Private Equity is an exclusive, highly competitive and elite space within finance. It’s also very white and very male. Each year, hundreds of elite investment bankers and MBA grads from top schools try to break into PE to make upwards of $500K annually, and that’s without bonuses or carried interest.
Tiffany Luna, a Mexican-American daughter of immigrants who grew up in the South side of Chicago, was an unlikely candidate to break into private equity and become a principal by the age of 30, but that’s exactly what she did – in a very nontraditional way. On this episode, Tiffany doesn’t hold back on what it took to break into – and succeed in this space.
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Tiffany: I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Today’s episode is pure fuego. You don’t want to miss Tiffany Ramirez Luna. She is my college acquaintance from Wellesley and broke into private equity in a very non-traditional way. She didn’t do it going through the investment banking route that most people do. She actually did it on her own. Pre having an MBA and now she has an MBA from Northwestern Kellogg. This episode is a little longer than my normal ones, but it’s because as I was editing, I just could not get myself to cut out some of this juiciness. We talk about imposter syndrome, working in a male-dominated environment, the hidden rules of working in elite spaces, and how she’s dealt with some major BS to get to where she is today as a private equity principal in Chicago.
Priscilla: Hey, Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Tiffany: Thank you so much Pricilla, I really appreciate you having me here today.
Priscilla: Of course. So Tiffany, we’re here to talk about your really exciting career path in private equity. You and I crossed paths at Wellesley College many years ago, and it’s been so cool to see your success in the private equity finance world. You got your MBA at Northwestern and you’ve just been killing it, so really excited to dive in. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about how you grew up in Chicago?
Tiffany: Yeah, of course. So I am a first-generation Mexican-American. I was born and raised in the South side of Chicago. And as you mentioned, I went to school at Wellesley with you and then came back to Chicago right after, pretty shortly after starting my career up in private equity. And I got there through a really unique path that I actually want to talk about it. It started in high school. So I went to high school in South side of Chicago at a school called Cristo Rey. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but pretty Cristo Rey has a program where students can work, not can, they all work actually at a corporate position one day out of the week and use that to pay for their tuition. And so when I was in high school, I worked in private equity. I worked at a private equity firm here in Chicago and that’s how I got my start. Now, back when I was doing that, I was obviously 15, 16, 17. I was there for four years. I was really young, not doing any type of private equity type work at all, but it really was my first exposure to it and I’d say how I got started down the private equity path.
Priscilla: Yeah, like it planted a little seed for you.
Tiffany: It did. And what’s interesting, it did it in two ways. First when I was there, I had a really rough time because the environment was so different from everything that I had experienced growing up. I’d say that growing up, I was relatively sheltered in terms of my exposure to different types of people. I lived in a Mexican neighborhood. I went to a Mexican school. All the students were Mexican or like 99% of them were Mexican. My grammar school, my high school was the same way. So I didn’t have as much exposure to different types of people and different ideas until I started working. And when I started working, it was a culture shock, I’d say, because I, all of a sudden, got access to all these different types of people that had all these different types of backgrounds and this field, private equity, that is almost exclusive in a way, but it was a good way to start getting an idea of how things worked, and that’s where it started.
Priscilla: Yeah, I can totally imagine how intimidating it would be to be a teenage Mexican-American girl from Chicago at a private equity firm. It just sounds like a totally different world. But yeah, so you went to Wellesley. I know you were an international relations history major, and obviously you did not pursue anything in that world. So how did you end up landing in private equity after college?
Tiffany: Yeah. So right after graduation, it was so tough. I remember applying to so many different places and not getting jobs. And my loans were looming and I thought I have to find something. And I want to be picky but I don’t want to be too picky because I want to be able to pay this stuff back at the same time and not be in debt. So right out of school, what I did is I did a couple different positions, one was more hedge fund oriented and it was temporary. And I knew it was temporary leading to a potential of the long-term full-time position but I didn’t like it. And so I thought, “Okay, this is the first one. I won’t get sad if I go onto something else.” So then I moved on to a more of a consulting role, which I did not like very much for myself. The pace was a little bit off for me. So I kept trying to look for PE positions and I couldn’t find anything just because most PE firms, when they’re hiring for their junior base, for their analysts or their associates, they’re looking for people that have investment banking experience. That’s just the way it is. It’s a very traditional route that most people take to get into PE. So I wasn’t having any luck, but I had all these great connections that kept hooking me up to different people and different networks. And so I thought, “Okay, there has to be something here for me.” And so through some of that networking, someone mentioned to me about a position at the firm where I’m at currently. And the interesting thing is when I applied to that job, the person who is now my boss said, “I would love to have you and I would love to hire you as a junior person. But because we’re not a dedicated PE firm, we’re like a smaller group within this asset manager is we grow as our allocations grow. So we can’t hire you right now but I want to keep you on board.” So I was like, “Okay, well, how are we going to make that happen?” And here’s the interesting thing. So he offered me a position as their admin. And I was like, “No, I did not go to Wellesley, I did not go through all this stuff to be an admin.”
Priscilla: Yeah. I feel like that would be super triggering and messed up if I was interviewing somewhere after college with a college degree and they were like, “You can be my admin,” right?
Tiffany: I agree, Priscilla, it totally is. I was like, “Are you serious? Is this what we’re going to do?” I kept applying to different places and I kept talking to people that were mentoring me and I feel like something interesting happened. So one, I felt like I started getting a little bit more desperate because it was, again, the loans and all my bills and everything was coming up and I thought, “I have to pay for this stuff.” And the other thing that happened is I had another conversation in a follow-up with my current boss and he said, “What would you like to do? What can we do to bring you on board?” And I said, “Look, I’m going to go get my MBA. I am going to be successful in finance. This is my plan.” I was like, “I have a plan.” I was like, “I can’t come in and not know that I don’t have a potential position.” And so we made an agreement. He said, “If you work for me as our admin for two years, I will let you work for us like you’re our analyst. You will do everything. You will sit on every meeting. You will talk to the attorneys, to management teams. You will have access to everything that everyone on a deal team does. You can run an entire deal with the deal team, but I need you to answer phones and book flights too.” And I took it and I was like, it killed me, Priscilla, it really killed me. At first I was ashamed that I did it and I was like, “But they’re offering me this option.” And I thought, “And if it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave.” I kept saying, “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave,” and it happened. The way my boss, to his credit, exactly how he promised, I did two years and then we brought in someone else and they put me through business school. And now, I mean, I’m a principal now. I’ve worked on deals since day one. I looked, I learned everything from them. I learned how to do the modeling, everything I would have done in banking I did with them, but as an admin. And I got other roles, like I got promoted to analyst before becoming a principal. But it was the toughest thing to do because I had to eat my own ego, swallow it. But at the same time, I don’t know that I would have been able to get in if I hadn’t done it because I didn’t do investment banking.
Priscilla: Because that is the traditional role, right? Like, you have to do your two years and then they start recruiting you from either PE or hedge funds, right?
Priscilla: Yeah. It’s amazing that you were able to do that.
