?
I see my career as a series of calculated risks, and myself as someone with a penchant for supporting great creative companies. I studied creative writing and English literature in college and thought I would do something on the editorial side of magazines or newspapers. But like so many kids fresh out of college with an English degree, I ended up bartending. While bartending near Wrigley Field in Chicago, I met an advertising salesperson for The Onion Newspaper. We struck a bond, and he helped me get an editorial internship that eventually led to my first full-time role on the advertising side of the business.
My journey as a corporate leader started when I was at BuzzFeed, where I had a great manager, Andy Wiedlin, who led with a humble confidence while also helping his team stretch beyond their comfort zone. I instantly identified with that type of leadership: it opened my eyes to the fact that you don’t have to be a tough or mean boss to get the best out of people. You can challenge your team and help them continue to grow with empathy, support, and maybe just a little gentle ribbing to get them to crack a smile.
In 2014, I was an individual seller on Buzzfeed’s East Coast team and noticed that we had a large audience outside of the United States, particularly in Canada and the UK. Andy taught us to create opportunity instead of waiting for it, so I raised my hand and said I wanted to investigate whether we could set up shop internationally.
He embraced the idea, and we were off to the races. Identifying and opening business offices in Canada, the UK, Australia, Brazil, and Mexico is one of the proudest moments of my career, mainly because of the jobs it created abroad and the career growth opportunities it created for our people. I was also extremely proud of the team we put together; it was a diverse group working across multiple countries, a true reflection of our international footprint.
I’d love to hear more about Launch Angle. What motivated you to start the company, and how has it grown and evolved since then?
I had just left Bleacher Report after AT&T bought WarnerMedia and, honestly, I just wasn’t ready to go back full-time anywhere. I was burned-out.
If you ever grabbed a beer with me after work, you almost certainly would have been bored to tears by my proclamations on how I wanted to start my own company. For years, though, I had excuses. Let me just save enough money. After this next promotion. When my daughter is a little older. It took a tragic event in my life to help me realize I should bet on myself.
In 2017, my father—who was living in Puerto Rico—passed away in between Hurricanes Irma and Maria. Much of the story is fuzzy, but I do know that he was taking medication and as a result of the power outages, flooding, and impending storm, he couldn’t get his medication. His death was preventable—he was a victim of climate change and Puerto Rico’s crumbling infrastructure.
It took me a few months before I was able to get down to Puerto Rico because the island was still without power, but while I was there picking up his remains, I realized I needed to stop making excuses and just do the things I wanted to. I did not want to be near the end of my life regretting that I never took a chance on building a company. Even if it failed miserably, at least I could say that I tried.
Launch Angle started as a consultancy. There were many things I had implemented at Bleacher Report that other companies wanted to do, like building branded content studios, evolving their sales team, and building new revenue streams. Before COVID-19, we were a team of six, and a lot of our focus was on brand strategy, research, and developing insights to help our clients navigate their next breakthrough moment. Our clients were in the travel, dining, sports, and live events industries, so you can imagine the hard time we had in 2020. Our focus then was to just stay alive, and I am proud to say that we did.
During that time I also developed the concept for our podcast, The Changeup. Many people were leaving their big corporate jobs, taking a risk, and starting their own thing. The media called it the Great Resignation, but I saw it more as the Great Realization: people were realizing that life is not infinite, that this horrible moment in our history might weirdly be the best time to start a business and take a chance.
I was fascinated by what motivated people from diverse backgrounds to make that kind of change, so I started to interview them. It’s been one of the most rewarding parts of our work at Launch Angle, listening to these powerful stories, learning about these phenomenal people, and sharing it with the world.
Launch Angle puts a strong focus on multicultural teams and perspectives. How have you been able to advance the Latino community and/or support individual Latino professionals through your work at Launch Angle?
It’s important to me that people see Latinos as a powerful force for good in the corporate world. We know that there are many great programs for young Latinos to learn about the business world and find mentors, and we are also seeing great strides happen as companies work to develop diverse boards and bring in Latinos for C-suite positions.
However, there is massive hole at the mid-career mark for Latinos. So much focus is on entry-level positions and the C-suite that not a lot is done for directors, vice presidents, and senior vice presidents. We realized there is an opportunity to help strong leaders navigate the often-tricky world of corporate leadership: we have partnered with Management Leadership for Tomorrow and developed a mentorship program where we work with about a dozen senior leaders, all Black and Latino/a, to help build their professional brand and grow their professional acumen.
It’s funny calling it a “mentorship” program because the people I work with are way smarter than me, and super accomplished. It’s really about offering them a strong partner in figuring out how they can evolve and take the next steps in their career. Some are writing books, others are starting their own company. It’s been a fun experience, and a great reminder that we all need someone to bounce ideas off of outside our company.
A little less officially, I have been very deliberate about having a diverse set of people on our podcast, The Changeup, especially people from Latino and US Hispanic backgrounds. It’s important for me to help share their stories, as less than 2 percent of venture capital-funded businesses are Latino-owned. I want to inspire other Latinos who might think there are too many hurdles to building their company and provide them with a real-life road map to entrepreneurship.
