So tell me a bit about your early years and where you come from.
Definitely! So I was born in Central Mexico to my parents and I am one of four children. And when I was around 8, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. So, she came to the United States to get treatment. She was also a migrant farm worker under amnesty; it was a double blessing in disguise for her to be here. AA couple years later, we came as well. Because she was a permanent resident, she didn’t have the legal leverage to bring us legally even though we were her children. We came undocumented. Eventually, my mom, Mina, became a citizen and we thus became legal residents in the process. When I say here, I mean Redwood City, which is right, smack in the middle of Silicon Valley.
I don’t talk to many people who work in tech and who have grown up here poor. I think I just tweeted something around why people of low income backgrounds find it harder for to succeed in Silicon Valley. Yes, I grew up here, I see have seen the changes, in the past decade or so. Yeah, I really loved growing up the Bay area. I call myself a Mexican-born, California-bred person. I don’t like the cold.
How did you first get interested in tech?
In high school, I took a computer science class. This was late 1990’s. The computer science class was really amazing. I was doing well. I was surprised. I took it just to say, “We’ll see, let me take this AP Computer Science class”. It ended up being that I really liked programming. I got a scholarship by a local engineering firm – Raychem to attend Berkeley. The summer before my freshman year, I had my first internship in tech at Hewlett-Packard – at the age of 17.
I took an intro to computer science class but there wasn’t a lot of diversity. When I decided to change majors, my college advisor really didn’t push me to stay in engineering. But I wasn’t doing poorly and I wasn’t doing great, but I think about if I hadn’t stopped engineering, I would have been in a different path. Either way, my path came back to tech because my family lives in Silicon Valley. I went to grad school and I came back to the Bay Area and got a job in tech. It seems that everything was pushing me to be in tech. [laughter] I didn’t like that.
So tell me more about what it was like growing up in the heart of Silicon Valley as a low-income, undocumented immigrant family. It’s a contrast from a lot of folks who grow up in the middle of this.
It’s funny because I met someone that grew up in the peninsula and this person asked me where I grew up. Their second question was “Are your parents venture capitalists?” [chuckles]. Which is so funny my parents being venture capital, my mom’s a single mom, my dad is still in Mexico. The contrast of what people think that my background is and and what the reality truly is.
I live in Redwood City, which is now the headquarters to Box and Evernote and bunch of other tech companies. When I was growing up, Redwood City was a very different place, it was predominantly Mexican. I remember one time—I worked at Stanford and I when someone asked me where I lived, they responded “That’s where all the nannies and gardeners live!”
A very drastic difference between the affluent Palo Alto and Redwood City. Palo Altowas home had a lot of traditional Silicon Valley – the Hewlett Packards of the world, the IBM’s, etcetera.
Basically, back then, it was a different Redwood City that exists now.
For me, I worked in Palo Alto in high school but living in a one-bedroom apartment with my whole family. My whole family lived in a one-bedroom and there were six of us. Then my parents divorced. We were then five; there were four children and my mom.
How’s the rest of your family doing?
Good, good. You know, my mom is amazing. She is one fierce woman. She has bought and maintains her own four-bedroom house. She is my inspiration, I love her. I have three healthy siblings, two beautiful little nieces. Our family is happy and stable—I think it’s because of my mother.
My mother was the cornerstone and she is a thousand more amazing—more times amazing than any other woman out there that I know. Yeah, she’s doing great. I tried to stop by the other day to see her but she wasn’t there I was just too tired and I went home. I live a block away from her so that was easy…
Okay, so let’s get into your work. You’ve had a really amazing career trajectory, like you’ve worked on very challenging projects for a lot of amazing companies. So tell me a bit about that.
I feel like every one of my accomplishments and “successes” that has been published or spoken of, there are hundreds times where I didn’t know what I was doing.
I lacked confidence early on. Then when I started at Twitter, I knew the power of Twitter, but I just didn’t know the impact of Twitter on my life. I look back and it was seven years ago – I can’t believe it! I just really loved and continue to love, the product. Twitter was where my career and my passion for languages came together.
I came here when I was 10, I learned English within a year. I’m still friends with my teacher that taught me English! Then, in high school, I learned French. In college I learned Portuguese, so by the time I was like 20, I had already learned three languages in less than ten years.
I love languages and I think that both having to work at all these tech companies, it kind of brings together my love for languages with technology, which I tell kids that technology will be one with their passion – you know, you want to be a zoologist, you want to be a doctor, you want to be a lawyer. All of these things will merge with technology because you’ll need to technology to work in these professions.
I think that at Twitter, it was great having been part of the international team where my passion made an impact.