Tiffany: Yeah, that is exactly the traditional route to do. And even then, it’s very difficult because here in Chicago, and this is like many other cities too, there’s only a select number of PE firms. There’s a lot more in New York. There’s a lot more in the coasts but here in Chicago, there’s only a certain number. So there’s a lot of students who are coming out and even out of business schools with some type of experience, and they’re all competing for these same roles, and it’s just, it’s extremely competitive, extremely competitive. So what you end up doing is you end up getting a huge base of people that are applying to these jobs, and then it just comes down to the small details. Everyone starts being top of their class, full-rounded people, everyone’s excellent at everything. And so it’s okay, who knows someone that knows someone? And a lot of times that’s how people end up getting hired, because everyone is so excellent at what they do. Do you know what I mean? So it it’s just extremely difficult. And that’s how you ended up getting a lot of the same type of people working in PE, because people look for people that look like them. And so that’s my background. That’s how I got in.
And when I went to business school, I mentioned at the beginning of business school, people would ask, people who were interested in getting in private equity, and they were very bothered by it. They were very bothered that I slipped through the cracks or I got in through the back door. And I’d say that in the beginning, I felt really bad about myself thinking, “Hey, this is not the right way to do it like I did.” I got this imposter syndrome feeling, where I didn’t earn this, I didn’t do it the way I should have. But honestly, by the time business school was over, oh, that was gone. I ended up realizing that there were people that I had worked with at school who had gone the investment banking route and didn’t have the experience or the knowledge of certain things that I’d already been exposed to, that I was already doing even though I had been an admin. So I credit that to my department, to my company, and to my coworkers who honestly said, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to bring you in,” and did it for me the entire time. And they continued to do that for me.
Priscilla: Well, that’s good on them, but definitely I’m sure that was scary and risky for you to trust them and hope that it would work out, right? And now you’ve been there for nearly nine years. Is that right?
Tiffany: Yeah, it’ll be 10 years in May, so I’ve been there for a while. And I thought about it a lot early on, where I thought maybe it’s not true, maybe they’re not going to help me get through or it’s false promises and it’s not something. But I didn’t want to risk it and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to work my ass off.” And I worked my ass off really hard to get where I am, and I learned everything I could, and I try to absorb all the information that they were throwing at me. And I’m glad I did, I’m glad I did. I’m glad that I had that time. Now I feel in a great position, every time we get anyone who’s coming in new, who doesn’t understand, who needs guidance, I like to be the first one to step out and help them just because I understand what it is to be in a position of not knowing what’s ahead in PE.
Priscilla: Kind of like you mentioned earlier, PE is a very elite industry. It’s an elite space. A lot of people don’t know what it is. So how do you explain to their family members what private equity work entails?
Tiffany: I explain it to my family and my extended family as house flipping. That’s the easiest way to explain it because I was like, “Look guys, we buy companies with pools of money that people,” I was like, “If you guys give me a bunch of money and I buy a house and then I flip it, and I give you proceeds.” I was like, “That’s what we’re doing. It’s a large pool of money from people coming in. We’re buying a company that we think has good potential or is in distress position and we could turn around or different scenarios, we try to clean them up, fix them up and sell them. And the idea is that when we sell them, they’re better companies than they were when we purchased them.” So on a large scale, that’s how I explained it to my family as house flipping, and it seems to be a good explanation for them. So it’s an easy way for them to understand, I think.
Priscilla: When you started in this world, it’s not like you had a BBA, right, like a bachelors in business. You had to probably fill in a lot of learning gaps for yourself. So how did you end up ramping up and learning what you needed to do to do the work?
Tiffany: When I first started, like you mentioned, my background was in international relations. I’ve taken some econ courses or required courses but no finance courses. So what I did was while I was working full-time, I took nighttime courses in accounting, in finance, in modeling. So I was supplementing what I was learning in real-time with some of those courses in some of the local schools here in Chicago. I did classes at Northwestern. They were continuing studies program for students that already have gotten their bachelors, who want to take college level or higher, depending on which courses you were taking courses in. And that’s how I did accounting and finance.
Priscilla: Got it. And so did they help you pay for that or were you just, “I’m just going to pay for this”?
Tiffany: Nope, they helped me pay for it. I told them, I was like, “Guys,” I was like, “if I’m going to do this, I need to understand what it is that we’re doing.” And they work a hundred percent for it. I think that’s rare. I don’t think that there’s a lot of companies nowadays that do stuff like that, but they were able to help me through whatever courses I needed and I would just pitch it. I would say, “Hey, there’s this class. I think it’s really good. I think it would benefit me.” I’d write up the value that I thought it would bring. And then if they thought that it was something that I could benefit from, they’d approve it. And ultimately that’s how I was able to get through some of those courses early on, which I think actually helped me. So by the time I was applying to business school for the MBA, it was really beneficial and really good to reinforce even to the business school, “Hey, this is something I’m really dedicated to. I’ve been dedicated to this for a couple of years. I took these courses, some at your business school.” So it was also helpful there in that aspect, but that’s one way that I started learning more of the technical side.
I think the other side is really just talking to people and finding mentors internally, who have experience in PE, who’ve done it for a couple of years. And one of my colleagues, who really is a mentor and has been a mentor for a couple of years for me, I’d say he’s the one that really took me in early on when I had so many questions about a lot more detailed things that we were doing on a day-to-day basis with deals. So that would be my recommendation is maybe look for ways to add to your education where you’re missing gaps and also find people who can give you the reality of it, right? Because in the classroom, you tend to learn the academic way to do things but it’s not always the way that things work in reality. I’ve taken classes even at the business school level that this is the way things should do and we should calculate valuations or do this XYZ method, and in real life, that’s not how it’s done. And it may or may not be the correct way but it’s not done the way they do it in business school. So getting someone who can walk you through the reality of it too is very helpful.
Priscilla: And why do you think that PE firms do only recruit from ibankers? Is there a real reason for that? Or do you think it’s just like an antiquated system and pipeline?
Tiffany: I have a theory for that. I think it’s two main reasons. One, I think they don’t have the time to train people. They don’t want to have to sit there and wait for people to have everything explained to them, to get these rotation programs or anything going on. Some do but it’s very rare. It’s easier for larger PE firms to just have people filtered in and taught through investment banking. The other reason I think is because it actually helps filter people. I think it filters people because investment banking is a grind. It’s a lot of work and you work long hours and that’s an expectation for when you get to private equity. And so if you can’t handle it, when you’re doing it through investment banking, it almost weeds people out. And I think it helps get a better pool of candidates that are used to the workload to get rid of the people who just don’t have what it takes to get that kind of work schedule and work-life balance working for them.
Priscilla: So I think people know that there’s a lot of money that can be made in private equity and that’s what makes it such a highly coveted and very elite space to get into. Has that been your experience? Would you agree with that?
