Latinx In Power
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Latinx In Power

Plant Scientist Breaks Into Tech

Based on an episode with Luis Curiel 🇭🇳🏳️‍🌈

This time we talked with Luis Curiel who currently sits on the People Team managing strategy and operations at Twitter, and also serves as the global co-chair for Twitter Alas, our Latinx business resource group. Luis, a first-generation American, traces his Latinx roots to Honduras. Born and raised in California, he studied biopsychology and worked in agricultural research before making the transition to tech.

In this episode we talked more about how previous skills and experiences can be transferred to tech, the impact Latinxs are making in tech which makes the scenario totally different from 5 years ago but at the same time how we still have a lot of work to do. Luis shared with us his perspective as our @recruiterfriend to those who made it and now have the opportunity to make an impact for others.

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How everything started?

My journey into tech, or just my journey in general starts very unconventionally. Growing up in a Latino household, you are always going to be a lawyer, a doctor, or an engineer. In my case, it was definitely medicine, and it wasn’t until, I would say my second year at Davis, that I was [still] convinced that med school was what I was going to do. That’s what I was destined to do.

However, going into college, you’re in the university, you want to expose yourself to new things. This was one of my goals very early on, if you saw my class schedule during my freshman and sophomore year, it was just like this confetti of different things that I was trying out. Everything from Latinx history classes to student government. At some point I was even taking theater classes so definitely, I was a freshman in an identity crisis of sorts.

Around my second year of college, I needed a job, so I started applying for work, and that’s when I got a job as a research assistant for the USDA, the Department of Agriculture, working on specifically Plant Pathology. Ultimately, that wasn’t what I ended up doing with my career, obviously, that’s why we’re here today, but it showed me and helped me see that there was a lot more that I could be doing besides practicing medicine.

This process helped me see other professional fields outside of your typical and traditional fields, but what I will admit was, it was definitely tough, having that flexibility and being able to experiment with your career. Again, growing up in a Latinx household with a single mom, an immigrant mom who has sacrificed so much to see you succeed, it almost sometimes felt like you might be letting her down or you might be letting the family down by not being serious or not being a little bit more linear in your career path.

How did you break into tech?

After I left college, San Francisco is the closest city to my hometown, it’s about an hour and a half, two hours from where I’m from, so I knew that it was going to be my next destination. I started looking for work, my first job here in the Bay Area was again with the USDA working in a lab, this time in plant genetics, and it was after a year working in this lab when I finally began to seriously consider what am I doing? Is this ultimately what I want to be doing long term? I knew that I loved working with people and working in a laboratory with plants, there’s not a lot of people there, it’s a very solitary job.

When I had that college gig, I realized throughout that experience that it wasn’t going to be something that I was going to be satisfied with long term and so I started looking for other solutions of what’s going to make me happy. The year when this was all happening was 2015, I was in San Francisco, tech was a big part of culture, I would say. I would argue even more than it is today in the city, even if you weren’t in the industry.

One of the things that I did begin to notice was a lot of my friends also coming out of college were beginning to work in tech and specifically within recruiting. So again, here I am considering yet another career move. This time in an area that wasn’t even connected to science, recruiting. I went home, told my mom and she’s like, what are you doing? Is this why we sent you to college? So I really needed to think about it long, hard and make sure that this is something that I was going to be able to succeed.

I finally made the jump, I noticed while my friends are doing it, some of them are coming from finance, some of them are coming from psychology, why can’t I do it? I’m coming from science, so I asked one of my good friends who was working at a company called Avenue Code for a referral, and sure enough, I got the call to go interview.

I still remember that day, I was going into the Bart up to the financial district, everything just seems so foreign, so professional, people in their suits, they go into the building, very corporate and here I come with this resume that reads Plant Sciences and Research. Completely foreign concepts, but what I quickly realized during that interviewing and recruiting, in general, was really about making that personal connection with who you’re talking to.

Finding that commonality and ultimately having fun. I think if you’re having fun, you’re being authentic, you’re being yourself, so I went through the interview. It went surprisingly well, so the next day, I got the offer. It wasn’t easy, it wasn’t a clear choice but deep down I knew this was a journey that excited me and that I wanted to go on.

