Why Silicon Valley Loves Cuban Sandwiches

May 11, 2016

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. You may be thinking: wait, I thought people in Cuba couldn't leave the island? 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. I decided to pursue a career in graphic design but quickly realized Costa Rica had a low ceiling for that kind of career. So, frustrated by my ability to succeed within my environment, my parents once again dropped everything 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.

Bad Hombre

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. As it turned out, I didn’t have enough high school credits because I arrived in the U.S. half-way through Junior year. 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 practice design. Getting a college degree was the reason my parents left everything behind so skipping college was not an option. 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. Since 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 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.

Horizon of Aspiration

Working in Silicon Valley felt like being an astronaut. Nobody told me that I 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 just outside the realm of what I thought was possible. 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 my comfort zone can lead to unimaginable results.

I remember three specific moments in my life where I was able to look beyond my Horizon of Aspiration:

The first happened during a portfolio review at school. One of my professors looked at my work and said: your work looks good, but you must stop comparing yourself to other students and start comparing yourself to people outside school. That was huge for me. Just by saying that, he broadened my playing field and gave me license to play in the big leagues. 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 gave me permission to look beyond the walls of my college.

The second moment was when I moved to San Francisco to lead design for Automatic. 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  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 but I decided to take the leap anyway and give it a try. The following year was one of the hardest, most rewarding ones 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. Our product was well received when we launched and it even Kevin Rose reached out to congratulate me on a job well done — It was quite a surreal experience.

Speaking at Gasparilla Interactive Conference

The third breakthrough moment happened when 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 about how I got into Silicon Valley with them used to sound 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 a Facebook recruiter by a designer who then reached out to me and got me in the door for a conversation. Many of my coworkers have similar stories: somebody at the company 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.

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.

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.

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