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Tiffany: Yeah, I mean, I don’t disagree. PE definitely does offer a lot of people in terms of salary. There’s three different types of ways to incentivize like an employee, there’s that base salary, then there’s also the bonus pools. So your bonus pool would be a certain percentage of your salary, anywhere between 20%, 50% up to 50% or more. So you can have that on top of it based on performance. And then there’s that third aspect, which I think is actually probably one of the biggest factors that get people interested is carry, and carry offers people who are getting into private equity, maybe not the analysts and associates, usually it’s more senior people. It gives them the ability to invest certain percentage of their own money and that percentage is allocated to them from the top. So the bosses, whoever’s in charge, they’ll get a certain percentage that they are to invest alongside the investor base. So you’re investing your own money in these deals and it’s supposed to incentivize you, because you have skin in the game. So depending on how well that company does, once you exit the transaction, I mean, the return on the deal is the return you’re getting on your invested portion. So you’re locking up money for a while, depending on how long you hold a company for. But in the long run, it gives you a great opportunity if you have deals that generate pretty big multiples at exit. So people love it but at the same time, I’m going to tell you, people work hard for it. It’s hard hours. You’re working all the time. You have so much invested that you really can’t afford for it to fail.
Priscilla: Yeah. And what has it been like being a Latina in private equity when there’s so few of you, if any, right? What is that like, how do you deal with the imposter syndrome that has maybe come up for you?
Tiffany: Yeah. I have had some very interesting experiences. It’s been really hard, to be honest. I feel like my team and my group has been really kind and really helpful to the extent that they can in guiding me and helping me to meet new people. And the different people that I meet, whether they be management teams, CEOs, CFOs, or maybe either lawyers, attorneys that we work with or whatever, consultants, whoever it is that we’re meeting, different people tend to react very differently to me. When I go to a board meeting or I walk into a boardroom where I’ve never met the people before, I tend to get stares. I think most people think, “Oh, she must be confused, she must not know where she is,” because they seem very confused by me being there.
I’ve had some really nasty experiences that have left me bad taste in my mouth. I’ll give you an example. It was the first time we’re meeting a management team for a company that we were looking to potentially acquire. We flew over to New York. I went with two other colleagues and we’re all in suits. It’s a suit meeting and we’re walking into the conference room. It’s supposed to be about 20 people or so in the conference room. And I’ve one colleague in front of me, one colleague behind me, and the management team is lined up shaking everyone’s hand as we walk in. And so as I’m walking in and I started shaking everyone’s hand saying hello, introducing myself, and we’re all walking in the line. And one of the people from the C-suite shakes my colleague’s hand in front of me, and then goes over my head and then shakes my colleague’s hand behind me, and completely skips me, just literally what right over my head and did not even shake my hand. And I get stuff like that more often than you would believe. I get people who come to meetings and, I don’t know, don’t realize that I’m part of the group. I really don’t know what excuses they can come up with. But stuff like that happens so much more than you would believe it to happen. And it’s really sad and it’s been really hard to deal with because it’s hard enough with that imposter syndrome to make yourself believe that you belong there. And then when you have other people doing stuff like that, it really adds to it.
But over the years, I’d say my skin has gotten so much thicker and I’ve become a lot more in-your-face when people do stuff like that to me. And so like in that example, I stayed right in front of them. The person who didn’t shake my hand, the line stopped moving because I stopped moving and everyone kept — and he looks at me and I stuck my hand right under his nose and then he goes, “Oh, hi,” and introduces himself. But it takes stuff like that to get them to realize, “Hey, I’m in the room. I’m also part of this team. I’m not here to clean the table or do stuff like this.” I think it’s been interesting to see how some people react so well to me, other people don’t, it’s just a mixed bag. It’s not always the people you would expect but I guess, one, getting a thick skin has helped me and honestly, two, sometimes getting the support of colleagues when they notice it. Cause we’ve had a conversations now internally with our group after some of the experiences that I’ve had, where they’re now being a lot more aware as to what’s happening when people interact with me versus how they interact with them.
Priscilla: That is so challenging. That feels, I mean, not only is your job so demanding physically, intellectually, your time, but to have that on top of everything, to feel invisible in the room, it’s just such a terrible feeling.
Tiffany: Yeah. And one of the reasons that I really wanted to get my MBA is to say, “I want to continue to level out the playing field.” I don’t want anyone to have an excuse to say she did not come prepared. She is not as prepared as some of our own or doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to, but it is, that’s just the reality of it. It’s the only way that I can manage to sometimes get a word in or get someone to give me attention. Now, the interesting thing is I’ve had friends that I’ve made in the same industry who are Latinos, who are men and they don’t have as much of a tough time. Now, I don’t know if that’s everyone, but the few friends that I have who are Latinos in PE who are men don’t seem to have the same experience. And it’s so frustrating to me.
Priscilla: Yeah. So it’s funny you say that because I was literally just thinking that. I was thinking, “I bet it’s so hard as women of color to compartmentalize those identities because we’re just all of that all of the time,” right? But I think in finance, like we talked about a little earlier, it is so male-dominated and it’s shocking to have a woman principal period in the room who knows what she’s talking about, who could command the room. And so they’re able to look past, and I say look past intentionally, like your race, if you’re a man.
Tiffany: Yeah. And I’ve had to do other things to adapt. I had to golf when I was at Wellesley. And I took it for fun but then when I started working where I’m at now, I thought, “Oh, this is going to come in handy.” And a lot of my colleagues make and develop relationships through golf. And so I thought, “No, hell no, I’m not saying behind. I need to keep up. I’m not going to have the excuse that I didn’t make contacts or connection because I don’t golf.” So I took up golf lessons and I bought golf clubs and I took lessons. And now if the invitation goes out, I have a conversation again with my colleagues telling them, “Hey, it’s unfair. I’m not developing relationships because you guys are golfing and I’m not getting an invite.” And so they make sure to speak up for me now if anyone invites them and say, “Hey, Tiffany golfs too. She should come.” But the things we have to go through just to get in there and be part of the same conversations, it’s annoying and it’s very difficult.”
Priscilla: Yeah. Playing golf to fit in and not miss out on any critical conversations that can advance your career. It’s crazy that as women, we have to be thinking about those things, especially if we’re working in male-dominated spaces. So what were other things that maybe you have done or situations that you’ve been in, where you’ve had to really think about what are the hidden rules of this elite space?
Tiffany: In the beginning, I remember we’d go to annual meetings and we’d be sitting at dinner and they always seat you with a variety of people so you don’t just sit with your colleagues, et cetera. And I remember hearing conversations between the people at the table, “We’re going skiing to over here. Oh, my children play lacrosse and this and that.” And here, I kept thinking like, “Here I am, this tiny little Latina from the South side of Chicago.” I’m like, “I played basketball. That’s the only thing I could talk to you about.” But being able to have those conversations about topics that you know nothing about, it’s tricky. And I think that learning how to maybe guide the conversation towards other areas where you can participate, that’s what becomes a little bit more helpful. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do over the last few years, where once people start talking about things that I have no experience and I have nothing to be able to relay, I try to get that conversation somewhere else and ask different questions that lead people towards things that I do know something about or that I do have experienced, just so that they won’t exclude me from that conversation.
Priscilla: Yup. And have you had to mute different parts of yourself or code switch at work in order to really be successful?
