Meet one of VISTA+ VI Assets: Virgin Islanders not only working in STEM fields but leading amazing work in their industries and representing the territory well.
Born on St. Croix and a graduate of the St Croix Central High School, Leon Hughes has an impressive professional story. A successful entrepreneur on both the mainland and in the territory, Leon has founded several tech-based companies including NEARiX and SHOREiQ. As a member of the RTPark’s Accelerate VI 2019 cohort and the developer of the VISTA+ platform, he shares his experience as a tech entrepreneur working in the USVI, his thoughts on the benefit of a tech industry in the territory, and the sector’s, not just for companies but everyday Virgin Islanders:
For those who may be just coming across this blog, can you tell me a bit about yourself in only few short sentences?
Born and raised in the Virgin Islands, specifically St. Croix, [I] graduated here, from St. Croix Central High School, joined the military, US Navy. Then I got out and I did a few things, and you know I was trying to find my footing, my place in life, as far as what I wanted to do, but I always knew even from growing up I wanted to do something with electronics. I was always curious about technology. And then fast forward to now, I got into a lot of publicly traded companies, privately held companies, public sectors, and municipalities, [I was] always working with leading-edge, or bleeding edge at times as they would say, technology and very fast-paced environments or industries. And you know, it hit me. It all boiled down and shook out to a couple of key values that I didn’t even realize I was building a career around and a very, very unique position for myself. It came to do with analytics, business intelligence, which right now everyone is calling data science or the data sciences as far as machine learning, data analytics, artificial intelligence.
And so for me coming home was—I was given an opportunity to clone myself in a sense. I could find other like-minded individuals who I could build a team of wanting to code or looking at technology through a much different lens, of finding solutions to problems, however great or small. And that’s how NEARiX was born.
But that’s a little bit about me, you know. I came home with good intent, partnered up with as many people as I can. I wanted to be involved, right? I wanted to not just be the guy on the sidelines or have a team or a company on the sidelines and not participate. You know, I wanted to be in the game, coach. And so that’s us, that’s me.
Thinking back to when you became interested in tech and entrepreneurship, what programs or resources do you wish were available at the time?
Having a mentor, or someone that you can talk to give guidance, that’s a little bit more senior than you or working in the space in which you want to work in, having access to training—at that time, it was certifications—I think it’s still prevalent today with Microsoft and a lot of websites having training online or boot camps, and then a place to apply that skill. Those three things allowed me to transition into what I’m doing now.
In 2019, you participated in the RTPark’s Accelerate VI program. What are the most valuable skills and tools you gained from the RTPark Accelerator? How have they helped you?
So, what I think I learned about the program is formulating your idea where it’s easily or could be understood by others. That was I would say that’s one of the biggest benefits that I’ve got out of it. I’m still learning, growing, and tweaking the ability for me to get my ideas across to others.
The other thing was, you know, exposure realizing that there are others out there who can help you. The mentor program that’s there with the 2019 cohort, going out and giving demos and pitches to investors. I would think that that was one of the greatest things, because I mean, I’ve pitch before but it’s to my friend who, hey, let’s go put out money in this together. But the ability to learn and prepare and to present to your peers and to potential investors is one of the key things I took the program and being able to build that structure in your pitch deck so that it’s clear and palatable for the recipient.
What advice would you give to aspiring tech entrepreneurs or students wanting to be in the industry, on the programs or the mindset that they should have for success?
The other thing if they want to be successful, they got to work. You know, nothing’s going be given to you. This space is becoming more competitive every day. If you have an idea, you have to be resourceful. I’m not just saying Google on the internet, but you know, you’re going to have to get out of your comfort zone. I think Daymond John says it best if you got a rise and grind, right?… if you get up every day, you’re doing a little bit towards whatever it is; [whether] it was reading a book or an audio or attending an event or talking to those people who are in those positions around you, your university your Deans, you’d be surprised that there’s much more help out there for the entrepreneur today than there’s ever been before. And I think that’s what the RT Park accelerator program does. It gives that hard-to-get access to a person or persons—an opportunity to expose themselves and make themselves available for that young, aspiring [entrepreneur].
Can you talk about your work in this area? You’ve done a lot of volunteer work and activism (UVI Hackathon, VISTA+, competitions, sponsorships, internships) in the USVI community to expand opportunities for young people in tech.
