From The Favela To The Valley: How I Got Here
By Nana Maia
I was born and raised in a favela in Brazil (yes, I know how to samba!) I was exposed to violence and poverty from a young age. It wasn’t easy; if things had happened differently, I might not even be here. But despite the struggles, my childhood was full of joy. In our community, we felt like we were built to win because that’s the only way we were going to survive.
My father, who is a teacher and passionate storyteller, had always loved art, movies and the theater. Every Friday night we would have movie sessions at home.
There was one movie night that would stay forever in my memory. It was 1993, I was only six years old, but I remember it like it was last Friday. My dad played us a film called ‘A Little Princess.’ There was one scene where the girls who lived in an orphanage didn’t have enough to eat. So they used their imagination to overcome the hunger. They visualized a table full of food. They dreamed about all types of food, drinks and friends like it was a big party. The magic happened when they opened their eyes and found a table full of every plate they had ever dreamed of. That was special because that week at home we had just been living on beans, lime and cassava flour. Every time I struggle with something in life I remember that scene to remind me to use my imagination to overcome challenges. It gives me the power to redirect my mind into powerful and positive thoughts.
My mother was one of the most beautiful human beings I’ve ever met. She dedicated her whole life and her unconsciously entrepreneurial skills to empower our community. She taught me to be kind, courageous and resilient. However, she never taught me to deal one of the hardest battles I have ever faced: her death. She passed away in 2003 from a heart attack, a day after my 16th birthday. It was one of the hardest moments of my life. I felt lost, lonely and hopeless. From 16 to 19 all I wanted was to stay in my room. I was smiling outside but crying inside. My heart was broke in pieces, torn apart. Even if the room I was in was full of people, I was empty.
Three years later I got a visa and moved to the U.S. by myself. Being an immigrant in North America ain’t easy, but I figured if I could navigate my youth I could definitely make it anywhere. Having settled first in Miami, after a few years I relocated to the Bay Area. I figured my courageous attitude would give me the resilience needed to survive as the outsider in Silicon Valley. But when I got here, it took me more than resilience to breakthrough the prejudice and stereotyping I experienced as a Latina entrepreneur. I needed to keep my head up to ignore the side glances in a room full of people who did not look like me. I needed to dig deep to deal with harassment and discrimination from people around me.
I called my baby sister in Brazil to say my move might have been a mistake. But she told me, “Nana, I don’t want to hear it. You’re in Silicon Valley. We have been the outsiders since the day we went from public to private school. What did that Nana do? Just do the same now.”
I immediately remembered that day. I was 13 and my father had just got a job as a teacher in a private university, which gave his daughters the privilege of going to private school. We would make the 35 miles ride to school from the public bus in the morning and come back to the hood after dark. It was a life of contrasts. My first week was the hardest. With my curly full dark hair and second hand uniform, I stood out. I was bullied. I could not wait to get back home, the place I truly felt I belonged.
When the science competition came around, I did not have the money to build anything extraordinary like the other kids. But I did have a mother with a creative mind that was far from being ordinary. My mom could transform trash into science, and so she did. She helped me build a mockup of the cardiovascular system using styrofoam, ketchup, straw, balloon and blue ink. My project was a huge success; I won the competition and the science teacher used it for weeks in his classes. After that I was no longer worried about blending in. I was focused on learning as much as I could; accessing the tools, creating the opportunities and knowledge that my peers had. I figured out it was not about proving the bullies in my school wrong. It was about learning as much as I could. And by sharing those experiences with my friends back home it could broaden their options in life too. After all, I had the privilege of being exposed to a whole different world that previously I didn’t know existed.
My sister didn’t just give me advice. She reminded me of my WHY. And with this realization, I woke up. I started volunteering, networking, learning and looking for mentoring. During one of my volunteering gigs, I met Bobby Amiri, global director of GSV (Global Silicon Valley) and I shared my business idea with him. I was later invited to join their accelerator program in partnership with Google.
I have learned a lot on my journey from the favela to The Valley and I still have much to learn, but what fuels my energy and life force is helping empower others. I’ve discovered that It doesn’t matter what industry we’re in, we’re all in the People Business. Each one of us has something to offer the world that no one else does.
Today I’m on a mission to help others to turn their CANTS into CANS.