Tiffany: Yes, yes, every time. I think it tends to be a very conservative space and a very traditional space. And PE has this thing where cultural fit is big. And if there’s something about you that doesn’t fit, then that’s a point against you. That’s a reason not to hire you. That’s a reason not to get you because you’re not a cultural fit. So what you end up doing is you end up hiding a lot about your life or about where you’re from or what you believe in if you are different because you don’t want to risk being flagged as the person that’s a bad cultural fit. And PE, there’s no fear of letting people go who are not cultural fits, that’s common. And if you’re a junior person and I feel like you start exposing yourself, then you’ll be cut out. And it stinks because why would you want everyone to be exactly the same? The companies we buy sell products to people that are so different. You want variety, and they want variety at some level, some opinion of it, but if you’re cutting it out from the bottom when you’re getting analysts and associates come in, I just don’t know how that’s going to change. But yeah, I’d say it’s something that I’ve curved a lot in the beginning. I think now that I’m moving up, I’m trying to curve it a lot less and be a lot more vocal just because I feel more secure in my position, and I feel like I can say things without the fear of all they’ll realize that no, I’m problematic or they don’t want me here and will just say, “Sorry, you’re not a good fit.”
Priscilla: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of D&I work that has to be done in finance, for sure. So my next and last question for you, what is your recommendation for people who want to get into private equity? Maybe it’s through the more traditional iBanking MBA path, but what’s your general advice about breaking into this industry?
Tiffany: Yeah. I’d say it’s a couple things. One, prepare yourself as much as you can. Try to get to business school, try to get through places that have — if you’re doing the investment banking route, try to go through the big names, that’ll make it easier to get into. And then the other thing I’d say is if you’re choosing to go in through a non-traditional route, it is possible, definitely is possible. I got there and not just myself. I didn’t mention this earlier but every one of my colleagues, none of us went through investment banking. There’s 10 of us and all of us came from non-traditional routes. Some did consulting, some were auditors. Others, for example, a close colleague of mine, he came in as a lawyer for PE and he was hired from the lawyer from our legal side, sent to business school, and then continued working for us. So he went in through the legal aspect of it. And then another person came in through operations. So he actually worked at a company, worked in the operations team, learned about the companies from the inside and then joined PE. And that was super beneficial and I think it’s something that maybe coming a little bit more common now, just because a lot of PE firms want to be able to hire people who actually have experienced working a company. You can manage a company a lot better if you’ve worked in one, if you’ve known how it functions. So I think that’s also — you can make really strong point and be able to get into PE through that method especially, for example, if you have experienced in, let’s say, healthcare, strong experience in healthcare and you’re looking at a PE firm who’s focused in healthcare, then you’re a strong asset for them. So, looking at different ways, that’s helpful. And then the only other route that I would suggest too, just to wrap this up is, you don’t always have to end up at the big PE firms. There are asset managers, there are family offices, there are endowments, pension funds. There’s so many different types of firms that you can go to that have a PE wing to them. And you can start there and then work your way up and transfer over to the large PE firm, if ultimately that’s where you want to end up.
Priscilla: Amazing advice. Thank you, Tiffany, for being with us today and letting us hear your story and allowing yourself to be so vulnerable, opening up about the hardships involved. So thank you.
Tiffany: Yeah, no, of course it’s tough but it’s really rewarding. And if people can get a little bit more exposure to it and really understand it, then I think it’s something that more people would be willing to try. But thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
As a Latina daughter of immigrants who’s had to figure out my early career years on my own, there’s been plenty of times that I’ve wondered a) how to do something, and b) if I really have what it takes to succeed and do something for the first time (in my family). Over time I’ve built a strong muscle of resilience and I’m now pretty used to that beginner feeling, but every now and then I’ll get a flash of imposter syndrome. On this episode, I share my top 5 strategies for battling imposter syndrome, all based on neuroscience. I hope they help you when you’re battling your own moments of self-doubt or insecurity. Below, find the free FULL 10-STRATEGY PDF with my best strategies to combat imposter syndrome.
Oh, and don’t forget to join my newsletter community where I provide episode updates and resources for BIPOC young professionals figuring out their career moves!
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Gallup Strengths Finders Test
Mindset by Carol Dweck
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: When I doubt myself, when I have a hard day at work or I encounter a challenge that I don’t know how to approach or I get scared if I can do something, I think about my grandparents. I think about my parents who were immigrants who came to the us with nothing, the risks that they’ve taken…I think, like, if they could do that, if they could face their worst fears, be subject to incredible hostility, take risks, figure things out on their own with such little resources, then I can get through this.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights markable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey there. So, today I’m really excited to be recording my first ever solo episode for the podcast. I promised you that every 10 episodes I’ll be coming on here to talk about a specific topic, something related to the themes that we discuss on the podcast, where we can dive deep into something related to my own career journey, life experiences, or really anything that’s on my mind.
Today’s topic is on imposter syndrome. By now, you’ve probably heard these words, imposter syndrome, ad nauseum. I mean, they come up all the time, especially on the interviews on the podcast, but just in case you haven’t heard of this term or need a refresher, imposter syndrome refers to a constant feeling of self-doubt, insecurity and incompetence despite evidence that you’re skilled and you’re successful. It’s the fear that you’re going to be “found out” for being an imposter and then fired or something. This feeling can affect anyone, but it hits particularly hard if you’re a woman or identify as a person of color, and can you really blame us when we live in a world where there’s so few of us in positions of power or even just in the room on the team with us?
So, on this episode, I’m going to share five strategies that have worked for me to battle imposter syndrome, and if you want to learn about the other five that I’ve written about, head over to my website, ECMpodcast.com to download the full PDF and also become part of our newsletter community.
Okay, let’s dive in. So, number one, make a greatest hits list, so I love this one because it directly addresses what psychologists call the negativity bias that we have as humans. So, as humans, we tend to remember traumatic experiences better than positive ones. We recall insults better than praise, we react more strongly to negative stimuli, and we think about negative things much more frequently than positive ones.
So, tell me if this has happened to you, you might be having a really great morning and day at work, you might even be getting some compliments or some shout-outs, you’re feeling good, but then suddenly someone, maybe a manager, a coworker, or even a friend makes an offhand comment to you that you find irritating and you take it personal. Suddenly, you can’t get that thought out of your head, and then later at night, let’s say someone asks you, you know, “How was your day?” You reply that it was terrible, even though overall it was actually a good day, but that one negative incident totally tainted the day for you.
Has that ever happened to you? Have you ever let one person’s negative comment just stew in your brain over and over again and you ignore the 10 other positive things that went well during the day? So, yeah, that’s literally your brain doing its job. This is how the brain kept us safe in the hunter and gatherer days. Even though we’ve evolved, this primitive part of our brain still exists and it still registers events as life or death, and that’s why it seems to always be scanning for danger and for what’s going on negatively but if we don’t control this, it can go a little too far and interpret all kinds of mundane things as life or death. So, part of what we have to do is use our prefrontal cortex, basically like the human part of the brain, to rein it in, take a step back, and recognize what’s really happening.