You have a Bachelor of Science in Biopsychology, I’d love to hear more about it and how your degree helps you work in tech.

It’s interesting because I work in tech, but I work mostly with people, don’t necessarily work in engineering and most folks would say that sciences and Plant Sciences are unrelated to a people team. When you look at science, what they call the gold standard in science, it’s all about being able to replicate your results and to achieve what you did. Very logical processes and clear documentation.

When you reflect and when you look at how we work today, in general, at Twitter, or in any tech company in a very virtual environment, an empirical process is key to unlocking better collaboration. It’s really important to have good documentation to be able to align with your co-workers. I also think we as humans can be messy, and sometimes we might overcomplicate things more than they need to be.

So having worked in a lab where everything is very clear, everything is very process-oriented, very precise, you get this perspective that you’re able sometimes to take a step back. When you’re in your day-to-day work and ask the right questions, what are we trying to achieve? Where is the path of least resistance? Are we overcomplicating things? You’re almost able to take the emotion out of your work sometimes and look at it more pragmatically. I see that manifest every day in my work is being able to have that very pragmatic, very practical way of approaching our work. Recruiting is essentially researching as well.

What does it mean to be a Latinx for you?

That’s my favorite question, I’ve always grown up being proud of being Latinx since I was a little kid in grade school. For me, being part of this community is a superpower. The ability to connect with a whole another culture in a very real way.

That sentiment has continued to grow and evolve as I’ve grown and evolved in my life. First, you’re able to reflect with much more clarity on your history, even this year, I had to take a trip back to Honduras. You think wow, my mother at the age of 15, she was just a little girl who decided to travel across the continent, to a foreign country, with almost nothing, and build the whole family on her own.

That resilience, and strength. What I’ve discovered is not unique to my mom, and family. You will find it in almost every Latinx family across the world. For me it’s an honor, a privilege and a sense of pride to have that history, be part of that, and also to have the potential to live up to that family legacy and continue to build it is one of the reasons how I feel connected to our Latinx community.

Then second, it’s a community, it’s inevitable to me when I’m walking down the Mission neighborhood here in San Francisco, and I see the Latinos walking up and down the street. I hear this span is, you smell the food, you feel a real sense of belonging, you feel like, wow, I’m home.

That is just so organic, so unforced, it’s so natural for me where that leads is that belonging. It also leads to a sense of empowerment, you relate to these people, you have this real power in numbers, and that potential within the lioness community is one of the most exciting things for me personally. You feel you have this whole army of beautiful people ready to do great things.

There’s this African proverb that says “if you want to go fast, go alone but if you want to go far, go together”. That ability to go together with my community and build something special that potential is only so exciting and important in my identity as Latinx. At the same time, I won’t say that there weren’t times when you try to assimilate to American culture. You try to be just like everyone else, but I think it starts with family and for me, my family has always been very vociferous, very proud under and specifically around food and music.

Every morning, every weekend we wake up to the loud music ready to clean and so it was never seen as something that we should hide, it was something that we should celebrate. So when I would go to school or when growing up like the fact that I did have this other area that was mine, but not a lot of people understood again was something of pride like let me show you. Let me bring you to this beautiful community that you might not know a lot about. I don’t know if it starts its family and it just starts with that uniqueness, I think is really what brings you pride.

How did your passion for recruiting started?

I love talking to people, I love connecting with people. I think we’re social creatures by nature and people love to connect. When did it turn into a passion? Working at Avenue code, I felt well represented at that company. They’ve done a terrific job connecting with the Brazilian community and there were a lot of immigrants in that office. It always felt very homey.

It wasn’t until I got to Google and then Twitter when I started I noticed that something was off. Either the Latinos were in a different building, or we were underrepresented. The people who were starting in tech at these big companies with whom I became good friends were building staff because they were the Filipinos that I knew, they were the few Latinxs that I could speak to in Spanish where it felt I was at home.

