Before you ask, this is not a crash course on how to make the culinary wonder that is a cuban sandwich — though that would be awesome. This is an adaptation of a talk I gave earlier this year at Gasparilla Interactive Conference to a crowd of young designers of different backgrounds looking to break into the industry.
This is my story and the lessons I learned along the way. If nothing else, I’d like you to leave this article with two takeaways:
- I’m not special or gifted in any way. So if I can do it, so can you.
- Silicon Valley needs more people like you.
I was born in a town called Sancti Spiritus, Cuba. When I was eight years old my parents, older brother, and I moved to Costa Rica. At that time, if you had family member in a different country, they could “claim” you into that country. And so, my uncle was claimed by his cousin and then claimed us.
I fell in love with storytelling at a pretty young age. First it was in the form of drawing comic books, then playing music in different bands, until eventually I discovered the power of telling stories through design.
And so I decided to study graphic design but quickly realized Costa Rica was not the best place to do that. So, my parents once again dropped everything in their career and moved to Florida to help me realize my dream and study design in the US. Why Florida? My dad’s sister lived in Tampa so we saw it as a natural step.
I’ll admit that we lucked out. At the time, if you were Cuban and spent a year in the U.S., you would automatically be eligible to be a permanent resident — this is called the Cuban Adjustment Act.
We were able to get a tourist visa for six months and then spent the remaining half of the year as illegal immigrants until one day — poof! — we were eligible for a green card.
Being an illegal immigrant in the U.S. was not easy. We couldn’t get a driver’s license, so we could barely get around. I spent my weekdays struggling to understand English in high school and some nights cleaning car dealerships with my family to make ends meet.
I spent most weekends doing a variety of odd jobs to help my parents pay rent, like helping with construction, changing floors, or mowing lawns. By the time I graduated from high school I found out I wasn’t able to get into a state college because I didn’t have enough high school credits because I arrived in the U.S. half-way through Junior year.
So, I enrolled in community college to get my AA in Graphic Design and then transferred to the Art Institute of Tampa to pursue my Bachelor degree. I had no idea what more prestigious schools like Stanford, Carnegie Mellon or RISD were at the time. But I knew I wanted to do design and getting a college degree was the reason my parents left everything behind, so skipping college was not an option. So, I armed myself in student loans and $80k later I got my degree.
While in school, I took a part-time job at a call center to help pay for tuition. Because it was an inbound call center, they allowed us to do anything with our time in between calls. Other students used this time to do homework or study for exams, I used it to sketch in my notebook and watch videos on my iPod.
Looking for stuff to watch at work, I discovered a podcast called Diggnation. It was hosted by Kevin Rose and Alex Albrecht — two white dudes sitting in a couch and talking about this mythical land called Silicon Valley. They were just two people, but in my mind they were celebrities who thought like me and were living in a dream world of possibilities.
I remember day dreaming about working in San Francisco in between calls from angry customers calling me names and pretending not to understand my accent.
Working in Silicon Valley felt like being an astronaut at the time — Nobody tells you that you can’t be an astronaut, but you’re conditioned to think that you must be special or somehow be at the right place in the right time to make it happen. It was something very subconscious — I never felt victimized or discriminated by it. It was just outside the realm of what I thought was possible.
Horizon of Aspiration
This phenomenon is actually called the Horizon of Aspiration and it happens to all of us, though it is exaggerated in minorities. Most of us have an inflated sense of our limitations and have a hard time looking past the horizon of what we think is possible. But I found that constantly challenging that perceived barrier and stepping outside your comfort zone can lead to unimaginable results.
Just by knocking on the door you can often find it was always wide open.
I remember three specific moments in my life where I was able to look beyond my Horizon of Aspiration:
The Humble Professor
During a portfolio review one of my professors looked at my work and told me “your work looks good, but you must stop comparing yourself to other students and start comparing yourself to people outside school”. Just by saying that, he broadened my playing field and gave me license to play in the big leagues. That was huge for me.
A couple months later, a group of young advertising professionals called Ad 2 put out a call on Twitter for anyone to join their public service campaign. Despite not knowing anyone there and feeling totally unqualified, I decided to show up. That meeting lead to a wild year where we created a public service campaign focused on raising awareness against teen domestic violence.
One day, the creative director for the project stepped down and they asked me to step in as creative director for the campaign and eventually for all of Ad 2 Tampa, where I met some great people and grew tremendously as a designer.
None of that would’ve been possible without that professor who unintentionally gave me permission to look beyond the walls of my college.
The Connected Car
The second moment was when I moved to San Francisco to lead design for Automatic. I had already moved out of Tampa at the time. I was leading design for a small agency in Santa Monica. Even though I loved LA, it was always second to San Francisco for me. One day I decided to change my address to San Francisco on Linkedin and started applying at a bunch of startups in the area. Eventually, the CEO of Automatic reached out to me and asked me if I wanted to interview.
They were just 4 Berkeley students working out of a tiny office in downtown San Francisco at the time. They couldn’t offer me a lot of money, but they gave me the opportunity to own the design of the product and show the world what I could do.
I didn’t feel qualified to run the design of a company. I had never worked at a start-up before and I would be responsible for the design of all sides of the product, from the packaging, to the website, and mobile apps but I decided to take the leap anyway and give it a try.