So, to address negativity bias, we need to be really intentional about focusing on what’s going right and focusing on the good and that’s where the strategy comes into play. So, all it is is grab a sheet of paper or just type it onto your notes app, you know, list out every single accomplishment that you’re really proud of that’s taken place in your life. Literally try to go through all of the years of your life and don’t just think about the traditional milestones like graduating from college, because you’re not just your resume, you’re not your academic professional accomplishments. There’s so much more to you and to who you are. So, you even want to think through what are the things that may be. Nobody really knows about me, right? Like what are those silent or invisible challenges that you’ve had to overcome on your own? Did you help your parents with raising your siblings? Did you ever have to translate for your parents? You know, have you had to overcome significant trauma? What kind of challenges have you overcome? And when you actually sit down to do this, this actually may be somewhat of an emotional exercise, ifyou let it. One of mine, for example, is being a daughter of immigrants and figuring out the college process by myself, figuring out the FAFSA, writing essays that no one could check for me, right? Like, just doing it alone, asking friends, asking parents of friends, and that’s something, when I look back, I’m just so proud of her, right? I like to refer as my younger self as third person, but I’m proud of her. I’m proud of young Priscilla just figuring it out, you know, and, like, that fills me with pride.
So, write down at least 25 of your greatest hits, leave it somewhere where you can refer to it and see it often, and when you’re having a rough day or doubting yourself, read through the list, remember how much you’ve already accomplished because trust me, your brain needs it.
Okay, the second strategy is about strengths, which is one of my favorite topics. Another way to make the brain focus on the positive is by being super aware of our strengths. If you haven’t yet taken the Gallup Clifton Strengths Assessment online, which I’ll add to the show notes, then you need to do that ASAP. It’s not free. I think I paid around maybe $50, it kind of depends, there’s different kinds of reports that you can get, but I really do think it’s totally worth doing this assessment. So, what this hour-long assessment can do for you is that it tells you your top five natural strengths out of a list of a possible 34, and the 34 strengths are grouped into four major themes, which are strategic, executing, relationships, and influencing. This report helps give you a language and vocabulary to your strengths and figure out where you shine, how you shine, and how these strengths can manifest for you at work. The reason why I think strengths exercises can be so effective to building confidence is that imposter syndrome often has us thinking that we’re either A, good enough or B, not good enough, like there’s some kind of binary, but really, there’s so much nuance. We’re constantly growing and we’re growing on a spectrum. We all have different strengths. That person who you think is “good at everything,” you know who I’m talking about. There’s a few people that, you know, you look at them, you see their LinkedIn and you’re like, Ugh, they’re so amazing, right? Well, even that person has growth areas. Maybe they’re just really good at leveraging their strengths and making sure that they are visible to others, and you want to ask yourself, am I doing the same?
So there’s an opportunity to just figure out, are you using your strengths? Are you bringing them to work? Sometimes, this work helps you realize that you’re in a role that’s asking you to constantly use strengths that are not in your zone of genius, so for example, for me, my strengths are almost entirely relationship and strategic based skills. I’m a people person, I’m future-focused, I love to plan big picture, long-term exciting, you know, plans, right? And that comes naturally to me. That’s my zone of genius. What’s not in my zone of genius is rigorous quantitative analysis, which by the way, was a huge part of business school, um, being super methodical or detail-oriented, and it’s kind of embarrassing to admit this, but I only have one strength in my top five. That’s considered to be an execution skill, which is the strength that people have when they’re really good at getting stuff done. Now, does this mean that I’m never good at executing or I don’t do the things that I say I’m going to do? No, it just means that I have to work a little harder to create systems to make sure that I do fulfill the projects and plans that I get so excited about. In terms of the detail stuff. Does it mean that I automatically get an out and I don’t have to do these detail-oriented tasks at work? Absolutely not, I still need to work hard every day to meet the bar when it comes to being detailed-oriented, but I’m also going to make sure to seek roles and opportunities where generally, I can really shine through my strengths. My strengths help me be successful as a consultant because I work with clients. I’m client-facing, I work with people on teams constantly, and we’re working to achieve very long-term strategic projects and goals, so that’s where I really get to shine, but trust, I can’t get away with not being detail-oriented, right? So, that’s something that I’m always thinking about in my growth and development. It’s helpful to understand your strengths and areas of growth through a report like this because it helps contextualize when you do make a mistake, we don’t need to automatically make it mean that, you know, we’re a failure or we’re an imposter. Instead, you can contextualize the error and understand how it fits into your areas for growth and development plans. It allows you to keep it moving and do better next time, And so I wouldn’t be able to talk about all of these things if I didn’t understand my strengths through this report. So, I definitely recommend you do that.
Okay, third one, remind your brain that you can do hard things by trying something out of your comfort zone regularly. So, back to the brain, your primitive brain does not like it when you try to do something brand new out of your comfort zone. Why? Because your primitive brain is concerned with three things only: one, seeking pleasure, two, avoiding pain, and three, conserving energy, so basically doing one and two with the least possible effort. This is why it’s so much easier to order that pizza, stay in bed and watch Netflix than it is to maybe work on editing your resume or going on a three-mile run. It’s always a battle between the primitive reptilian part of the brain and the prefrontal cortex. Anyway, this is also why we get totally freaked out when we’re asked to do something completely new, especially at work, or when we ponder doing something risky or out of our comfort level, the thing is it’s going to be hard to get better and improve, or see a lot of rewards, whether that’s a promotion salary increase, getting the new flashy job that you want, getting into a top grad program without taking some risk. So, you might as well embrace doing things out of your comfort zone and make it a habit to try new things constantly. There are two ways to do this. One is at work and two is in your personal life. So, the work option, I only recommend for people who have already been at their organization for a while or in their role for awhile and have built up credibility, you’re already meeting or exceeding expectations, and you have the room to try something different. This option involves telling your manager that you’re interested in getting involved with a stretch project. A stretch project is a project on the side of your normal work that will require you to use a skillset that you may not yet have or you’re insecure about, so it’ll make you stretch your skillset a little bi Bonus points, if it’s a development area that you’ve been told that you need to work on, that’s even better, right? So, what happens when you do a stretch project is that you have to become resourceful, you have to ask for help, you have to get a little vulnerable doing that, you have to admit to people that you don’t know something, which is actually a really great skill. You also have to network sometimes and meet new people, which actually helps you, right? You make mistakes, you learn, you grow, right? Like, you realize that the world doesn’t end when you don’t know something or you’re faced with a big challenge, even when your brain is freaking the F out, which it will do because that’s its job, right? You may end up doing a great job and teaching your brain that you can do hard things and that you’re more than capable and have everything within you to succeed.
Now, if you’re not at the stage at work, then do it in your personal life. I really think it’s important to make it a habit to regularly try new things that sort of freak you out in your personal life. I have done this in the past with taking improv classes in the evening after work. Taking improv really freaked me out. It was really awkward, and talk about looking stupid and not knowing what’s happening next on stage with, like, strangers watching you, right? Like, that’s scary or it was scary for me, but I’m actually super grateful that I did that and that I put myself in those uncomfortable, awkward moments because they made me a way stronger public speaker and it also made me a lot more flexible and comfortable when it came to those moments where I didn’t know what was happening next, right? So, we have to provide evidence sometimes to our brain, even if it freaks us out to show ourselves that we’re capable of doing scary things, and what happens is, that seeps into your professional life too. The next time you do something out of your comfort zone, whether that’s taking a standardized test, submitting an application, raising your hand when it comes to a promotion, asking for a promotion, negotiating for a higher pay, whatever that is that freaks you out, you’re going to be a little more comfortable with that risk.
