Rodrigo d’Escoto Of Reflection Window + Wall (RWW): I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream
There is no shortcut to success. Anybody that’s truly successful will tell you it took a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive. As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Rodrigo d’Escoto.
Rodrigo d’Escoto is the Founder, President, and CEO of Reflection Window + Wall (RWW), a leading national building enclosure company. Over the past 21 years, RWW has grown into one of the nation’s largest minority-owned companies, employing over 200 workers in five countries around the globe. Rodrigo’s dedication to his employees inspires their hard work and continual drive for innovation in an extremely competitive marketplace.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a bicultural family. My father is Nicaraguan. My mother is American. I was born in Nicaragua and immigrated to the U.S. when I was three years old. My parents moved from Nicaragua to Texas, to California, to Illinois. My father was a construction engineer. My parents raised six boys and took in some other relatives during our childhood, so we had a full house. My parents worked hard to give us the best education. We had a private education, Catholic grade school, and high school. There was an emphasis on family, work ethic, and faith; those are at my core.
All the cool kids stayed out after school, but my mother said, “I love you guys, and it’s important that you understand that I want you here at the house after school.” While other parents were busy, their kids could run around in the neighborhood and get into mischief. Mom said, “That’s not the way it’s going to happen here. We care about you, we love you, and sorry, but you’re going to stay home. You’ve got things to do. We’re a family.” It wasn’t a big house, but it was big with love and family. My mom was a stay-at-home mom. My father worked very hard. I remember getting up every morning, and he was already gone off to work when I went to bed, he wouldn’t be home yet.
We were a functional family, and we all handled our responsibilities. That is what we were taught. Whether cleaning the house, doing the dishes, or cooking, we had household duties, and all had to participate. I was the second oldest; that’s my only regret. A lot of work fell on us because the little ones couldn’t help. We moved around, and I changed schools a few times; that was tough. It was hard to make friends and develop deep relationships.
This was in the ’70s. Things were different back then. A significant part of our challenge growing up on the west side of Aurora, IL, was growing up Hispanic. We experienced prejudice, racism, name-calling, and people attacking our heritage. It was tough being the only Rodrigo in the whole school as it was for my brother, the only Miguel. My Mom didn’t want us to learn Spanish because she didn’t want us to live with the stigma that my father had to endure.
I remember telling my parents that I got into a fight. Classmates were calling me “Spick”. I didn’t even know what that meant. I was in fifth grade. My father said, “That’s an insult to your family. You must defend your honor.” I thought, “Oh, great.” I went back to school and was called a “Spick” again. I got in a fight with the two most popular guys. I didn’t lose, but I didn’t win. But it was enough that people left me alone. I think every kid in grade school wants to blend in. You don’t want to be noticed. You want to be considered an equal. I don’t think it’s any different today.
It wasn’t easy back then. We were truly a minority. And the perception was that if you weren’t in the mainstream, you weren’t one of us. I was not popular because I was never considered an American. I didn’t have time to build friendships. I had to go home. I had things to do. I had chores to do and a paper route too. That’s just the way it was.
Most cultures have intermingled into American society. Latinos have never fully entered.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I was very young when we immigrated to the U.S. The first few years of my parents’ lives together were chaotic. Both of their families believed that they’d married down. My father was betrothed to a Dutch princess. My Grandfather was in the Nicaraguan diplomatic corps serving in the Vatican, Europe, and United States. My mom’s family lived on a hilltop with acreage, where she drove around in a stylish convertible. My dad was sent to study at St. Mary’s College, a few miles down the road from where my mom grew up. That’s where they met and began their courtship. They eloped and eventually moved to New York, Germany, Nicaragua, and Illinois. My five brothers and I come from very humble beginnings. We worked long and hard hours away from school, which provided us with an important foundation for the rest of our lives.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Both of my parents played significant roles in raising our family. My father was the chief estimator for the world’s tallest building at the time, the Sears Tower (in Chicago). His employer, Morris Diesel, was one of the biggest general contractors in the world. He was a very organized individual. Every night, my father would lay out his clothes for the next workday. With six boys in our household, he and my mother set an example and a highly structured environment filled with expectations, which you didn’t want to shirk. We sought their approval.
