When Elizabeth Escobar-Fernandes moved to Charlotte from Colombia to be near her father, she barely spoke English. And though she was six months away from obtaining her degree in electronic engineering, she had trouble getting a job.
There was a language barrier, her degree wasn’t from a U.S. institution, and she didn’t have any connections to back her up.
But today, she’s a software engineering manager at the Duke Energy Innovation Center at Optimist Hall, where she supports product teams building in-house applications using 3D metrology, virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence chatbots and microservices. She has worked with a virtual reality team that won a Nuclear Energy Institute Top Innovative Practice award for developing a workforce development VR game. She’s an entrepreneur connecting the Hispanic community with jobs. And she’s the recent recipient of a social impact grant from Red Ventures and Charlotte Agenda.
So, what changed? People helped her – and she worked hard.
She waitressed at a hotel where she taught herself English with the help of two co-workers. She completed her computer engineering degree at UNC Charlotte with a 4.0 GPA. She got an internship, and her boss recommended her for an IT engineering job at Duke Energy. Over the years, with encouragement from her leaders, she ascended to her current role with the Innovation Center.
It was when she helped launch Duke Energy’s first mobile app that she felt positioned to create job connections for others. She saw that businesses were still having trouble with language, and popular job websites didn’t cater to Spanish speakers and weren’t targeting blue-collar workers.
“Hispanic people, they just learn through word of mouth,” she said. “And that means that their opportunities are very limited because they don’t know that many people.”
She stepped in to address the problem. The combination of seeing her mother experience this issue and working at the Innovation Center convinced her to take the plunge.
“The Optimist Hall culture, that entrepreneurial spirit,” Escobar-Fernandes said, “was what really encouraged me to go and do something about it.”
She built a mobile-friendly, Spanish website called Hay Trabajo, which translates to “there’s work.” Launched in December 2018, the website functions in two ways. Charlotte-area businesses, including some Hispanic, pay to post job descriptions, which are translated into Spanish. (Nonprofit partners get free placement.) At the same time, Hispanic job-seekers fill out applications for free or create a profile with their resume for future opportunities. Escobar-Fernandes shares that information with the employers directly or by translating that application through the employers’ websites.
“I want to help as many people as possible to find jobs,” she said.
It’s working. The site has grown to over 1,250 subscribers. Twenty-eight people have been hired and 34 employers are using the site to post jobs. And that social impact grant? It allowed her to hire an assistant and two part-time staff members to help process applications.
Kris DiGiuseppi of Showalter Construction said that since posting jobs through Hay Trabajo in January, they’ve hired two general laborers and one equipment operator.
“No business can be successful without being properly staffed,” DiGiuseppi said. “Excluding current circumstances with COVID-19, unemployment has been very low in this area and it has become more difficult to find qualified applicants from all resources. Hay Trabajo helps us to solve that problem.”
Compass One Healthcare, affiliated with Novant Health Presbyterian Medical Center, has also hired applicants through Hay Trabajo, particularly for housekeeping, food and nutrition, and patient transport jobs.
After COVID-19, Hay Trabajo staff plans to host a resume-writing workshop and career fair in partnership with the Duke Energy Latinos Energizing Diversity employee resource group and a library branch. (Email Escobar-Fernandes for details.)
“It really takes a lot of hard work to not give up, and to try to find better opportunities,” she said.
Her advice: “Keep working on your dreams.”