So, what is that thing for you? Start small or go big. I’ve heard stories of people who have gone skydiving and that experience alone and overcoming a major fear changed their life in ways that they couldn’t have imagined by just taking a lot more risks in their lives and seeing lots of positive changes happen, so it’s worth pushing through that fear to see what’s on the other side.
And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Priscilla: Number four. Number four is a little bit related to three and it’s called embrace being a beginner bad-ass. So, this one’s a mindset shift that is inspired by the fixed versus growth mindset concept. If you haven’t read Mindset or listened to Mindset by Carol Dweck by now, I cannot recommend this book enough because for me, it really helped me realize that a lot of my imposter syndrome came from a place of having a fixed mindset and not a growth mindset.
So, embracing being a beginner bad-ass is the opposite of faking it until you make it. I’ve heard many people talk about faking it till you make it as a strategy that they used to overcome imposter syndrome, and there’s just something about this that has always rubbed me the wrong way and just hasn’t really felt right to me, and recently I realized why this was. So, the culture of faking it till you make it is based off of this fixed mindset idea where we either A, know something or are smart or B, don’t know something or are not smart. So, there’s no in between, there’s no acknowledgement that we are capable of learning and growing. Faking it till you make it assumes that you lack something innately and therefore need to pretend to know what you’re talking about in order to achieve a goal, and I do think that a lot of people do do this, but I think it can be very damaging to collaboration and actually, even working more efficiently, but that’s another conversation, lastly, it’s just not authentic, right? Like, literally, you’re faking something you’re lying. So, anyway, instead I want you to consider a different option, which is being a beginner. Bad-ass being a beginner bad-ass means you’re not afraid to tell someone that you don’t know something but that you will figure it out, and sometimes you don’t even have to say straight up, “Hey, I don’t know this.” It just looks like figuring it out. You ask great questions, you pull resources, you work quickly, you’re open to feedback. Being a beginner bad-ass means you understand that subject matter expertise can be learned and it has nothing to do with your value as a team member or a person. First of all, your value comes from you. It has nothing to do with work. You decide that right, but at work, your “value” manifests through those intangible soft skills that propel you forward. So, being humble, collaborative, inquisitive, a strong communicator, a constant learner. I often find that people respect you a whole lot more when you’re upfront about what you know and don’t know, and have a plan in place to figure it out. Like, Marie Forleo says everything is figureoutable, and when we’re honest about where we are, other people can also relax because they know that you’re leveling with them and they can also help you get the help that you need, the resources that you need to be super effective. Of course, I’m not referring to highly technical roles that do require very specific skill sets. I’m not talking about faking knowing how to do brain surgery. That’s not what we’re talking about. I’m talking to all of you who work in roles where your imposter syndrome gets the best of you and is actually holding you back from asking the questions or using your time efficiently to fill in the knowledge gaps needed to be successful. If you want to get ahead and reach your goals, you have to embrace being a beginner and you might as well get comfortable with those growing pains, take the pressure off by thinking that you should already be somewhere by now and just allow yourself to be a beginner, give yourself that grace. To me, that’s freedom and it also clears the way to act efficiently and quickly to actually be successful.
Okay, last strategy, know about your ancestors, be proud and thank them. So, this is my favorite strategy of all time and it’s based on the fact that it’s no accident that black indigenous people of color in the United States and the world have been systematically, disenfranchised and disempowered, and it’s not an accident; it’s been intentional, so the more reading and resource that you can do about your ancestor’s history, the more amazed you’ll become at the incredibly resilient, courageous group of people that you come from, and that’s really important when we’ve grown up in a society where we’ve received so many media messages about everything that’s wrong, deficient about the groups that we come from, and like I mentioned earlier, it’s by design. We have to spend intentional time filling our mental schemas with all of the positive contributions and incredible resilience from our groups that our schools did not teach us about. So, go beyond what you learned in school, look up incredible historical figures that share your ethnic or racial background or gender, watch documentaries, read books, make sure you’re consuming empowering media that is providing positive representations of your people and filling in those history gaps, and this doesn’t actually have to just be about famous historical figures. This can be your actual own family, right? I have a picture of my maternal grandparents on my wall that I look at every day and they remind me of how hard they have fought and how strong they are. Ben, my grandfather was an orphan. He grew up very poor in rural Mexico and had to drop out of elementary school when he became an orphan to support himself and live on his own, and over the years, he worked really hard and as an adult, he actually built his own successful business that still exists today that my uncle runs, and he was able to have five kids, send them all to college, build a house, have several properties and really become a successful businessman through his own merit, and so when I think about his story, I think, you know, he didn’t have the opportunities that I’ve had, but dang, he played the hell out of the cards that he was dealt. And that’s all I want to do, is play the hell out of the cards that I’ve been dealt. I don’t want to worry about the people around me, what their cards look like. I strictly look at mine, I look at my lane and I play the best hand possible. That’s what keeps me going in those moments when I doubt myself, when I have a hard day at work, or I encounter a challenge that I don’t know how to approach or I get scared if I can do something. I think about my grandparents, I think about my parents who were immigrants who came to the US with nothing, the risks that they’ve taken, I thin, like, if they could do that, if they could face their worst fears, be subject to incredible hostility, take risks, figure things out on their own with such little resources, then I can get through this, I can get through the presentation through the project, through this test, whatever it is. So, definitely, take that moment to thank your ancestors. Think about your family, the people that have raised you, the people that I’ve helped you, the people who inspire you draw from that, make sure to draw from that intentionally.
All right, y’all, so that’s where we’ll end for today. I had a lot of fun talking about these strategies. I have five more waiting for you on my Overcoming Imposter Syndrome PDF which is available on my website, ECMpodcast.com. Make sure to grab that and also make sure to follow us on Instagram ECM Podcast is the handle, and definitely let me know. What’s your take on imposter syndrome? How do you handle it? All right, have a great weekend.
On this episode, Lily Trieu, a Houston native and daughter of immigrants from Southeast Asia, tells us how she made a bold career switch from the private sector to the nonprofit education world. After 9 years in the consumer & packaged goods space, Lily enjoyed a healthy six-figure salary, bonus, company car and her parents’ pride – but she just wasn’t happy or excited about moving up in her company. After realizing she wanted out, Lily went on a journey that involved getting an MBA and asking for help to make a big jump into a much more fulfilling career. Lily shares the challenges she encountered- emotionally, psychologically, career-wise, and financially – but also what made her move completely worth it.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Lily: Half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is, you know, my parents also brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, have you ever thought about leaving your private sector high-paying stable career to pursue a more fulfilling and meaningful path in the nonprofit or public sector? Well, that’s exactly what we dive into this week when we hear Lily Trieu’s story, Lily left a nine-year private sector career in the consumer and product goods space to pivot into education and public affairs through the MBA. Today, she’s the Texas Director of Public Affairs at Teach for America, and has finally found what she’s looking for in her career path. On this episode, she talks candidly about how she made the switch as the child of immigrants from Vietnam, how she used the MBA to make this jump, and what she gave up, but also gained in the process.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone, I am so excited to have Lily Trieu on today’s episode. Welcome, Lily.