My mother worked with leading Illinois’ elected officials helping poor migrant families. She would drive us out to their shacks, where they labored in cornfields. My mom understood what immigrant families faced and was able to help drive funds to them for daycare. She was born to a white, upper-middle-class family in the coastal mountains just east of San Francisco. My grandmother was a successful small business owner. I come from a long line of productive and motivated people. They taught me valuable work ethics and the importance of family and faith.
So How Are Things Going Today?
I have a real soft spot for people who face challenges and have fewer opportunities. I don’t look at it as race. I just think of it as being poor. Their neighborhoods suffer from high crime rates. They have the worst schools to choose from. Yet they’re still going to figure out a way to get ahead. It’s not easy. I’ve been very blessed, so I always want to give back as much as possible. I enjoy finding ways to give back.
In the Latino culture, immigration is a big issue. Many people think there are a lot of Latinos who do not vote. That isn’t true. People don’t realize we pay taxes and buy cars and houses. We’re operative, functional members of society, whether we’re fully legalized or not. We’re a very fast-growing population. I don’t think anybody would make fun of me today for being Hispanic. There are plenty of Hispanics in school today and I believe there’s less prejudice than when I was in school. The kids seem to blend well together. Chicago is very cosmopolitan, which I love. When you go to school you see children from every walk of life, it’s great. That was not the case for me when I was growing up.
You’ve had a lot of success. Have you brought goodness to the world?
I give back. I work with Hispanic business owners, Hispanic politicians, and others from diverse communities to educate about our shared history with the goal of charting a successful future. I work to keep us together, to be inclusive, not divisive. We continue to evolve as a culture. Our heritage is who we are. Keeping that alive as we move forward is essential. I consider my employees and friends as family. I reach out when I hear someone is having difficulties and help where I can. These people are important to me. I lend a hand in the hope of making their situations easier to deal with.
I provide a significant amount of funding to the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School Corporate Work Study Program. The program’s mission is to educate underprivileged yet talented students from Chicago’s Latino community and give them the opportunity to participate in a year-round internship program at our Reflection Window + Wall offices.
What are the three things you would do to improve the immigration system?
It makes no sense that we have the smartest people in the world coming here, and then we tell them that they’ve got to leave when they’re done with their studies. Never understood that one. There should be a way to come here and get on a work visa, whether it’s farm work, hotel work, construction work, or whatever it is. If they do things right and act accordingly during that process, there should be a way to keep the best people in the world here? Not everybody can make it, but there needs to be a path for hardworking, good people to come here and find the path to citizenship.
Specifically for Latinos — many Latinos have native American heritage. This was their land long before we were here, yet we don’t even consider that. We should take that into account more than we do.
Can you share five keys to achieving the American dream that others can learn from you? And please provide an example for each.
A strong work ethic is a key to achieving the American dream. I told my mom that I wanted to do different things often. She said, “I don’t care what you do as long as you make an honest living.” With her loving support, she’d be proud of me if I worked hard, even if I was a ditch digger. She told me to do it well and honestly. Being honest, having integrity, a strong work ethic, education, faith, and family really matter most. There is no shortcut to success. Anybody that’s truly successful will tell you it took a lot of hard work and a little bit of luck.
When I was growing up, it was the late ’70s; inflation was sky high, and my father didn’t have any work. My mother sat us all down and said, “Well, we’re not going to have any income here for six months, and we’re going to have to go on some assistance programs. We’re going to manage paper routes and deliver our own paper routes, too.” We all had experience working morning and afternoon routes in our neighborhood during grade school. To this day, some of the worst winters in recorded history were during this period, and we’d be out at four o’clock in the morning throwing papers on people’s doorsteps. I remember running on top of the ice that was on the top of the snow. My mother would always say, “there’s a roof over your head, clothes on your back, and food in your belly. I think we’re doing a pretty good job.”
Education is one of the pillars of the American dream. I attended Marmion Military Academy. My dad and mom went broke, putting us all through the best private schools they could afford. I didn’t take my parents’ sacrifices for granted. It made me more independent and responsible. They couldn’t afford tuition, so I had to work the soup line at lunch. I went to mass every lunch period. The people who went to mass got rewarded by being first in line for lunch, which was a good deal. My brothers and I all served soup there for four years. We worked outside of school, as well. I ran track, played football, and maintained a “B” average. There’s no question that participating in extracurricular activities was terrific. I made many friends at school. I went to one of the best high schools in Illinois, but here I was, doing a paper route year-round when everybody else was sleeping for two hours. It’s a work ethic and learning what you must do. You got to get up and go to work. We did it for about two and a half years, and it was our life. What would be most beneficial for today’s high school students would be working as interns at companies, starting to see how it is in a professional atmosphere. This would make a massive difference in their development.
