UC Law SF Alumna on a Mission to Prepare, Empower Underserved Communities

Martha Mendizabal grew up during the rapid proliferation of PC and mobile-phone technology in the 1990s, but she had no access to those types of devices as a poor child in Tijuana. It forced her to play catch-up as an undergraduate at UCLA.

Mendizabal is now working to ensure the same thing doesn’t happen to Latino youth in the U.S. and abroad when it comes to emerging technologies such as virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR).

The 2010 UC Law SF graduate is the co-founder and executive director of TecnoLatinx XR Labs in Los Angeles.

The social enterprise that launched in 2017 works to educate members of underserved communities about how to use extended reality (XR) hardware through hands-on experiences in hopes of fostering economic empowerment in the U.S., Latin America and the Caribbean.

The work Mendizabal is doing makes her a gamechanger to countless Latino youth.

“The skills that we teach are about interacting with the software of the future,” Mendizabal said.

Mendizabal said TecnoLatinx started its VR classes and demonstrations in Havana, Cuba before traveling to different communities on the Mexican side of the border with the U.S.

The organization’s lab in downtown Los Angeles opened in August 2018. College students can come to the lab to create virtual reality sculptures, such as desert flowers, or to try prototyping. They can also explore ways to use the technology to tell stories.

Meanwhile, TecnoLatinx connects with high schoolers through community organizations and plans to host them at the lab this summer. The pupils who acquire new skills are expected to teach the newer students what they’ve learned.

“Those are the students that are going to help us amplify the reach,” Mendizabal said.

The students are also provided mentoring and taught soft skills, such as how to create an online portfolio of their art and develop a LinkedIn profile. Additionally, Mendizabal and her TecnoLatinx co-founder Nadia Muñoz use the networks they have developed in Silicon Valley and beyond to assist the students and encourage them to build their own connections.

Mendizabal is particularly proud of Steve Vazquez, a California State University, Los Angeles student who secured a scholarship to Facebook’s upcoming F8 developer conference in San Jose. She said the college freshman who did not have Internet access until he was 13 was a great example of the type of life-changing impact TecnoLatinx hopes to have by offering access to expensive technology most low-income families could not purchase on their own.

“Providing access to the hardware is what has enabled us to explain what the software is, what you can do with it and the career path that comes with it,” Mendizabal said.

She also hopes her own personal and professional journey can serve as an inspiration to the students she interacts with through TecnoLatinx XR Lab.

Mendizabal’s first job as a youth was selling sodas at the Mexican border. She later worked in finance in New York, before transitioning to her work in technology education.

“That little girl with those odds should have not been able to go to UCLA and graduate, go to Hastings and graduate, work on Wall Street and come and do this,” Mendizabal said. “I think I’m a gamechanger in that I’m a living example to these kids.”

She said her time at Hastings has served her extremely well in her current position, especially the opportunities she had to help represent immigrants through the law school’s clinics.

“Providing access to the hardware is what has enabled us to explain what the software is, what you can do with it and the career path that comes with it.”

Those experiences deepened the empathy Mendizabal has for the many American-born children of immigrants she encounters through TecnoLatinx; kids just like her.

She and Muñoz ultimately hope to expand the impact of their work by supporting the launch of similar active-learning labs in many other cities, including in Latin America.

“I do not want to have entire communities be left behind,” Mendizabal said.

About Gamechanger

GAMECHANGER is the way our students–past and present–see the world. It’s the impact our alumni have on local, national and global policy and law. The ideas and events that come from the minds of UC Law SF students and faculty help transform the world. UC Law SF plans to celebrate its GAMECHANGERS on Thursday, May 9.