This is an unusually lengthy essay, because the issue is so complex and nuanced that it deserves an appropriate level of patience and attention. It includes my deeply honest, personal, and some would say risky perspective on the topic of diversity in high-performance careers, including tech entrepreneurship; and my concern that the decision by some to “weaponize” diversity is backfiring and causing harm to under-represented minority groups.
I grew up in a very “colorful” part of Northside Houston, with neighbors and schoolmates who were usually a mix of latino (immigrants and 2nd generation), black, asian and white; and a general socioeconomic range hovering between welfare, blue collar, and sort-of-middle class. My parents (Mexican immigrants) started a produce business selling avocados and tomatoes out of a pickup truck, that eventually grew but then unfortunately imploded. By the time I was sending off college applications, my two sisters and I were supported by our single mother who sold perfumes at an indoor flea market. I ended up attending the University of Texas and Harvard Law School. Today, with three healthy kids, happily married over a decade and a successful legal practice/leadership position at an elite boutique law firm, my cozy “1%” life definitely does not suck.
But this isn’t your classic “American Dream” “Rags to Riches” “look at how awesome I am for everything I’ve overcome on my own” story. There’s a key twist, and that twist has given me a unique perspective on issues of socioeconomic inequality, diversity, and also mental health. My mother, despite ending up in a struggling, unstable situation, was actually a top computer science graduate of the most elite technology university in Mexico; the Tecnologico de Monterrey. Basically the MIT of Mexico. And her family pedigree includes a nationally celebrated Mexican artist and a biological (but estranged) father considered one of the top Medical doctors and Medical School professors in his field.
How did my mom go from an MIT-equivalent grad with a strong family background to selling perfumes at a flea market as a single mom hovering preciously close to Medicaid-level poverty? This isn’t my autobiography, so I’ll cut that part of the story short and summarize: mental illness. Many people fail to appreciate how success is just as much about emotional intelligence/stability as it is about intellectual/analytical capacity, and the formula for producing the former is often far more complex/nuanced than what’s necessary for the latter.
I mentioned these details about my mother because they are historical elements that keep me, if I’m honest, from painting for you a perfect “picked myself up by nothing but my bootstraps” story. My mother’s emphasis on academics and her love of computers – which she made every effort to expose me to, within her limited means – were key strategic assets in my childhood that differentiated me from my peer group, and undoubtedly propelled me forward. The truth is the vast majority of people who give you these “rags to riches” stories can, if they’re sincere enough, come up with their own kinds of privilege that they depended on growing up. If anything, simply being born “gifted” (to use a very broad but frequently used term) is itself an unearned privilege reserved for a lucky few who often like to conveniently overlook their luck.
Yes, we were poor latinos living in a low-income area and a broken home, speaking a blend of spanish and english and having our fair share of tamales, frijoles, barbacoa, etc. etc… but as it related to school, my “home culture” was different. I studied. Hard. With a level of discipline that got me labeled as “acting white” (by other latinos) more than enough times. There was even a special term for it: “coconut.” Brown on the outside, white on the inside.