Lily: Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for having me.
Priscilla: Of course. So today we’re going to dive into Lily’s story of how she pivoted from a career in the private sector into the nonprofit world, and what it was like doing this as a child of immigrants. So why don’t we start with Lily, share a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Lily: Sure, yeah. I’d be remiss to not start off by saying I’m a Houstonian. I grew up in Houston, in Southwest Houston, super diverse community. And I think that community is a large part of what formed my values and my belief systems. I’m a first-generation Asian-American. My parents are actually refugees from Vietnam. So my parents came to the US in the early ’80s. They were that last batch of boat people who came over from Vietnam. So they literally arrived by boat. It took my mom 13 months to get to the US. And so they settled in Chicago and I was actually born in Chicago, but like they always say, they moved to Texas as quickly as they could. And so I spent basically all of my childhood education in Houston, and really grew up in that environment. I then went to UT Austin for my undergrad, and was a double major by accident. I ended up graduating with a marketing degree and a degree in Asian Studies. Loved Austin but after graduating, moved on and started a career in the private sector that allowed for me to move several times across the country. So that’s the gist of my background and the places that I’ve been. But at the end of the day, I really think that my parents’ experience and my identity as the child of immigrants really informs the way I approach life.
Priscilla: Yeah. And what do you think made you gravitate towards applying to the business school and heading in that direction?
Lily: Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great question. Because my parents were refugees, when they came to the US, they did not speak very much English, really none at all. So they were not very well-educated because they grew up in Vietnam during the war. They both had less than a middle school education. So when they came to the US, they didn’t really have a lot of career opportunities, and they decided to go into the convenience store business because they knew people who did that work. So they thought, “Okay, we’ll go. We’ll learn the trade. We’ll save up our money and hopefully become small business owners.” Which they were able to luckily do. So I grew up in a convenience store business. As a kid growing up, I was like, “Oh, I hate business. I hate doing this,” because I had to work there, right, on the weekends and summers and every break. And as a kid, I was like, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it.” So ironically in high school, when I was trying to pick a major and I knew I was going to go to UT, I kept gravitating towards the business school, and I kept gravitating towards the marketing degree even though my entire childhood, I said I didn’t want to do it. So it really just, I think, was really based on the environment I knew, right. I think as a first-generation Asian-American, as the first person in my family to go to college, you gravitate towards what you know. And what I knew was the convenience store business. I knew brands. I knew products. I knew the basic interactions in that business. And so I decided to go into business. So it wasn’t like a deep passion or anything. It was just something that felt natural in the moment. I chose to be a marketing major really by chance. So I didn’t have a clear direction.
I actually remember, my first semester of freshman year, going to an info session that Procter & Gamble hosted for undergrads. And I remember sitting in the room not knowing who this company was, what was going on. And they put up on the projector, this slide with all of their brands and logos. And I remember being 18 and thinking, “Holy crap, they own all of these brands?” And then their next slide, it was like a map of the world, and it showed where all of their global offices were across the country. And I just remember being 18 and thinking that’s amazing, that one company owns all these brands, and that this one company is in all these places in the world. It felt like world domination to my simple 18-year-old mind. And so freshman year, first semester, that’s when I decided I’m going to go into the consumer goods industry. This is super cool. So that’s what I went after.
Priscilla: Yeah. It’s really funny how sometimes these life-altering career decisions are made at such a young age and often off of a whim. And it sounds like that’s sort of what happened to you, but yeah. So what was your first job out of college, and what was it like adjusting to that?
Lily: Oh, gosh, it was horrible for so many reasons. So I joined Kimberly-Clark. I graduated in 2008, which means I joined Kimberly-Clark right at the start of the economic recession. So on the one hand, I was really grateful to have a job and it was a great job. But it forced me to have to move to Wisconsin. And like I said, I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Houston. My parents are from Southeast Asia. I had never been in an environment like Wisconsin before. So like the culture shock, that was real. I grew up in this super diverse part of Houston, super diverse campus. And then I get to Kimberly-Clark in Wisconsin, and I was one of three people of color in my department, and that was hard. It was cold. The job was in supply chain. And as you recalled, I said my major was marketing. And so I knew nothing about this first job in supply chain. And it was just a tough time. The first year, they did layoffs and luckily I wasn’t affected, but it was tough. But I will say it was a fantastic experience in the sense that it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as a young person, you learn how to move away from everyone in life. I learned a whole new trade basically. I had to learn all about supply chain really quickly. You just become really resilient through that experience. And not to mention, honestly, everyone at the company is so kind and I’m still such good friends with so many of those coworkers.
Priscilla: Yeah. So at what point did you start to consider switching over to the nonprofit industry? At what point did that happen for you?
Lily: Yeah, it came out of nowhere. The last couple of years I was at Kimberly-Clark, by then I’d been there six, seven years. I knew everyone and I was really comfortable. My boss actually asked me, “Hey, it’s time for us to start thinking about your next role. What do you want to do next?” They’re great that way. They always push you to grow and to move into new challenges. But I remember sitting there and thinking, “Okay, if I could have any job in this company, what would it be?” Any company, any position, CEO all the way down to mail room, what would I want to do? And I literally could not think of a single thing I wanted to do. So I took that as that’s a bad sign. At the time I was still in my 20s, I think, maybe almost 30. And I was like, “This is not good. If I’m already not motivated and I don’t have anything to aspire to in this company, it’s probably time to make a change.” And so what I really did is I really just started volunteering a lot in my community. I was back in Houston by then. And I was like, you know what, I’m going to go out and I’m just going to try a lot of things. And I just started volunteering with all kinds of nonprofits to figure out what are the things that I genuinely enjoy. And I think by default of volunteering with nonprofits, I started to think, “Hey, stuff over here is pretty cool,” and I actually do have a deep passion for a social impact and mission-driven organizations. And so that just started to make sense for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, I can imagine just how scary that must have felt to be deep into your corporate career, having all that stability, your parents are proud of you, suddenly looking at completely changing courses.
Lily: Oh, it was terrifying. It was terrifying because (a) I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit sector. My assumption was that everyone in the nonprofit sector was broke. Nobody made any money. The second thing was, I was like, oh my gosh, if this is really what I want to do, where do I even begin? I’d had this career slinging consumer products to major retailers. How do you even transfer that experience into something in the nonprofit sector? And in the beginning, it really felt like a far-fetched goal to make that kind of a switch. And I really didn’t know what that would look like.
Priscilla: Totally. And I’m assuming a lot of your friends were in the private sector, right?
Lily: — friends from private sector. And I think that’s one of the things about my network and my group of friends and my tribe is the vast majority of us are children of immigrants, and we’re mostly first, second generation. And so we all live this pressure of there’s a very unique definition of success, that you need to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. Nonprofit doesn’t make that list. So because of that, my circle of friends, very few of them did this kind of work. And so, again, I had to just go and knock on doors of people I would meet when I was volunteering. It’d be like, “Hey, what do you think of this? What do you know? Can you help me?” So it’s just a lot of asking for help.
