Dario Otero’s mother is still mad at him.
“It was 2016, I had been in education for 7 years, and I took $10,000 from my teacher retirement association funds and bought a laptop and a camera which I still own to this day,” Otero says, “And that was the beginning of my company.”
Otero’s mother will tell you that he wasn’t supposed to touch that money for years. But with the laptop, camera and cash left over after his purchases, Otero launched Youth Lens 360, a marketing company that creates content while encouraging and training young entrepreneurs.
Three years in, Otero is the company’s CEO and only full-time employee, but Youth Lens 360 has worked with more than 300 young people in Minnesota to create content, facilitate community conversations, film live events and more. So far, he has funded the entire entity via the contracts that Youth Lens 360 has landed. Now he’s working on the next steps (including a new company that encompasses advertising, technology and impact) for both himself and the community
Dario’s father moved from Puerto Rico to the South Bronx, New York, at age 6. His mother’s family came from Jamaica through Toronto before settling in Madison, Wisconsin. Both his mother and father surprised their families by joining the Air Force, where they met and married while stationed in Texas.
As Otero talks about his family, it’s clear that he did not surprise anyone by opening his own business. “That tradition of entrepreneurship has always been important in my family. My grandfather started a business, my great grandfather was an inventor, my mom started a business, my aunts all started business. It was just always in me.”
Otero was born in San Antonio, Texas, but his family soon moved to Madison when he was young. It was there at around age six that Otero was diagnosed with dyslexia and identified for First Chapter, a group for kids who needed special education. The experience proved to have a major impact on his future professional career.
In eighth grade, Otero’s family moved to Farmington Hills, just outside of Detroit, Michigan. He joined the football team but stayed relatively uninterested in academics until a senior year trip. He tagged along on a friend’s football recruiting trip to Bowling Green State University in Ohio, and one conversation changed his path.
“I remember sitting in that room with a man named Clarence Terry, Jr. [director of Multicultural Recruitment at Bowling Green] He said, ‘Listen man, what if you just focused on academics?’” Otero took his advice to heart, committing to his studies at Bowling Green and graduating with a degree in Visual Communication Technology.
While in college, he came to St. Paul, Minnesota’s High School for Recording Arts as part of an internship. He was passionate about the program from the start but didn’t end up there immediately after school. Instead, he landed in sales and marketing roles as well as freelance graphic design and video production. But he recalls feeling depressed, constantly calling his mother to complain about what he was doing. It was on one of those calls that Otero decided to make a major change.
“Even though I was making a ton of money, I just didn’t like it. And then my mom said, ‘Well, what did you really like?’ I went back in my memory and said, ‘You know, I liked being at that school.’”
Otero returned to the HSRA as a paraprofessional in the special education program. He drew on his own experiences as a “special ed kid” to think differently about what would engage his students.
“I realized that the arts were a way to engage young people in special education, to bring out their best creativity, talents and strengths. And so I brought in my old camera, and it became a reward system. I’d tell the kids, ‘We can use the camera once we finish this assignment.’ But we ended up shooting videos for local barbershops and places like that.”
Those videos eventually turned into work the HSRA completed for companies like State Farm and the United Way. Otero created the Visual Inclusion Program, a special education program that made the special ed kids leaders in arts, media and video production. After years of leading the program, Otero began to grapple with two different issues.
“These projects would probably cost a company tens of thousands of dollars to complete. So, where’s that money? How do I bring that back to the young people that need it the most?” But it wasn’t only a business opportunity that Otero saw. “The other thing that was happening is we were graduating young people. And they were literally coming back to our doorstep like, ‘I’m not ready. I’m 20, and I’m not ready for this world.’
“And that opened up my heart to that 18- to 24-year-old age range that was just literally going straight to prison, to death. I literally saw some of the most amazing kids, who I work with on some of the biggest projects at the highest levels, end up in prison. And I knew exactly why it happens. When they turn 18, the resources fall off. They can’t go to the local YMCA or a place like that if they don’t have a membership. They can’t. Certain community centers see them as a risk.”
One of his first video production students ended up starting a gang in St. Paul before eventually landing in prison. Otero still regrets not having post-school solutions available to offer him.
