12 on Tuesday: Israel Lopez


    In his day job, Israel Lopez is a business attorney specializing in mergers and acquisitions for Madison-based law firm Nieder & Boucher. He’s also the founder of Chins Up Foundation, an organization that pairs college athletes with at-risk kids in a penpal relationship. The Milwaukee native came through a stint of homelessness to attend Concordia University – Saint Paul on a football scholarship, graduate with honors, and attend the University of Wisconsin Law School.

    Rank your Top 5 MCs

    Nappy Roots
    Jackson 5
    J Cole

    Which motivates you more: doubters or supporters? For the majority of my life I have been motivated by doubters. As a child, the doubt from my biological parents and family motivated me. As a teenager, the doubt from friends, classmates, and teachers motivated me. As a young professional when I became surrounded by people who grew up with privilege and traversed my way through the legal market, I could see the intrinsic belief in peoples’ eyes that a Puerto Rican kid from Milwaukee that has been on his own since sixteen just couldn’t compete with them; that intensely motivated me. For many years proving all of these people wrong motivated me every day. I’ve always attacked everything I do with a huge chip on my shoulder. But, as I began to accomplish the goals I had set for myself, I gained supporters and, in time, I realized that I am no longer working to prove people wrong. I am working to prove my supporters right. I wouldn’t have incredible educational software that will bring the concept of mentoring and the penpal program to smart phones if Brad Grzesiak, Founder/CEO of Bendyworks, didn’t believe in my idea and help me bring that idea to a software platform. How will I repay him and Bendyworks? Well, I’m going to fight every day to ensure that the software is being used all over the country, providing an easy platform for mentors to guide and support kids in a way that has never been done before; that is the best way that I can thank Bendyworks. Neider & Boucher has given me an opportunity to guide entrepreneurs as a business attorney and bridge difficult social gaps for entrepreneurs of color in Wisconsin. How will I take this opportunity to make a difference and thank those who believed in me enough to put me in this position? Just watch. Ultimately, what I want readers to take from my words is this: life is difficult and filled with adversity no matter what social economic background you come from so when adversity hits just be thankful for it and stay positive because with hard work you can turn any negative situation into a positive outcome. Don’t worry about the doubters. The best thing you can do to those people is win, then there’s nothing they can say.

    What does it mean to be a Latino in Madison? Well first, I’ll make it known that I’m 100% Puerto Rican. With that said, being Latino in this market doesn’t mean anything different than being black. We all fight the same battle and have to overcome the same misconceptions or stereotypes every single day. We live under a heightened scrutiny. We feel the pressure of having to change someone’s mind within the first thirty seconds of meeting them because we assume that they have boxed us in a general category of people. We feel a distrust. Now, as someone who is now at a point where I experience that distrust less and less, I can tell you that the difficulties that we face as we are progressing our way through our lives and careers can be overcome with hard work. If you put yourself in a position where you are viewed as an expert in that particular area or highly talented in your field, then MOST people won’t give a darn what you look like. So, what does it mean to be a leader of color here? It means that I have a responsibility to change the narrative. It means that I have to take my knowledge and pass it down, pay it forward. I need to build up other leaders and colleagues by using my skillset to help them achieve their goals. Being a leader of color in this community means that I have to be the ultimate teammate, and I will.

    What three leaders in Madison under 50 have impressed you the most? Gregory St. Fort. Greg is the Executive Director at 100State, and as genuine a person as they come. He has a hunger for knowledge and a passion for building more entrepreneurial resources and creating more opportunity for entrepreneurs. For those that don’t know, Greg is from New York, raised in Queens. He brought his skillset to Madison and has excelled, exemplifying the benefits of bringing someone from outside of an ecosystem to make some moves. Personally, I can’t stand the narrative that you have to be from Madison or from Milwaukee to make a difference or even be a player in the game. This narrative in Milwaukee is much worse, and it’s a problem. The cool thing about Greg is that I know he’ll be someone that helps change that narrative, helping create immense opportunity for entrepreneurs along the way.

    The Neills, Rachel and Bill. Now, I include these two as a team because the way they run their show should be spotlighted together. Rachel, Venezuelan, is currently the VP of Candidate Relations at Nordic Consulting. She just publicly announced that she is starting her own consulting business, CareX Consulting Group, which is sure to make some big waves. Bill, Mexican, is a Senior Consultant at Nordic Consulting. Together, these two are nothing short of awesome. Have one conversation with Rachel, and you will clearly see her talents and passion are second to none. When it comes to Bill, I had the opportunity to have a conversation with him about tracking metrics in different markets. He’s dropping some knowledge on me at Panera Bread while their one-year old daughter sat in the booth with us, attacking her oatmeal with same tenacity that Rachel attacks business. At one point the little one decides to practice her gymnast skills and take a leap out of the booth; Bill catches her without losing eye contact with me and smoothly finishes his point. Now, if ever I am blessed to have kids, I hope to be a father like that. So, the Neill’s: two incredible individuals that together are going to help so many people on so many different levels.