The following year was one of the hardest, most rewarding years of my life. We worked really hard to make a product that we all loved and tweaked every detail to add moments of delight when possible. When we launched the product, it was well received and it even made some of my heroes refer to me as their peer.
Even Kevin Rose, the ex-host of Diggnation, reached out to me to congratulate me on a job well done — It was quite a surreal experience.
The Home Stage
The third breakthrough moment happened earlier this year, where I gave a talk about this very topic on the stage of my community college.
Being able to stand on that stage and share my story with them is something that sounded completely unattainable a few years ago. I always thought it would be totally implausible, not because anyone said “no” but just… because.
I had drawn this picture in my head of their recruiters going through stacks upon stacks of resumes every day. How could I possibly break through the noise? Who am I to break through the noise? But once you’re in the inside, you realize that it doesn’t necessarily have to work that way.
In my case, the work I did for Automatic was flagged to one of the recruiters by someone in the company who then reached out to me and got the ball rolling. Many of my coworkers have similar stories: somebody at Facebook saw their work and connected them with a recruiter.
Little did I know that Facebook actually desperately needs people like you and me.
Most companies in Silicon Valley are interested in making products that are beloved and used by everyone in the world. The thing is, we can’t truly make products for the world if we all come from the same background — no matter how prestigious that background may be.
Just like our individual DNA influences who we are and what we do, a company’s DNA influences the products it puts out into the world. In order to make intuitive and accessible global products we must come from a company with a global DNA. This is why Silicon Valley needs people like you to infect it with your culture and your differences. This is the only way we can break through the shiny #whitepeopleproblems bubble and bring value to everyone in the world.
Needless to say, we have a lot to do to fully realize that vision.
According to a 2014 survey, only 29% of people in the top 7 tech companies are women, while 71% are male. The numbers are a bit more grim in terms of racial diversity. 60% of people identified as white and 23% as Asian. But an alarmingly low 8% of people identified as hispanics and only 7% as Black. This is particularly alarming because blacks and hispanics alone account for 32% of the U.S. population and growing!
You can see how we’re being grossly misrepresented within the companies that make the products we love and use every day. The good news is that the tech industry has started to course-correct and invest in a more diverse workforce. Here are a few examples:
Diverse Slate Program
Recently, companies like Facebook have committed to adopting a Diverse Slate Program when looking for new candidates. This program requires teams to interview at least one minority candidate before making a hiring decision. By adopting this rule, the company doesn’t have to hire that candidate, however merely interviewing at least one minority candidate opens the possibilities to people of all races, like you and me.
However, finding minority candidates is not easy. It takes a company to step outside their comfort zone and look beyond their usual methods for recruiting. The amount of minorities who look past their Horizon of Aspiration and apply for the job are not yet enough to build a diverse workforce.
This is why companies like Facebook have started to invest in expanding the talent pool and train people with the skills they need for these jobs. For example, efforts like Tech Prep are a great step forward towards bridging the gap between Silicon Valley and the rest of the world.
Tech Prep is an online resource dedicated to introduce minorities to computer science. The goal is to spur interest in programming and motivate people from all backgrounds to pursue careers in tech.
Managing Unconscious Bias
Facebook has also started investing in the way we look at minorities and create this course called Managing Unconscious Bias to help us recognize our biases and reduce their negative effects in the workplace.
This one-hour course teaches you to be aware of the impact of first impressions and the power of stereotypes. I encourage everyone to take it because I guarantee you it will reveal something for you, no matter your background.
Here are a couple recommendations of what you can do as well:
Use Your Perspective As Your Superpower
It can sometimes be demotivating to look into Silicon Valley and see it populated by folks that look or act nothing like you. But remember, you’re not inadequate for being different. You actually bring a perspective that is desperately needed in the white-male-centric tech world.
As Maxine Williams says, you don’t need to use “blind” as a suffix when you talk about minorities. Saying things like “I’m colorblind.” or “sexual-orientation blind” actually neutralizes a part of a person that is an asset. It’s important to recognize those characteristics and see them as adding value.
Embrace what make you different and try to recognize how it influences your work. This will have a huge impact on what you can contribute to places like Facebook or Google.
Invest in Relationships
As people who work on digital products, our work will inevitably become obsolete in just a few years —the code will be replaced by new libraries and the visuals will fall behind new trends. However, the relationships and memories we make along the way can accompany us for a lifetime.
It’s pretty straightforward to make meaningful connections with people you already work with. A lot of our stories involve special people that moved us up to the next level. You never know when you will encounter that person; they might inspire you to improve your skills to become the designer you aspire to be, or they might take you under their wing on their next venture.
A referral from someone you know is one of the most powerful tools to get in the door of your dream job. Try to make meaningful connections with the people you come across, you’d be surprised how they can help you become the person you want to be.
Don’t get me wrong —focus on your craft and make sure it’s air tight. But, if you focus on building relationships over making pixel perfect work you have a better chance of growing as a designer, as a person, and making the world a better place on the way.
A lot of people would say that my odds were not on my favor to land on a place like Silicon Valley. If you feel like you have been dealt a similar hand, I hope this story inspires you to look beyond your Horizon of Aspiration and use your perspective as a way to bring unique value to whatever your dream job may be.
Please, reach out to me if you’d like to chat. I always enjoy talking to people about what makes them passionate!