Even less officially, I get asked for help with hiring a lot, and I always make sure to include a diverse list of people. As you get more senior, recommendations from others become essential to your ability to secure roles. Because Latinos currently make up such a small percentage of senior leadership roles, we are not getting recommended at the same rate. I have become very intentional about recommending Latinos for senior roles.
You’ve worked with a lot of entrepreneurs through your work at Launch Angle. What advice would you give to executives who are considering striking out on their own and launching their own company or organization?
As Nike says, “Just Do It.” There will never be the perfect moment or the best time in your career, and even if there were, you would never know it. If your idea gives you energy and keeps you excited and connected, don’t ignore that. Follow your energy. It will keep you going during the darkest days and will be the guiding light as you grow.
Be open to the evolution of your business. We started as a sports consultancy but have now gotten into producing podcasts and newsletters, building advertising sales teams, and developing career mentorship opportunities. If we had stuck with the first concept, we would have missed out on some of the most fun and interesting opportunities we now have.
Give yourself time. Some of the most successful founders I have learned from said they committed to their concept for two years. You can always go back to the corporate world and find a full-time job, so give the project a chance to succeed.
Commit to the endeavor. As Ron Swanson from Parks and Recreation said, “Never half-ass two things. Whole-ass one thing.” If you don’t give your company 100 percent of your focus and commitment, it will never reach 100 percent of its potential.
Ask for help. It might be lonely starting your own thing, but there are thousands of people out there in the same boat. Seek out that community, find people who are also first-time founders, and talk through some of the issues and hurdles you are seeing. You will find that many people are going through similar struggles, and by talking through them together, you can find solutions.
Appreciate your family. One of the most integral parts of building a business is getting the emotional and physical support of your family, whether that’s your spouse, your parents, your kids, cousins, or uncles. The founders I know who are both successful and happy are the ones who have a strong bond with their family. They talked about the business openly with their family before starting it, agreed on how it would change their lives, and made a commitment together to making the project a reality. Your family doesn’t have to work at your company, but their support and understanding are invaluable. You can’t go it alone.
How can mission-oriented entrepreneurs best ensure that their commitment to the Latino community is ingrained in their business from day one?
Hire, retain, and promote. Latinos make up 18 percent of the US population and are also the fastest-growing segment of the population. Pretty soon, we will be the new majority. Unfortunately, when you look across leadership positions at public (and private) companies, Latino leaders are in the low single digits in terms of representation.
This is not a pipeline problem: there are great leaders out there who are just not being given a chance because so many companies only focus on the first element. They put together big initiatives and big HR incentives to hire a diverse team—which is great. But that’s about changing the numbers, not changing the culture.
You need to put an equal amount of resources and commitment into making sure that you are promoting Latinos from within, that you are challenging them with new opportunities, and that you are retaining the best talent. The most common reason people leave a job is because they feel they aren’t properly valued (they might have beenpassed up for a promotion, excluded from key meetings, or any number of other things). Once you hire someone, be deliberate with them about how you are going to help grow their career and the options they have to develop into a leader at your company.
What do you think is the most common thing that holds people back from starting their own company, switching industries, or making some other significant professional change? What is the solution?
Being good at what they are currently doing. Often, our own success limits what we end up doing. Many would-be founders have told me that they will start their own thing if they don’t get the big promotion. Three months later, I check in, and guess what? They got the promotion! Fantastic, but is that what they really wanted? Were they looking for a good excuse to leave and instead got sucked back in? Often, our own success impedes our dreams.
High-performers also tend to hate failure. I struggled with this for a long time, and it made me resistant to a lot of new challenges. When we get good at something, we eventually get compensated really well for it, and so failing becomes even riskier.
Two years ago, I took up volunteering as a firefighter in my town. When I walked in that first day, I knew literally nothing. My whole corporate career had been built on my expertise and my decades of work, but at the firehouse I was a rookie who needed someone to show me everything. But I was curious. And humble. I kept an open mind and embraced being an apprentice. And I have found that having an extracurricular area where I am a novice and can openly learn has given me more courage to take calculated risks with my business and to learn new skill sets.
I recommend that everyone find something—whether it’s a hobby, a sport, or volunteer work—new to learn. Embrace being bad at it. Don’t worry about becoming the best, just go and learn from someone else. The experience is humbling, but you will find your mind working in different ways. (Learning how to extricate a victim from a car accident doesn’t directly help me in the business world, but if I can learn how to do that, I am pretty sure I can learn whatever new social app the kids are talking about.)
Individual leaders alone cannot enact the changes the Latino community needs. What changes can companies make right now to their operations or strategies to make a real difference for diverse leaders and communities?
Again—hire, retain, and promote. It’s so important it’s worth saying twice. Hire across all company levels, not just entry-level positions. Make a commitment to the people you hire and show them why you want them to be part of the company’s future. Show them paths to grow, teach them about how they can learn new skills, and explain how they can move into different company departments. Set up mentorship programs that have real commitment from the leadership team.
Walk the walk, don’t just use diversity as a marketing campaign. I get so annoyed when I see big companies announce initiatives that treat diversity as charity. They offer skills training to entry-level candidates or donate to an underprivileged community—which are both great things—but they ignore the talent already inside their walls. Younger employees don’t want platitudes, they want action. Show employees that you are taking the necessary internal steps to provide more opportunities for career growth, and you will see a stronger bond with your team.