    Brad Grzesiak. As mentioned above, Brad is the Founder and CEO of Bendyworks, one of the premier software development companies in the Midwest. I’m not sure if I will ever meet someone who genuinely wants to do more good in the world than Brad. He instills that mindset in his business, and it’s why Bendyworks has been voted to be one of the best places to work in Madison. I’ve worked with Brad since 2012 and have gotten to see the many different ways he has created more opportunity for women and minorities in tech. His heart and passion combined with the fact that he’s just a brilliant guy makes him someone that people should look up to, and aspire to be like.

    What’s the biggest stumbling block in Madison to turning the corner on our racial disparities?  Pride and trust. The obvious answer and the answer that is always given is silos. But, silos stem from individual pride and, especially among leaders of color, an inherent inability to trust people who are trying to be on the come up. We have leaders or potential leaders of all different races that want to be the one that makes it happen, the one that changes the narrative, the one that made it. So, people compete with each other to be the one. If you are a leader of color, you have inevitably fought a tough battle and worked hard to be where you are. You’ve beat the odds to make it to the top of the mountain. But, for what? To stand at the top like Rocky shadow boxing? Or did you get there so you can toss a ladder down to make it easier for the next generation? Did you illuminate the path on your way up? Personally, I’ve been disappointed with many leaders of color throughout Wisconsin, especially leaders in the private sector. You get the vibe from some of them that they believe people trying to connect with them or collaborate with them are just trying to ride their coattails. Follow-up amongst some of my colleagues of color is just terrible. It’s sad. Cool, you’re a young professional that is doing a little something. You actually want to make a lasting impact? Then you team up and collaborate with other young professionals that have their own thing going. That really naïve belief that you need keep things tight to yourself needs to change. If you read this, and you’re trying to get a business going, or trying to take your business to the next level, connect with me. I promise I will do everything in my power to help you.

    What are your top three priorities at this point in your life?

    1. Rise to the top as an attorney in the M&A game in WI
    2. License the Chins Up Exchange software across the country
    3. Bridge social gaps in Wisconsin’s entrepreneurial ecosystem

    You’re a boxing fan and Puerto Rican. Who is the Greatest Puerto Rican Boxer of all time Felix “Tito” Trinidad or Miguel Cotto? Tito all day! Now, it’s tough because post-boxing Tito is not someone I want to spotlight as his financial decisions have been terrible. And, as someone who is very passionate about preparing collegiate and professional athletes for life after their sport, I want to ensure that readers see Tito as a bad example. With that said, the boy had hands! His ability to strike from distance is second to none. Tito gave Puerto Ricans the trump card for the everlasting boxing argument with Mexicans when he dropped Fernando Vargas.  

    What advice would you give a college football player who is about to leave college to enter into the workforce not in sports? Attack the workforce the same way you attacked football. Train, research, prepare a thorough game plan, and execute. One thing that collegiate athletes take for granted is the skillset that they are developing while having to adhere to a very strict schedule and timeline throughout their collegiate career. In college I was a film guy and watched tons of film to prepare for games. I tried my best to find weaknesses in my opponents and tendencies. Applying that mindset as a business attorney and an entrepreneur is great attribute to have.

    Why did you decide to start the Chins Up Foundation? After having an enlightening experience with a Badger football star, Donnel Thompson, when I was a kid, I was instilled with the belief that collegiate athletes could have a lasting impact on underprivileged and at-risk kids. The Chins Up Foundation matches collegiate student-athletes with elementary aged students in a penpal mentoring program facilitated through the Chins Up Exchange software. Kids and athletes have their own individual profiles, which are synced together, allowing them to exchange guided messages back and forth. Additionally, athletes are able to send selfie videos via the mobile app version. Each letter and video that is sent is intercepted within the software to be read and reviewed for safety and privacy of both the kids and the athletes. We guide the conversation points and the software formats the messages into formal letter format, teaching the kids how to communicate effectively via email. As we continue to advance the software, we anticipate becoming a highly effective educational tool that combines tech with the human touch of guidance and motivation. Ultimately, I started Chins Up because I want to provide kids with a mentor that can give them insight into the world that they may not be able to obtain otherwise. This concept has clearly evolved into much much more.

    You are one the few attorneys of color (in Wisconsin) who is practicing business law, specifically in the merger & acquisition game. Do you find there are barriers of getting clients because you’re Latino? No, not at all. You don’t get to this point if you don’t have talent and abilities which make you capable of performing the duties of your job at a high level. I’ve found that clients don’t care at all what I look like. They care that I take just as much pride in the success of their business as they do. They care that I understand the many ramifications involved with the various business transactions being facilitated. They care that I am the right fit for their business, and that I can provide them with the resources and connections that they need.

    What do you miss about living in Milwaukee? I miss the paleta man. For those of you that have spent any time on the south side of Milwaukee in the summer time, you know who the paleta man is. He walks around with a freezer chest full of Mexican popsicles. On a summer day, you’re a kid playing ball, and the paleta man comes around, you find some change and eat. Fresa con leche, strawberry with milk.  

    Who are the better athletes: professional basketball players or football players? Henry and I are going to have a side discussion about him putting me on the record with this, but NBA players are better athletes. If we are talking just blank overall athleticism. These guys are 6’10”, running like a gazelle, and leaping like a jaguar. Oh, and many of them have the finesse to drop threes too? Under the “Bo Jackson” interpretation of overall athleticism, the size, speed, and mobility of some of the NBA players is just unreal.