My parents didn’t insulate us from how hard life could be. One of the other things they did was to teach us about farming. I know you wouldn’t think that because all I do is build big high rises around the country, but I learned from farming. There’s something called the 4-H Club, and if you grew up in rural Illinois, you’d know all about it. My mother grew up in Lafayette, California; it was a rural area back in the fifties. She raised goats and participated in 4-H. On weekends, we’d go out to the farm, which was 20 minutes away by car from our suburban home, and we would work on the farm as free labor. It was a huge learning experience: how to kill, de-feather, and gut a chicken. Same thing for cows; we brought home the meat and put it in our freezer. I think that was important part of my education.
We were a close-knit family, and everyone had to pull their weight. That’s at the core of the American dream. It means so much more than just two parents that care for and participate in their children’s life. It’s about the children participating in their family’s life. There’s so much to be learned from that.
My parents helped me develop an understanding of a higher power. I’m not the most religious person, but I donate resources to faith organizations. When things get complicated, it’s nice to lean on the faith. I read recently that religious service attending is down by 60% across the board. It made me sad because it provides depth, meaning, and a sense of right from wrong.
Another important component of the American dream is that people matter more than money. That’s one of my slogans, but many people don’t understand that. I think we come from a very serious capitalistic system, and everything is about making a profit. Honestly, people matter more than money. They always will, and they always should. I see it as my responsibility to make sure that everybody who works for me, so long as they’re carrying their part of the business, I will do everything I can to make sure that they have a good quality of life. We didn’t lay anybody off during the pandemic. It was not easy. There was a price to pay, but people matter. Now we are extremely busy. It’s because we kept the team together at a great expense. It’s about people, and people are more important than money.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The United States of America is an incredible place to live. This is truly the land of opportunity. If you work hard and put your nose to the grindstone, you can succeed. From an optimistic point of view, we’re resilient as a nation. We figure things out, and we get better. It’s a messy, messy process. But we do figure things out. I believe that we do the right thing at the end of the day. It takes time, and it’s not pretty. I think people know that Americans have their hearts in the right place and that it is a good place to live and work. It is a good place to raise your family because most Americans want the same thing: opportunity and a promising future for their children. There is opportunity and hope here.
I travel around the country and the world. If you don’t travel more than a hundred miles from your home, you don’t get to see the world and gain an important perspective on where you live. Our infrastructure: highway system, rail, and ports need serious upgrades. Here’s what I’m optimistic about: we finally passed a significant infrastructure bill. Am I upset that other countries are building ports along Central and South America, not the U.S.? It doesn’t make any sense. Why aren’t we, the world bank to these countries, helping them build ports? We are not following the Monroe Doctrine. Why can’t we always take that under consideration when considering our neighbors to the south? I move products all around this country; it’s gotten harder every year, not just because of COVID. Rotterdam, The Netherlands, has a one hundred percent automated port. We talk about how we’re the first in the world at this, the best in the world at doing that. Then let’s be the best at it. Let’s have the best ports, rail system, and highways. Let’s get driverless trucks because it’s a hard life being a truck driver. This is low-hanging fruit for automation.
I’m excited about the infrastructure building that’s going to happen. I’m excited about our innovation. We’re amazing when we put our minds to it; there’s no one more innovative than Americans. It’s always been this way. It’s one of the things that never ceased to amaze me about this country. We’re such a small percentage of the world population, yet, we have done so much. I’m optimistic now, more than ever, about the future of our country.
We’re going to open up to the world on immigration. I think the three things I’m most optimistic about are our infrastructure and innovation, and I think we’re coming to a point where we realize that we need to bring in Hispanic immigrants from our neighbors to the south. I think there’s a path. We need people in this country to carry out important work here and help build a stronger economy.
We are very blessed that 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, especially if we tag them. :-)
President Xi of China. China has come a long way. I’ve seen how much they’ve improved the world in 20, 30, and 40 years since they’ve opened up. And it’s really impressive to see the quality products being produced there now.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!