Jorge Nuño's high school counselor laughed at him when he told her he wanted to go to MIT.
Maybe that's because his grades were bad.
"I never knew I had to focus on my grades to go there," he said matter-of-factly. "I just knew I wanted to be an architect – I never thought there were boundaries.
Nuño didn't end up becoming an architect. He also didn't go to MIT. But he uses that story to illustrate the fact that education wasn't a priority in his household. "If I got a C, my mom didn't really know the difference between a C and an A," he says. "It was my job to just stay in school."
Nuño grew up in South L.A. to two immigrant parents from Mexico. His dad couldn't read or write, and his mom was somewhere around a third-grade reading level. He himself went to four different high schools.
"It wasn't a walk in the park. I had a lot of ideas," he said. "But if your parents cannot identify your talents, we don't know there's something there."
He didn't have a place to realize his ideas. And boy, did he have ideas. He took drafting classes throughout high school, working toward his goal of becoming an architect. After getting shot down by his counselor, though, he decided to rethink things – and that's when he saw a TV commercial for graphic design. He thought, "I could do that."
Not quite an architect
Today, Nuño is the principal and creative director of The NTS Group, a graphic design firm which mostly does work in the entertainment field – think movie posters. Sitting behind his desk on his enormous East 35th Street house-turned-office, Nuño recounts what happened after he saw that commercial.
Two weeks before he graduated, he was inspired enough to go to orientation for Brooks College, in the first year it offered graphic design, as luck would have it. He got his paperwork in order and, after his dad expressed doubt that he'd graduate, bet his dad $5,000 that he'd graduate. He worked as a taxi dispatcher to pay the bills. And those bills were big – the equipment he'd need (computer, scanner, monitor, printer) cost $8,000 at the time. His parents bought it and called it their investment.
Nuño graduated in two years with an associate degree.
"My grades were not good," he said. "Trust me. Something I realized many years later was that my grades were not a reflection of intelligence. When I was in the class, I understood the class. It was Cs and Ds and Bs, but I got it."
Some important people saw that he got it, too. Upon graduation, he and the two class valedictorians were the only three students to get called in for an interview for a position at a design firm. He didn't get the job, but was "flattered" they considered him. He also got laid off from the agency he was interning at.
"I probably got fired, more likely," he laughed. "I was partying too much."
So he threw himself out there – something he says he didn't realize he wasn't really "supposed" to do.
"I didn't realize that I wasn't qualified," says Nuño. "I didn't know I needed to know somebody to be out there. I just threw myself out there. I'm just a kid from South L.A., you know?"
That unassuming mindset paid some pretty sweet dividends for the kid from South L.A..
$66 an hour
Maybe it's true that Nuño had no real chance at cold-calling agencies and seeking a job, but that didn't stop him.
"I remmber walking into this agency and seeing movie posters for Titanic and all these big movies," he said. The owner happened to be there, looked at his resumé and soon offered him a job. He was thinking of asking for $14, maybe $15 an hour. They offered him $20.
"I thought yeah, I can work with that," he said, laughing. He began working there and three months later, they'd let the other employees go, making him the only one there.
He was a fast learner, and soon also learned about the importance of mentors. "That's how you cheat your career and life," he said. By the time he was 22, he was making $35 an hour just doing freelance work.
By the time he was 25, he was making $66 for every hour he worked. And that's what got him thinking.
"I thought if someone's paying me $66 an hour, someone's making more money than I am," he said. He wanted to start his own business, and thought about the things that had given him pause previously: the getting up early. The answering the phones. The billing and finances. But he was ready, and it didn't hurt that his clients "began making things happen" for him, spreading the word about his work and getting him more jobs.
So he asked a couple buddies if they wanted to merge their company with his and began the NTS Group. They did so well that, two years later, they bought the house on East 35th and moved their office there.
"To me it was a risk," said Nuño. "I'm in the entertainment industry. What am I doing in South L.A.? The last thing you want to do is get pigeonholed as an 'urban ad agency'." He was worried about clients' perceptions and being typecast. But then he thought about USC: "It's in South L.A., and you don't judge USC by the location, but by what it produces.
"So I made that move," he said.
Nuevo South and graphic design in South Los Angeles
"If you're raised in South L.A., to show success, you move out," said Nuño. "That's just your thing. But for you to come back, you've got to think about why you're coming back, because no one comes back for no reason. I wanted to do something."
He says he began to notice a lack of resources and leadership in the area, and started getting involved. He was told by a friend and community leader to just start introducing himself to everyone.
He did that, and then after a year, decided he wanted to open the doors of his office – which is huge – to the neighborhood kids. He put in a skate park; he got a Playstation 3 and a Wii.
"My idea was giving them a safe place to be," he said. Nuño started collaborating with LAPD's Newton Division, the Central Avenue Business Association and the Community Action Committee. "I just really started to position myself as a community leader."
He leveraged his clients and professional relationships to pull in more resources for his community. And then he started thinking non-profit – as in creating one.
"I realized there was a huge technological gap in the community," he said. (That rings even more true with the recent loss of CDTechLink.) "How do you create that Silicon Valley entrepreneurial cluster?"
That's the gap Nuevo South, the nonprofit Nuño founded and currently chairs, aims to fill.
The bilingual name, he said, aims to capture the newness of his initiative and the roots of the area he's trying to serve. "The South is going to be the new West, a new frontier," he said.
Partnership is an important part of pioneering that frontier. "I didn't get here by myself, and that applies to everything," he said. "So for Nuevo South, we had to be very inclusive and collaborative, because we're not going to be able to fight this battle on our own. People speak partnership, but don't really practice it. And I like to practice it."
And though it may be hard to imagine a place for graphic design, technology and the arts in blue-collar South L.A., Nuño won't let that stop him and his ideas.
"Sometimes you've got to get out of your comfort zone, find your value in society and monetize that," he said. "Kids play with technology every day, and I'm thinking about how we can use that technology to be a springboard to their careers, to starting their own business, to communicating a message that we have or tell our own story. We can create our own content."
He wants to create a "hub" where that can take place – successes, mistakes, and all.
"I've made so many mistakes," Nuño says. "At the end of the day, I've got butterflies flying around in my head, all these beautiful things."