Here’s why Wifredo Fernandez is Miami’s most interesting man this month

Editor’s note: The Millennials Project is the organization choosing “Miami’s most interesting man” each month, as part of their ongoing campaign against domestic violence. We at The New Tropic have been interviewing the person selected each month, but we don’t run the campaign or choose the men highlighted. 

When Wifredo Fernandez moved back to Miami, he knew he wanted to create something for the budding entrepreneurial community.

After years teaching with Teach for America in Washington D.C. and taking an innovation course at Stanford University, he began considering coming back. Convos with former classmates revealed a big gap in tech education, specifically a lack of spaces for entrepreneurs to collaborate.

He figured if he could teach elementary school kids … well, he could do anything.

Wifredo Fernandez (Courtesy of The Lab Miami)
Wifredo Fernandez (Courtesy of The Lab Miami)

First, he helped start The Lab Miami, one of Miami’s first co-working spaces for the city’s budding entrepreneurs. Then he spearheaded CREATE, an incubator and accelerator at Miami-Dade College’s Idea Center at the downtown Miami campus. Now he’s working at the Division of Innovation and Economic Development at FIU, helping them launch a new incubator called StartUPFIU.

It’s this drive and commitment to building Miami’s entrepreneurial ecosystem that makes him this month’s most interesting man in Miami, a monthly series launched by The Millennials Project, which encourages men to become allies and advocates for women in the fight against domestic violence.

To meet Fernandez yourself, check out this month’s event on June 7, 2016 at 7 p.m. at the studios of WDNA FM, a local jazz radio station. You can get tickets here.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity. 

Why do you think you were chosen as this month’s Most Interesting Man?

I have absolutely no idea. Part of my work is in education and startups, and I’ve come across a lot of amazing women entrepreneurs. I’ve always been a champion for women.

What do you think is the most interesting thing about you?

I was born and raised in Miami, so I guess now I’m in the minority in this city.

What do you think are your biggest accomplishments?

I’m most proud of the community and space we built at The Lab. I’m proud to see it continue to thrive and survive through all of the different, crazy adventures and ideas. It’s been a beautiful thing to see develop.

I think it has changed the fabric of the city, that’s for sure. I’m also proud of my students. Any student I’ve had, I’m proud to have put them on a different path as an educator, and impact their outlook on life.

When did you start teaching?

I was a Teach for America Corps member in Washington D.C., where I taught first, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh graders. The fourth graders were my favorite, because they listen and want to do well and they don’t have crushes on each other. By the time they get to fifth grade, they’re the kings and queens of the school and are jerks.

How did you go from teaching elementary school to starting The Lab? They seem like two totally opposite poles of the universe.

Well, through TFA, I took an innovation course at Stanford and it kind of changed my brain. It gave me a framework to analyze problems — I learned how to develop and prototype something to get to the root problem. It made me think about the problems in my personal life as well as professional, it taught me how to think about something and quickly test it.

Around the same time, I started talking to old classmates in Miami and realized the city was going through a transformation, and arts and culture were booming. I also saw sprouts of a tech community forming. I looked at Wynwood and thought it was amazing because it was at the intersection of art and technology, but soon realized there was no single space to find talent, mentorship, advisors and a place for people to work in. Sure, there were a couple of executive offices around, but no community-oriented spaces.

I felt like I could do anything after teaching elementary school, so I figured “Why not?” But also, Miami is my home and I, like many folks, left. I wondered “How can you bring people back and keep people here?” Our thesis was, if you could create more like-minded folks they’ll have more of a chance of sticking around.

So I came back, I moved in with my parents lived there for about 10 months while me and my co-founders Danny Lafuente and Elisa Rodriguez-Vila were building up the business plan. We bootstrapped a small space, built the furniture ourselves out of $300 worth of wood, and it began. We initially opened it up to meet-up groups and had 20 members who were crazy enough to pay us. We got investors and eventually expanded to where we are today.

What were some of your biggest challenges in starting The Lab?

To build anything, you have to build trust. It took a lot of listening and a lot of cups of coffee to build that trust. We wanted people to know we were genuine in what we wanted to do for the city. We also had to navigate through some of the characters we’ve come across in Miami.

There were certain investors we talked to early on who seemed amazing, but then you dig in and realize they’re not the ones for you. There’s a lot of money here and there are a lot of folks who think they’re the best investor for you. What we realized was that we didn’t just want money, we wanted smart capital, and capital that aligned with our mission.

I think it was also tough getting the word out. We didn’t have The New Tropic [Editor’s note: We didn’t make him say this!] in 2012, so it took grassroots organizing and a lot of people helped out along the way. We got on mailing lists and people who gave us a chance, people like meetup groups, arts organizations, the Miami Light Project, the Wynwood Arts District, Goldman Properties, and Refresh Miami.

How do you think the work you’ve done has changed the city?

If there’s one key thing people need, it’s places to connect with their tribe and other like-minded people. In helping to create The Lab and The Idea Center at Miami-Dade College, we’re creating physical spaces for collision and meeting points.

It’s tough for people to meet at random venues and random events. If you have a place where people can learn something new and meet someone new, it creates a lasting mechanism for people to connect where they wouldn’t have otherwise. Those spaces have helped create other programs and initiatives, they’ve connected people.

Secondly, it’s about creating educational programs and spaces for learning. We saw The Lab as a place for alternative education, where you would go and learn something new from an expert and not have to go through admissions, but really just enroll and get a new skill and experience. We also wanted to make that accessible for kids and give them a place to learn.

What does Miami need next?

Steady growth. A lot of our media and elected officials like to say things are booming or exploding, but patience is part of what’s next. We need to be patient. At the same time, we need to have a sense of urgency about certain issues, like sea level rise, income inequality, educational opportunities. These things are systemic. We need city leaders who look beyond Miami for solutions. Sometimes I think our leaders are inward looking. It’s easy to be caught in a Miami bubble and experience an echo chamber, where we’re feeding our own hype.

We can look to other cities and countries and work with them to be inspired by them and import different solutions. Our leadership could be more outward facing and humble. For example, there was one moment when an elected elected official was asked “What city are you inspired by?” He said, nowhere and that Miami was the best and had it all. That’s just not the case. I think we need to step up in a new way.

I’ve had the pleasure working with the Knight Foundation on projects, but what happens after Knight? They’ve fueled so much of our growth but it’s not sustainable. We need big, local companies to step up and play a role.

What are some of your favorite places in the city?

WDNA , it’s our community jazz radio station, that’s 88.9 on your FM dial.

Hmm, that seems oddly specific …

Haha, my mom runs it. They have a jazz gallery and concerts there three times a month. I grew up at the station and my mom is awesome, so I try to be there as much as possible.

Other places are Fairchild Botanical Garden or the Deering Estate. Those are two unique retreats and sanctuaries we have in Miami. I live in Coral Gables, so I love being in the Gables and being around trees. It’s a nice contrast from the concrete jungle of Wynwood.

What’s your favorite meal of the day?

Dinner, because it’s really the only time it’s acceptable to eat pizza. Like you usually don’t go to lunch and order a whole pizza …

I feel you, but I’m more of a breakfast person myself. Where’s your go-to breakfast spot?

S&S Diner, you’ve gotta get the 2-2-2-2.