“The US continues to be the center of innovation in the world. Some of the technology advances are already making a difference in addressing some of our biggest challenges. I think Gen Z plus our tech advances will be crucial in addressing big issues like climate change, finding a cure for cancer, and addressing more educational equity.”
I had the pleasure to interview Ximena Hartsock, cofounder and president of Phone2Action
Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in Santiago, Chile in a Catholic working class household. I have two sisters and a brother. One is a teacher, one is a journalist and my brother is a lawyer. I went to college in the north of Chile in La Serena, a town seven hours away from home, where I graduated with a degree in Spanish Literature and Philosophy. My family and I are very close and going to college far from home was my first migrant adventure. I was born and raised in the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. My household was divided, my mom was pro — Pinochet, my father wasn’t so I got used to heated political debates over the years. This experience fostered my interest in politics and in looking at two sides of an issue.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
I was always fascinated with the world and other cultures. Chile is a very classist country and the opportunities are very much tied to your zipcode. Being indigenous descent and poor did not help. Since high school I applied to schools abroad. I was accepted in University of Salamanca in Spain but I could not go because I did not have enough scholarships to cover the tuition and fees. Watching movies I fantasized about attending Georgetown University and other universities in the US. In my senior year in college, I realized how low the teacher salary would be. I was looking for part time jobs to complement my salary and realized that Chile did not have a culture of part time jobs. I thought I was living in the wrong country. I went home and I asked my father if he would allow me to come to the US. He said of course! I cried when I got the visa and as soon as I came to D.C. I visited Georgetown University. I walked to the main entrance on 37th street and cried like a baby. I was so grateful to be here.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to the US right after graduating from college in the late nineties with no family, connections and $500 in my pocket. I rented a room in the house of a wonderful family from Panama. I didn’t speak English so I bought a Spanish newspaper and I looked in the restaurant section. I had been a bartender in college in Chile and I figured I could do that job. I realized most Hispanic restaurants with ads in the paper were on the same street, Columbia Pike in Arlington, VA. So I took a bus to the end of the street and I walked my way up knocking doors in every restaurant asking for a job. Two days later I got the call from one of the bars because one bartender called in sick and they had a big concert of a Latin star: Gilberto Santa Rosa. This was one of my jobs for two years. I was also a nanny, a housekeeper and once I even ironed clothes. I made it a rule to try to speak only English so I learned basic English in six months which allowed me to get more work. I was working 16 hours a day on average, seven days a week. I saved enough money to pay for English classes and after a year to buy a car. Soon I got a job for district government as an aide — that was my path to a professional career.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I am very grateful of my father who encouraged me to make the move. We didn’t have money or family in the US so coming alone and with only $500.00 was scary, but my father’s confidence in me made the trip exciting. My father had also migrated from the South of Chile to Santiago with nothing and knew first hand sometimes you have to make a big leap of faith and take risks to change your circumstances.
So how are things going today?
Things are great. A lot has changed for me in the past years. I finished a Doctorate, after being a school principal and assistant superintendent of DC schools I left government to start my own company. Phone2Action is the pioneer software in digital grassroots engagement and we are the tech behind today’s largest movements. We have doubled every year since 2013 and I get to work in something I love — the intersection of advocacy and technology to empower people to act.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I do not see myself as particularly successful, but I feel I have accomplished some things and I am very grateful for the opportunities I have had. Thus, I try as much as I can to help others, especially children and youth and those disadvantaged. I am on the board of several organizations that effect change, like DC VOTE, The Washington Economic Club, DC Language Immersion, the Consumer Technology Association, and I support several high schools in the area. I dedicate most of my time outside work supporting education initiatives because I know first hand that education is the greatest equalizer. At Phone2Action we created an internship program to give young people especially minorities an opportunity to enter a career in civic tech. We have 12 girls in a program of 25 students of different backgrounds and geographies. I love supporting kids. They re-energize me and give me hope for the future. Their goodness helps me grow as a person and professional.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
· First, I would update the legislation to close the loopholes and make the process very transparent. There is a lot of misinformation today that increases division and confusion.
· Second: I would have informed “quotas” regarding the numbers of immigrants needed in different areas of the workforce. The current system is blind and does not work for anyone. For example, we have a big computer science shortage, but the visas in this field are very limited so every year we lose talent in the thousands, some of it are students who have graduated from american schools. At the same time we have a high number of unfilled positions in tech companies across the US that if filled would grow the economy and create more jobs.
· Third: I would create a more sensible work permit path students under OPTs who are successfully employed. We have two employees on OPTs who are excellent workers, but we have to apply to the same H1B process as anyone else who is outside the US. We were not lucky with the lottery this year so we will have to apply again next year and if we are unlucky again, we will lose the two engineers because they will have to leave the country. This will slow down our engineering team and cause issues we could prevent with a better system. We should take into consideration the workers who are already contributing to companies, especially in technology due to the STEM shortage, and create a more sensible path for them.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Work hard. Rule of 20% more: Outcomes depend on inputs so if you want big results you need to do more. Get to work a little earlier, stay a little late. My mother told me: If your job is to sweep the floor be the best sweeper possible. Do it well and with a smile. Nobody can deny hard work.
2. Be resilient. When you decide to move to another country, you sign up for leaving behind your connections, money, network and family. Being alone in another country, especially at rough times, can make you weaker or stronger. Once when I was only in the US for a few months I fell in a hole and broke my right leg. I was working as a housekeeper and bartender at the time and I had to quit because I could not walk. I was renting a room at $400 a month and I only had $300 left from the doctor expenses. So I walked on my crutches to the closest Giant (which was about 15 blocks away) and put out an ad for ironing. I saw the other ads started with Dependable, Affordable, Reliable. So I wrote that and added: I iron all you have for $20.00! Four people responded to the ad and they became clients. I made the $100 I needed for rent plus $30 for food. I ate mostly potato hashbrowns because they were cheap and filling. I ironed for several weeks more until my leg healed. I had never been hungry before. Sometimes you think you are hungry, but you know you will be having dinner later. This time I learned what real hunger means. Knowing what hunger really is was empowering and helped me value everything more. Going through this rough time without family around, in a strange place and without the language skills made me stronger. Resilience is key to making it as an immigrant.
3. Be a hustler: Jobs will not come to you so you need to seek opportunities and seize them. Even after years in the US I am a still a hustler. When I started Phone2Action people did not understand what I was trying to build, they told me nobody would use it, but we went for it anyway. Being a hustler means figuring out a way to win. Opportunities look a lot like hard work.
4. Be optimistic: In today’s political climate is easy to feel negative, but use that fire to bring solutions to the table and take action. Voting, for example, is a way to show optimism and act. So get out and vote.
5. Never stop learning: After learning English and credentialing my studies abroad I took many other courses and finished a doctorate degree. Today technology is changing rapidly and continuous improvement and learning are key to not falling behind.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
1. Young people in the US. I do not like to generalize, but our youth is making a difference in all sectors. They are digital natives and they are poised to be the problem solvers we need. Research shows Gen Z is a special generation — generous, focused, ambitious, mission driven. Our interns are all Gen Zs and I can attest to these traits.
2. The US continues to be the center of innovation in the world. Some of the technology advances are already making a difference in addressing some of our biggest challenges. I think Gen Z plus our tech advances will be crucial in addressing big issues like climate change, finding a cure for cancer, and addressing more educational equity.
3. That we have a democracy and we get to elect our officials. In other countries people do not have that right so we should value our opportunity to vote and exercise it. Our Democracy is our biggest asset and we should treasure it.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this. :-)
Kerry Washington and Jeff Bezos