In Cleveland, Votem is bringing the polls to the people
Leo Peña ’16
Leo headed to Cornell with an open mind. He wasn’t set on a particular career path (or major)—he was broadly curious and eager to learn. After taking a number of economics classes, he figured he would get a job in the financial services sector, like most of the econ majors he knew. Then after his junior year, he interned at an accelerator in Cleveland, and his plans shifted. He loved having a meaningful impact in the companies he worked with—his daily efforts really mattered. Still, it wasn’t the immediate choice—startup roles are typically less lucrative than finance jobs, and don’t offer the same kind of stability. When he found VFA, things clicked into place. VFA offered the stability that Leo wanted, along with the chance to make a real difference.
Joining Votem's three-person team
Leo found the right fit at Votem, a company at the forefront of digital voting software. The team is small—just Pete, the CEO; Leo; and Jeff Stern, a fellow 2016 Fellow. At a company as small as Votem, Leo sees the impact of his contributions immediately, in terms of both product and culture. Leo is technically the Software Support Engineer, but as a third of the company, he touches every part of the business—he spent most of the last election season on the phone, supporting Montana, D.C., and Detroit through the voting process. Early on, Pete asked Leo and Jeff to sit down at a whiteboard and write down what they cared about most, in order to help establish Votem’s guiding values. And as they look to expand the team, Pete has made a point to include Leo and Jeff in every hiring decision—they want to find coworkers who can do the work, and who share their belief in the mission.
Making a home in Cleveland
After growing up in Venezuela, Puerto Rico, and Southern California, Cleveland was a new world for Leo—but he wasn’t on his own to learn the ins and outs. During his first week at Votem, a company at the forefront of voting technology, Pete drove Leo and Jeff to a different lunch spot every day, giving them mini history lessons on the way. And the Fellow community finds plenty of ways to experience the city. During the last game of the World Series, the Fellows headed downtown to join the crowd outside of Progressive Field—Cleveland is a sports city, Leo said, and it was incredible watching the community come together in love and pride for their city. He feels welcomed and encouraged by the life-long Cleveland residents he meets.
The support VFA grants adds stability to the startup ecosystem. VFA made it more comfortable for me to join a startup.– Leo Peña '16
Making it simple and easy to vote
It’s not just the day-to-day at a three person startup that Leo finds so exciting—he also feels completely aligned with Votem’s mission. Votem’s software allows registered voters to access their ballots on mobile devices—it makes voting secure, fast, and simple. There was a bit of a learning curve—Leo describes Pete as a “firehose of information,”—but for Leo, learning the nitty gritty is fascinating and worthwhile. The 2016 election saw unprecedented lines to vote, and registered voters nationwide told reporters that they couldn’t vote at all, because they couldn’t afford to take the time off. (There were other problems, too—Leo heard about one county that couldn’t vote because a squirrel shorted the electricity near the polling center.) Votem hopes to have made one billion mobile votes possible by 2025—a goal that Leo thinks is ambitious but worth the effort. We asked Leo if he was worn out after the 2016 election season. He laughed and said, “Democracy never sleeps!”