The space right now is business, [and at the] RTPark folks around that are focusing on business attraction, [but] I’m still invested in the person development. Sometimes you can get lost and lose your bearings and feel like you’re drowning. So, what I like to do now, is just really encourage. I want to enrich and empower our young technologists, whether they’re away wanting to come home away, stay away, want to work remote. But the ones that are here, I really want to make sure they understand the opportunities in tech. I think people look at technology and they go, “Oh, they’re the coders, those are the guys who code” and it’s not necessarily [true]. There is a tremendous bandwidth around a tech company. And so what I’m trying to make sure my next goal here is making sure that everyone knows that tech is inclusive of everyone.
There’s a responsibility to our community who can’t keep putting it on the students or [asking] why aren’t there more people starting a business, [or] why isn’t this, [or] why isn’t that. It takes a village to raise a child and you need that tech village to raise the tech entrepreneur and to nurture them until they can stand on their own.
Speaking specifically about the VISTA+ platform, can you share a little more about that experience and what it meant to you?
When I met the [RTPark], I was already curating resources, people. And so for me, when the [RTPark] embraced the idea of let’s build a database that has jobs and companies, compare it with candidates that are [of] the Virgin Islands, and start to tap into and organize that within our Virgin Island dashboard, [I] thought it was a great idea to curate your own country’s talent—I think it’s an amazing thing. It’s going to give depth and breadth to the goldmine of what we have, as far as minds working for other countries or states or companies. That experience has really been enlightening to me, and I’m very excited to see it start to come together. When people see that bank [of information] grow and give lift, it also is going to give a specific look and see for the companies that are either here or looking to move here as to the power in that curated database of folks that are from right here, can do what they need, give a local opportunity to work, whether they are working remote or on-premise. I’m a native son, I love the Virgin Islands. I love St. Croix. And for me, it’s more personal, right? Building VISTA, working on VISTA–this is more of a personal endeavor. It touches on my passion for what I would like to see [for] the Virgin Islands tech community, and [for] the people who want to work in tech and be in tech.
Can you talk a little about why a tech economy works in the USVI, not just for companies but everyday Virgin Islanders?
I think it’s even more important that we become tech-savvy. When you want to be found or heard in a room that either very big or very noisy, it’s going to take tech to do that. I see the Virgin Islands as also having the opportunity to leverage tech that some other countries don’t have. We have the opportunity here with the submarine lines that offer us fiber optics, right. So, we should be able to get in and out from a technology roadway a lot faster, a lot more efficient than our other island nations. And so, we have an opportunity to be ahead, stay ahead, jump ahead, be a beacon, and an example for others who are in the same struggle of –again, getting in front of the audience when the room is big and noisy. I think the only way you’re going to do that is to be in a tech mindset. And whether one company uses x percentage of tech, and another one uses y percent of tech, we all need tech or we’re going to get left behind.
What is your vision for tech in the US Virgin Islands in the future? How do you think that the tech sector will impact the US Virgin Islands?
We have problems here in the Virgin Islands that we could solve with tech. We need to grow our own tech ecosystem so that we can tap into our own people who are already in our community and have entrepreneurs, vendors, or folks who can come in and solve those problems for us with tech. [Doing this] could reduce the cost of our spending when we have to bring in third-party vendors, who are 3x to 5x the costs in what they need to do for us. So, we must build resiliency around what we need for technology that we use as a country and technologies that we need to transition to. We need to become very resourceful and resilient. And I think we can do that within our own tech space.
We look around the problems that we have in the Virgin Islands. They all can be solved by someone here or building or helping to start a company here, or an entity that can be funded by Virgin Islanders, staffed by Virgin Islanders, executed on those visions by Virgin Islanders. That’s going to just give us all a better sense of contributing back into the communities in which we live and a sense of pride. And I think that’s what’s lacking [in US Virgin Islands tech]... I see the Virgin Islands leveraging what we have, the greatest asset is our people, our young people, and giving them an opportunity to be a part of something that becomes legacy in the Virgin Islands.
A fun one! Do you have a favorite dish or meal?
I’m a seafood junkie and I get in trouble for it every now and again so I can’t eat it as often as I’d like. It’s between my mom’s Curry Chicken and seafood.
For more information about Accelerate VI, visit www.accleratevi.com.
VISTA+ is a job search platform, launched by the RTPark, for Virgin Islands talent and employers with a desire to reverse “brain-drain” in the U.S. Virgin Islands and build a network for tech or STEM candidates seeking job vacancies in their industry. To look for your next tech job in the US Virgin Islands, visit https://vistaplus.vi
Finally, to learn more about Leon Hughes’ web, mobile, and software development company, SHOREiQ, or NEARiX, an award-winning nearshore software development company that works with various size businesses and industries in the US mainland providing highly skilled dedicated teams to handle the development and management of custom software solutions, contact Leon at [email protected]