Being in recruiting, I knew I was in a position to do something about that, my job became to bring people into these companies. For me that was the moment that my job became a job, something that I did because I knew that I enjoyed and I was good at it to something much bigger, something that was quite a passion of mine and a conviction of mine.

Frankly also very selfishly that benefited me because I wanted to see more of my people in those buildings. When I look at recruiting today, it’s not just about connecting with people, but it’s also advocating for these people that have never been into these tech buildings and helping them get in the door as well.

Which advice would you give to folks who have English as a second language and are currently struggling at work or in their personal life?

Even though I was born in the US, I’m actually an ESL (English as a Second Language) myself, I started school only knowing Spanish, and again this is another one of those areas where I see that speaking a second language has a huge advantage because you have so much additional perspective. The interesting thing is companies are realizing this, and that’s why they put so much effort into recruiting folks from other communities and diverse backgrounds.

First, before I give any advice, what I would say is to realize your value, your worth, and what you’re bringing to the table because you are an ESL. Look at it as a superpower, not so much as a handicap. I also know that there are challenges with English as a second language, everything seems twice as difficult. When these are real barriers, and again, I’m gonna bring us back to earlier this year, I was in Honduras, I was at my grandma’s house and I found this old briefcase from the 60s. When I opened it, it was just this briefcase full of cassettes, and it was the “Ingles sin Barreras” (English without Barriers) course which is a very popular course here in the US for learning English as well.

We have to come a long way from having to dial a phone number to order a briefcase full of cassettes to begin to learn English. There’s just so much content out there, apps like Duolingo, videos on YouTube, music is at our disposal, so just leverage all the media that we have and take advantage there. I remember my colleagues back in Google, there was a language exchange program where I met one of my good friends, she was trying to learn Spanish, I was trying to practice French, so we were able to connect. There is a very good chance if you work in an American company or a company with English-speaking co-workers that they would love to partner in helping you practice your English speaking skills, and you in return, you could very well help them learn any language.

Then finally, we are moving towards an asynchronous virtual work style, and what that means is there’s going to be a lot more documentation, a lot more written communication, and so use this to your advantage. If you’re having a meeting, if you’re having a presentation and you’re worried about your English, set up an agenda, and slides ahead of the meeting, so there is not as much pressure on you to communicate the content, you are just summarizing what they’ve already seen. Use that rein communication as much as possible, it’s going to become more and more mainstream, I think this is going to be a huge advantage for anyone that speaks English as a second language.

In our conversation we talked about this sense of what’s next and how we can start lifting others. I’d love to hear your thoughts about it!

Starting with just the first question on what’s next, you look at the Latinx community in the US, and we are the largest minority here around 18% continuing to grow. We’re also the youngest demographic in the United States, not sure if you knew but every minute, a Latino turns 18, our voting age.

So that means that we have our future, the future of this country in our hands and we are in fact, defining the future by next gen ears. They’re doing tremendous work bridging the Latino culture with this new wave of social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and Twitter.

What that’s resulting is you’re seeing a real shift in the attitude towards Latinos around the world. Latinx representation and marketing is a great example of this, you’re seeing major brands like Krug’s collaborate with Bad Bunny, you’re seeing McDonald’s place their bets on J Balvin. You know this would have been unheard of 10/15 years ago.

At the same time, what happened in tech years ago when I started off in 2015, you would have struggled to find 30 people in tech and put them in a room. Now when we have all these tech events, you fill these rooms to capacity where we have to turn people away, but that’s not enough.

We need to make sure that we are also paving the way for the next generation, we cannot just be satisfied with being represented or being here. We need to make sure that we have a seat at the table and the big table at that ultimately is what’s going to result in more opportunities and generational change for the Latinx community here and in Latin America.

Speaking about Latin America, we need to talk more about it, they are the nearest neighbors to the United States, and the entrepreneurship that is happening in cities like Mexico City, Monterrey, Lima, Belo Horizonte, and São Paulo is really exciting. It’s our job as well as someone who has already made it into tech, we have a voice within these companies to use our voice to redirect, to bring awareness to these places, to bring awareness to the genuity and the entrepreneurship that is happening there to also hold our leaders accountable, representation is a huge piece of this.