After I left. In 2013, I wrote a blog post about diversity in tech before all the numbers came out, before there was a lot of PR around it. When 2014 came around a lot of the diversity numbers came out, and they were abysmal as it relates to race and gender. But race and gender numbers came out, and everybody was shocked.
But to me, it wasn’t a shock because I’ve been in this industry forever.
Then I was asked to be on numerous panels.
This one great panel, organized by USA Today, they wanted an entrepreneur that could be on a panel with the Reverend Jesse Jackson. They asked me, the heads of diversity from Facebook, Google, a Stanford law professor, and the reverend.
The whole time, the conversations focused on implicit biases and unconscious biases. There was a lack of accountability. Everybody was talking about recruiting at this campus or going to Grace Hopper as a way to “fix” the issue.
I thought to myself – that none of these program scaled. I thought to myself, “Well, why can’t we use technology to tackle and understand this issue.” That is how Atipica was born.
I wanted to understand the pipeline and the recruiting funnel. Diverse applicants don’t have the networks where their resume gets pushed to the front of the line. Therefore, their resume usually gets lost in the shuffle, part of the 75% of their resumes are never seen by the human eye. There might be biases if they look at it. Diverse applicants don’t assess themselves well. For example, I have applied for the wrong job, and technology should have rerouted me to the right job. That’s what I’ve working on.
The influence a name has on a resume. I often wonder, what is happening? How many diverse applicants are getting to their first interview or screening or whatever because of their name? At Atipica, we surface the applicants and interrupt biases – we don’t show names. In our product, we show just initials. We don’t show schools. We have worked a lot to interrupt pattern matching that occurs here in Silicon Valley, so that people can look beyond their implicit biases.
Related to that, I’m curious to know, in your personal experience obviously you’ve had experiences that feed into the work that you do now. I’m curious to know of any sort of personal struggles that you’ve had, going into the industry, as someone from a different background, or someone who was potentially looked over for a job. Have you struggled in that way, yourself?
Yeah, so, I’ve had people tell me that because I am Latina, I shouldn’t wear dresses, inherently just because of my background. Me wearing a dress makes it seem more sexy than, let’s say, a non-Latina wearing a dress.
Who would tell you that??
There’s a picture on the internet of me wearing a dress next to an ambassador, and it wasn’t like a short dress, it was a long dress, and it wasn’t tight, it was just like a nice, professional dress. But either way, I was oversexualized because I am Latina.
Diversity and inclusion comes in two parts – there’s diversity and there’s inclusion. In early stage startups, the environments may not be very diverse – but can be inclusive. At Twitter, I felt the leaders were very inclusive and my colleagues were as well.
Generally, as a Latina woman, I don’t just hit the glass ceiling, I also hit the glass door and the glass wall because—if I lean in, people are going to think I’m feisty and stuffI don’t have the ability to do other things that other non-POC women might do.
I’ve witnessed a lot of uncomfortable situations coming from people in power and especially the lack of recognition by people that are in a privileged position. I have been in horribly uncomfortable situations that are illegal. Unfortunately, years ago, I decided which battles to pick and none of them were big enough to “burn” bridges. The situation is different now and I admire those women who are holding the industry accountable for their sexism and harassment.
I mentor other women and I advice them to stand up without alienating people – because I had to learn the hard way. When I mentored other women I said, “I’m going to tell you everything that happened to me so you do not do the same and maybe I can show you how to tackle this injustice.” There is one woman that was a friend of mine. She was on maternity leave from a tech company and they stopped vesting her shares during maternity leave.
Yeah. Oh my God. I guided her and told her to stay lit bit; she ended there for another couple years. She recently left for a better position at another startup. She negotiated that too.
There a lot of lessons I learned the hard way. It’s been years now since a lot of these things happened to me. Early in my career, it was really, really hard working in tech.
I have let go and I’m hopeful something came out of it – for the new generation of young girls joining this industry.
That being said, being an entrepreneur is another whole different story. It’s not this “death by a thousand papercuts” as much as it was working for tech five years ago [laughter]. Entrepreneurship, at least, is very transparent. They either invest in you or not. They may have their biases, they may not, blah blah. But there are hundreds of investors, if not thousands. Whereas, working for a tech company right now is, there are two paths – you stay there or not. So if there is something that’s not right, what are the paths you can take? As an entrepreneur, you have many numerous paths to take if that were to happen.
Did you have mentors at any point in your career or did you just forged your own path?
I remember a very high profile woman I worked with. She recommended that I get a mentor, and I thought. A mentor is someone you convince to be your professional friend and rely on them. But as I saw great leaders, I understood the importance of mentors. The first Twitter employee, Crystal, did a lot to help me grow professionally.I always say that she was sort of like an unofficial mentor of mine.
