Three years ago, 20-year-old Pasadena native Santiago Gonzalez-Garza was headed down the same path as all his Loyola High classmates: work hard in high school, get into a good college, graduate in four years, get a job. And indeed, that was exactly his plan after he graduated from Loyola and enrolled at Santa Clara University to major in psychology. But over the summer he had a come-to-Jesus epiphany—he did not want to do what all his friends were doing. He felt the call to get some real-world learning, so he withdrew from Santa Clara, bought a plane ticket to Costa Rica, and found a job at a small hotel near the Nicaraguan border in exchange for a room.
He returned home after four months lit with an entrepreneurial fire, and so he decided to live at home (easier to start a business when you don’t have rent!), take a few classes at PCC and throw himself into growing EduSkate, which runs after-school skateboarding programs at Pasadena-area schools. He started wtih his alma mater, Assumption, and his success there soon led to others, including HIgh Point, Mayfield, St. Rita and Holy Angels. He brought in partners and hired more teachers, and before long he needed office space. In 2011 he’ll add a summer program to the mix.
Santiago is one busy guy, but he found time to talk with us about his journey and his booming business.
How did your work and life in Costa Rica change you?
The entire staff at the hotel where I worked was from the nearby town, and no one spoke English. Our daily meals (three times a day) consisted of rice, beans and water; after a month, I was so malnourished that I got really sick and had to go to a small hospital just to find multivitamins. During my months there, I made a lot of good friends and was able to see what life is like for someone who was not blessed with the limitless opportunities we have here in the United States. It was then that I realized that—with hard work—I had everything I needed to reach my dreams. I returned to the United States, enrolled at PCC and started my business. After I get my AA I hope to transfer to USC.
Do you remember transitioning from just a kid who skateboarded, like all kids, to one who was really passionate about it?
I was actually a late learner; I didn’t step foot on a skateboard until I was 16. But as soon as I picked it up, I fell in love. It became the source of my excitement, exercise and transportation. I founded EduSkate to help spread the happiness skateboarding has given me to as many people as I can.
What inspired you to start the business?
When I was a kid, the only sports offered at my elementary school were track and field, basketball and football. However, I was always drawn to such non-traditional athletics as surfing, rock climbing, swimming and—of course—skateboarding. I started EduSkate to provide a more radical option for students looking for a new sport. When I realized how excited schools were about the program, I partnered with two friends, Mark Sarkis and Darius Salehipour, and we’ve been growing the company ever since.
Surely a lot of kids would love to grow up to make a living skateboarding, which seems as likely as being a princess or an astronaut. And yet you’re doing it. Have you had to deal with a lot of adult doubters?
Absolutely. Where there is a dreamer, there is always a doubter. My partners and I got plenty of disapproval for following this dream, oftentimes from the people we love the most. But we knew if we stayed true to our goals, we could reach them. After all, there are thousands of people making a living in the skateboarding industry, from photographers to manufacturers to professional skateboarders. We felt that an after-school skateboarding program would be a hit.
Why does skateboarding have a hard time getting respect?
The problem is that its popularity stems from a rebellious movement that took place in the ’70s and ’80s. Since then, associations to punk culture have remained. But if you look around, all types of people are skateboarding. Businessmen skateboard to their offices, snowboarders do it to practice during the summers, and 6-year-old boys and girls go to the local skate parks. Skateboarding has reached such a large audience that it no longer attracts a single personality type. We’re trying to eliminate the stereotypes by telling kids to pick up the sport and just be themselves with it.
Where are your favorite places in the Pasadena area to skate?
There are plenty of amazing spots throughout Pasadena, but my favorite place is on my home street, San Pasqual. There’s something personal and special about skating so close to home, although I’m sure I drive the neighbors crazy!
What’s next with your education?
Along with all eight of our employees, I am attending school while growing the company. Learning how to start, manage and grow a company has been very educational, but we all find school just as valuable. In fact, owning a company while I take classes has made them much more relevant. My goal is to transfer into the USC Marshall School of Business.
You’ve got a free day in Pasadena. How would you spend it?
Learn more about EduSkate at eduskateusa.com.