We need to make sure that we’re not just focusing on filling quotas or filling our demographic, the needs we need to make sure that we’re looking at is the full picture. Where is our leadership represented? Who is on our board of directors? Who is on our staff? We need to look at how our next weeds are growing within the community, within the tech industry, and beyond.

Then there are things that we can do on a personal level. I’ve been on hiring panels, I’ve been on interview panels for my team, now ensuring that we’re holding our teams accountable and how we’re looking at the candidate. How we’re opening opportunities for others, how we’re assessing candidates, ensuring that these opportunities are available to everyone and not just members of the team. There’s so much that we can do internally that now we have representation, we’re in the door, we need to bring others along.

The last thing I would say is, I remember starting off, even when I was at Avenue Code, companies like Google and Twitter seemed like these huge fortresses where I never knew what happened behind those closed doors. It felt magical, but it also felt scary and intimidating to a certain extent. I think us that have made it, our job is to bring some of those barriers down, show folks what the interview process looks like at a tech company, talk about what is it that they look for, help them on their resumes, and how to represent themselves in a way that is going to resonate with our teams. We all have certain perspectives that can really guide this next generation of Latinx folks who also want to make it into the industry.

Which resource helped you in your journey? Do you have one to recommend?

I’ll start with the easy ones and what I’ve noticed on social media, our community has shone through. For me, living in San Francisco, away from my family, I miss hearing the Spanish television, I miss being around the Latino culture and so being able to look at sites like Remezcla, mitú, these Spanish mediums are highlighting it from our perspective, it is just so refreshing.

What I’ve noticed in social media is there are communities that have been underserved, even within the Latinx community that is finally starting to have awareness. One of those that comes to mind in Honduras is the Garifuna community and seeing that economic community online on platforms like Instagram, and Twitter. Educating the public, showing them who they are has helped me on a personal level to better educate myself on this huge diverse community. We call Latinx, but we can also help to educate your friends, and family that may not know who these underserved communities are.

In terms of books, I have three recommendations. One that I would recommend is the Open Veins of Latin America. Every Latinx person should read this book because it helps understand the history of our continent where we’ve been, why decisions have been made, and help us look forward to how we can move together and progress as a community. It’s a history book so be fore warned, I would highly recommend it.

The second one is not related to being Latinx at all. It’s a little bit more political, but it’s called the Righteous Mind and the full title is why good people are divided by politics and religion. It seems loaded in a certain sense. As Latinos, and even more so as Latinos that may have immigrated to this country, it is so incumbent and important for us to be able to relate to others, both in our professional lives and in our personal lives, but it can be hard to do. Coming from a different country, different place, and different culture, it’s hard to relate to other communities and other cultures. The book breaks it down by values and what people are motivated by and how there are different motivations from different people. You never go into a room with an argument or with the viewpoint with your own values, because that’s not going to resonate with the other person. I want to go into a room with my argument but understanding your values and being able to leverage them to the points I’m trying to make. I just think it’s a really good book that lays it out is how people are different, how people might be divided, but also how we can connect closer together.

The last one is a little bit more fun. It’s been quite, a year and a half, I’m a big Lin Manuel Miranda fan, and he has this cute little book, it’s called Gmorning, Gnight! It’s just positive affirmations that you’re supposed to read in the morning and at night. I’m going to quote one real quick, this one says, “Good morning, courage, even when the panics at the back of your throat, courage, let’s go”. To read that in the morning, it’s a picture of a lion. Then at night, you read, “Good night, courage, even when fear is at the foot of your bed, courage, let’s go”. This very short book, it’s super cute and just something positive to bring a little joy to your day.

I hope you enjoyed the podcast. We will have more interviews with amazing Latinx leaders the first Tuesday of every month. Check out our website Latinx In Power to hear more. Don’t forget to share comments and feedback, always with kindness. See you soon.

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Thaisa Fernandes

Problem solver and perfectionist in recovery willing to stretch myself and risk making mistakes to achieve innovative solutions and validate my learnings