“All this kid ever wanted to do was shoot music videos, you know what I mean? I just didn’t have the resources when he left school to be able to work with him.
“I remember right before he went to prison. He said to me, ‘Man, I just wish I could have just keep doing what I love to do. I would have never did this.’ And literally the next week he ends up in prison. It was just a deep moment in my life. I was like, “You know, I’m not going to let down the young people that I already had let down.’”
That was the moment that Youth Lens 360 began.
One of Otero’s team members is calling and texting him throughout our interview, asking him to send over files for a large project they’re in the midst of for The Bush Foundation. This has become a common occurrence since Youth Lens 360’s first paying client, the Department of Education, hired them to create video of a conference. In the time since then, they have gone on to complete multiple branding, video, photography and projects. They have also completed a number of facilitation projects, using specific processes to get groups of people to solve a problem together.
Otero talks about the type of experience young people bring to Youth Lens 360 thanks to the proliferation of technology. Rather than focusing on formal training, Otero encourages the use of available online content on places like YouTube or Lynda as ways that his team is developing their artistic skills. Lynda itself has more than 700 classes on photography alone. Otero concentrates on teaching his young people about how to work with clients, how to set expectations and transfer conversations into contracts. He extolls the virtues of the mentors like Paula Forbes (CEO of Forbes Solutions), Clarence Bethea (the CEO of Upsie) and Eric Schnell (former COO of Aeon) whom he has brought in to teach skills like facilitation, relationship building and making connections.
But it’s Otero’s own deep relationships with Youth Lens 360’s young people that often provide the magic behind so many of their projects.
“Really, my goal is to maintain relationship that allow for the creativity to happen. I create the structure around making sure that it happens,” Otero says. He’ll take care of any transportation, food, timing or other needs behind the scenes so his team and the client are focused on outcomes. “I never tell a client, ‘Hey, this kid’s been through hell.’ I just know in my head if this is at a location that is not on a bus route that we won’t be able to start until a certain time because I know that I have to get young people there. The business doesn’t need to know all that, but me keeping that relationship and understanding those factors is key.”
That work may be invisible to clients but it’s clear to the youth involved how hard Otero works. “Dario helps us to push our potential and grow as not only creatives but entrepreneurs as well,” says Brandon Diebold, a photographer, videographer, producer, and audio engineer. “It’s been a blessing having him as a mentor, and I’m beyond grateful for him and everything he does for me and the team.”
Otero shakes off the praise, explaining, “I’m just communicating with them. I’m just building relationships.”
Youth Lens 360 started out with primarily young people from North Minneapolis, followed by young people from Frog Town, East Saint Paul, Shelby side. Otero says, “If you put something positive out there, they will literally tell their friend, tell their cousin, tell their sister, and it just spreads like wildfire. We’ve got kids from Burnsville and all different places.
“The magic is I got North Minneapolis kid who grew up very rough, I got an Edina kid who grew up very fortunate and privileged. Completely different experiences growing up, but they don’t see any of that. They just work together to deliver a product. And that’s an amazing experience that happens more frequently than people think. I don’t exclude or say I’m only working with kids of color from these communities because I know the amazing bridges that get built when we’re working with all kids.”
After two years growth, Youth Lens 360 began to see many of the young people who had completed work for them landing individual contracts or jobs with clients who once worked directly with Youth Lens 360. For Otero, it was his vision for the company coming true. He has long been adamant that the end goal of Youth Lens 360 is to create more new businesses, not just to scale itself.
“The best way for me to make change in the community is to start businesses in the community run by people that are in the community,” he says.
Schnell, himself a nonprofit and social education leader in the Twin Cities agrees that Otero is making change in the community. “When you boil it down, Dario’s work will disrupt how everyone views youth of color and how youth of color view themselves. By teaching youth media production and entrepreneurial skills, he’s building our businesswomen and businessmen of tomorrow.”
Youth Lens 360 was profitable and achieving its mission, but Otero found himself facing an issue common to many entrepreneurs—how to scale. “I won’t say I turn away kids, but I haven’t had the capacity to work with as many kids as I could. I’ve got to be able to scale in an authentic way that doesn’t just produce a cookie cutter program for youth to do video production.” He was also beginning to see opportunities that couldn’t be addressed simply by Youth Lens 360.