As an entrepreneur, I now realize now that mentors that come in different packages, male, female. There’s people that are on the venture front, there’s peer mentors that are entrepreneurs, there’s my female mentors that have much more experiences like mine. Mentorship doesn’t have to be this consistent thing, it just has to a reality. For example, I know a VC – I can email him anything and he will respond within half a day, and be like, “What do you need,” etc. I consider him a mentor, but he might not think himself as one, and I consider my friend a peer mentor—she’s a female entrepreneur who has raised capital. I think it’s never too late to find “mentors” in your support circle.
I’m curious to know your biggest motivators that got you through everything.
My motivators are my family and my close friends who answer my text when I’m going through through the valley of despair.”Which all entrepreneurs go through. It’s like, ”What the heck am I doing? will anything ever look up?”
But my biggest motivators are young people that email me or come up to me after a talk. I try to do more speaking engagements to young people than I do to adults. I have gotten these amazing messages from young people that either saw my stories or read something about me.
One of them is actually my mentee now. He read something on USA Today and now he is part of my life. Even when I am doubting myself, these young people believe in me. A few years ago, I traveled a lot and spoke to youth in Latin America. They were so taken back by my experience ”Whoa. You know you’re a Latina over there…” It is the youth, the next generation of game changers that are my motivators. Because, when they get to be my age, they can see themselves represented in this industry.
I often tell young, Latino youth that tech is creating this immense amount of wealth. Right now Mark Zuckerberg is the sixth richest man.
Tech is creating immense amounts of wealth, but it’s not creating wealth for our communities and it’s definitely not creating wealth for our future generations. We need to be successful, create that wealth so that we can give back. In sum, I think my biggest motivators have always been the people on the outside that see themselves in me. I think that has always been my drive —even when I get sad, I read the emails these young kids have sent me, and it motivates me to get back up.
We touched on this a little bit earlier the kind of 2009 versus 2016, but how do you feel about the state of the industry in 2016—what are you really excited about, and what would you really like to see change?
I think the industry are having tough conversations with themselves. They need to see the monster they created and talk to see how they can move forward. There are going to be uncomfortable situations. We are facing this accountability crisis. People think, we should call others out, you know, on social media….we should like, blast them!
I’m like, “I’m not sure that’s the most productive way” but if that’s the way you want to handle a lot of the discussions, then go for it. At least we are having the tough conversations – regardless of the medium – then the healing will begin.
Where do you see yourself in five or ten years? Do you think you’ll still be in tech in Silicon Valley?
I’d love to have a restaurant, I love to cook. [laughter] I’ll have a restaurant in Silicon Valley. I think so, and I’m hoping that I have built a company that is inclusive, diverse—I think Biz Stone, who is the co-founder of Twitter always said, “Twitter was not the triumph of technology, is was a triumph of humanity.”
Atipica will be the triumph of humanity – but not relying on a sheet of paper to define talent and job compatibility. I’m hoping that people that don’t know how to write a resume will be able to say, “Hey, I can learn.”
I’m hopeful that a lot of the startups that I advise right now grow to be successful businesses.
‘m hopeful that these numbers don’t stay the same; I’m certainly hopeful that Latinas are represented in a bigger number than we are now, especially in product and engineering. I do think that this will be slow, as much as I love this industry, it’s an industry that has a long ways to it might not be 5 or 10 years…. it might take another couple generations.
But I’m hopeful by the time my grandchildren are grown, it won’t be something like this. But this is not all; I do think that everyone needs to combine their passion with what they do. I’m hoping that one day I’ll have a Youtube channel where I show my recipes [chuckles] and to continue with my hobbies.
This is my home—Silicon Valley is my home. Tech has been my passion, my career, and I can’t leave it completely. I don’t think that you can ever leave something.
For example I downloaded a meditation app, and it seemed like a good concept, but I didn’t like the UX. Part of my tech eye is always going to be on – how I utilize tech to improve myself, and improve others, improve the industry.
As closing I am curious to know what advice or lessons or just tips and tricks would you give folks from similar backgrounds to you that are hoping to get into tech but may not feel so encouraged.
Open up your networks. You’re gonna get rejected—I got rejected after Twitter. What do I do next? I thought to myself. Keep asking. Keep asking. That’s the only way- because other people with privilege and access to networks are asking their friends all the time. Someone from Stanford gets recruited by Facebook or goes to work at Google or someone leaves Google to go work at uber, those networks are going to perpetuate themselves to sameness. For us, we need to hack the network.