A potential answer to these questions came about thanks to, of all things, a t-shirt.
Mondo Davison wears the same shirt every day. Not exactly the same shirt—he has multiple versions in multiple colors—but they all look similar because all read in large letters, “The Black Tech Guy.” Davison says, “When we talk about black males, I think we’ve been innately gifted with this sense of creativity, so we should be the masters of creating cool, original content. And, I think we have been forever. But what we haven’t done is be able to own the platforms in which we distribute that. So I’m like, ‘Hey, I’ll be the tech guy to build the platforms. Hey, let’s go and reach out to all these creative communities and make sure that we build tech around their dope creativity.’”
Otero and his team were working on a project at the Capitol, and they kept seeing Davison and his t-shirt. Finally, one of Otero’s team suggested the two of them should talk. It was an immediate connection. “The universe just somehow rubbed us together,” says Davison.
By the time he and Otero met, Davison was on his fifth startup, having jumped from education into full-time tech entrepreneurship. While focused in different areas, Otero and Davison saw many parallels in one another—both taught for seven years, both are dads, both see tremendous potential in working with young people in their community. They also both look at their potential impact through the same lens. “I’m gonna be on this journey for 60 years,” Davison passionately shares. “Dario, similarly, he’s like, ‘I know I was put on this planet to impact people that look like me, young people, put them in media, and I’m going to do it for the next 60 years too.’”
Davison was building platforms and tools that needed vast amounts of content to succeed.
Otero and his team were building vast amounts of content. Needless to say, the two saw an opportunity to collaborate. They decided to try to make that impact together, officially forming TEAM in 2018. TEAM itself is an acronym for technology, entrepreneurship, arts and media. Within the company there are three pillars: TEAM Studios, TEAM Ventures and TEAM Impact.
Otero will keep building Youth Lens 360 with the goal of spinning out new entrepreneurs, “Youth Lens 360 will always run”, he says,” I don’t know if I will always run it.” But TEAM and each of its pillars provides an answer to how to scale the broader community impact he is looking to make.
“There’s this opportunity in advertising that is so big for this whole group of people that never make the money,” says Otero. Davison sums up the vision for TEAM Studios: “You look at commercials, and every commercial segment, there’s some piece of our culture in it: people of color, music, dance, styles, something. But there is no ad agency led by people that look like us. So how do we get the best talent in the world and be that company? That is, in my opinion, Dario’s big vision: to be that ad agency.”
Davison runs TEAM Ventures, the education technology pillar of TEAM. In addition to developing new platforms, they will continue to grow the educational development apps that Davison has already created.
Together, Davison and Otero run TEAM Impact, a nonprofit that cultivates entrepreneurs of color in tech, art and media. One of its first programs is a 21st Century Apprenticeship Program created in partnership with St. Paul-based Lunar Startups. The program focuses on developing the photography, videography, and audio production skills of talented youth. Their first cohort launches in June through the support of the Knight Foundation.
Even though they’re clearly busy, Otero admits that he and Davison often talk about other subjects. “We have more conversations about our kids than business!” he laughs.
Another subject they’ll soon be discussing is raising investment money for TEAM Ventures later this fall. Otero will continue to work on the best way to scale both of his companies as part of the second cohort of Lunar Startups. Through all of it, it’s easy to imagine that Otero will remain focused on the impact his companies can have on young people at an individual and community level. He speaks passionately about one of TEAM’s goals, and the reason behind it is quite different than most scaling companies.
“One of the biggest missions that we have right now, building TEAM, is actually to own our own space. And to make that space a house in a community like Rondo or the North Side.” Otero says. “We picture that house having a voiceover studio in the basement, a garage flipped into a green screen studio. There’s meeting spaces where you can work and edit. Then upstairs we might even have one or two rooms for somebody who might need to crash because their housing isn’t right, right now.
“Let’s do that in our neighborhoods and places where the young people are from. So then when a little kid, eight years old, is riding his bike by a house and he sees kids out there with cameras and stuff, he says, ‘Well, what’s that?’ And then that connection is made, starting with, ‘There’s an advertising company, a tech company in my neighborhood.’ That’s the vision.”
Otero’s mom is definitely not mad at him anymore. She’s one of his biggest fans. It’s easy to see why.