Priscilla: And did you get a lot of pushback from your parents when you told them that you wanted to make this switch?
Lily: I don’t think I even told them initially. I think initially, I was just like, I don’t like what I do. I want to make a change. And I think the first thing I actually told them was, “I think I’m going back to grad school.” I did not lead the conversation with I want to quit my job to go and do nonprofit work. Because by then I was making, honestly, a really comfortable six-figure salary. I was getting a nice bonus every year. I had a company car. My parents thought I was living the dream. I was living their dream. So the idea of letting all that go and giving up this life I’d built, this life that they had dreamt for me when they came to the United States, I just knew I couldn’t go to them with that until I had a firm idea of what that would look like, because I think that would have been terrifying for them. I think half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is my parents also came here and brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives. And so that’s just a delicate balance. And so for me, it was like, okay, I’m 29, 30 years old. I can do this for another 30, 40 years but I’ll probably be miserable. So how do I make a change that won’t feel so traumatic for them, but that will really bring me a more fulfilling and just a more rewarding career?
Priscilla: This life decision brought you to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. Tell us about how that MBA helped you make the transition.
Lily: Yeah, business school was pivotal. I think being a full-time MBA, you really get to spend two years just focusing on yourself, right. And you get to determine how to use every second of your time. Because before, I was volunteering, but I still had a nine to five. I had to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week still. So this whole finding myself process, you really couldn’t do except for the weekends and evenings. Business school allows you to really dig deep. I think the other thing about business school is it’s also just the exposure to the people that you’re around. And so I got to meet obviously folks like you, who bring a lot of experience and a lot of experience that I don’t have. And that gives me perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It also gives you an excuse to, again, I guess you’ll hear this theme a lot, to knock on people’s door and be like, “Help me. I’m a student. Answer my questions.” So I think all of those were things that really just made business school a good opportunity to just figure out what did I want to do.
Priscilla: Yeah. And in the end you decided to transition into education specifically. So how did you use your time and your degree to transition into education?
Lily: Honestly, that was the hardest part. So when you’re a student, people are willing to bring you on to do projects for them because it’s short-term, and you’re probably not getting paid very much. And in this industry, if you’re getting paid at all. And so in the two years of business school, a lot of people said yes to me because I was a graduate student from a top tier school. And so everyone was like, “Yeah, come do this project, do this work.” But when it was time to graduate and to find a full-time job, it was difficult because (a) I’m still new. I have two years of experience, but two years of part-time experience. So I’m still not really a professional in the space. I’m still pretty new and green. The second thing is I knew a lot more than when I did when I started, but when I graduated, there was still so much I didn’t know. So people would ask me about what is it exactly you want to do in education? And it’s sometimes hard to be able to verbalize this is exactly what I want to do, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so I would give really general answers, “Oh, I just want to do something at the intersection of policy and strategy.” And people were like, “That doesn’t mean anything. What do you actually want to do?” So it was hard. And then the last thing is you’re competing against a lot of people in the space that have other degrees. I was literally interviewing with candidates who have PhDs in education policy. And here I’m like, yeah, I worked at KIPP DC for three months. Yeah, she has a whole dissertation on that topic, but I have three months experience. So that was hard. It was really a struggle. And there were definitely moments where I was like, oh my gosh, I might not be able to find a job in education after all of this work.
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Priscilla: Yeah, which is really scary after such a significant investment. So you and I are very much the opposite. I went into business school from education nonprofit, transitioned into private sector. You were doing the opposite of that. When you were interviewing for jobs, do you feel like your corporate background really helped you in your interviews? I personally always felt like private sector folks were very much highly valued within education.
Lily: It definitely helped. It helped in that in every interview, I was probably always the most prepared candidate. I was always the most data-driven candidate. I was always the one that thought about things in frameworks and in terms of strategic mindset. So I think employers always really loved that. The thing was though, at the end of the day, I was always lacking that in-depth experience. Having all of those great business skills is still hard to compensate when you’re interviewing against someone who’s been a teacher or a teacher coach for 10 years. They’re just going to more intimately understand the problems and the struggles that we have in the system better than I will. And so for me, it was like, you literally have to find someone who not only values your private sector skills. Because I totally agree with you, people really do value those private sector skills and those skills will really take you a long way, but you also need someone who’s willing to take a chance on you. And my experience has been in order to get that, you have to show folks that you are so willing to learn and you’re so willing to work your way up. Because while folks really value private sector skills, they also worry, are you going to be someone who’s willing to learn the system from the bottom up? Are you just going to come over and expect this well-paid cushy job because that’s where you came from, because sweetheart, that’s not how we do it in the nonprofit sector. We all work really hard. We all work really long hours. We all have to earn our keep. And so that was always the challenge, trying to find someone who would take a chance on me, knowing that I don’t bring 5, 10 years of education experience.
Priscilla: So where did you land after your MBA?
Lily: Yeah. So I graduated in May of 2019, and I was looking for jobs for the first couple of months. And actually one of my coworkers from my internship at KIPP DC connected me with one of his close contacts at Teach for America. And so they brought me on board in August of 2019. So I’ve been there a little over a year now. I am the director of public affairs for the state of Texas at Teach for America. So primarily what that means is I steward all forms of public funding. So any dollars that we get that comes from the state or local government. So it’s a little bit of lobbying. It’s a little bit of a relationship management. That’s where I still use some of my sales expertise. And then I also do some work involving AmeriCorps and state programs that bring in dollars into our program.
Priscilla: That’s super cool and very impactful, very much at the intersection of all of those different things that you were looking for, so congrats. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk finances, talk money. I think one of the biggest concerns that people have, when they’re switching from private sector to nonprofit, is this huge concern around getting paid significantly less. So can you walk us through how you thought around compensation as you were going through this transition?
Lily: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think this is the thing that makes most folks really nervous when they’re making that switch from private sector to the nonprofit public sector. I won’t sugarcoat it. You’re not going to make as much in this sector as you might in the private sector, or at least it’s not as easy to make as much in the nonprofit and the public sector. But it does vary, if you work for a really large national or global nonprofit, then there’s more funding.
So for me, working at Teach for America, my compensation is really competitive because Teach for America is a national nonprofit. And so to recruit and retain talent, they do have to be somewhat competitive. Now that being said, I graduated making a lot less than most of my peers in the MBA. So I can share that my thought process throughout the whole experience was, like I shared, I was making a comfortable six-figure salary. When I decided to quit my job to get my MBA and make this career switch, I had to ask myself, “Am I in a place to do this? What are my salary expectations? What’s my minimum? What is the floor of what I am willing to accept that will allow for me to have the quality of life and the financial stability that I still wanted?” And that’s a really personal decision.
I was really lucky coming in because I was a Pell Grant recipient. I didn’t have any undergraduate debt. And then I was able to just save a ton of money. And because of my private sector career and because of a lot of the planning I did going in, I graduated the MBA with very little to no debt. So that was something that allowed for me to say, “I’m going to take a decently large pay cut because I knew I could sustain my lifestyle after the MBA.” But that’s not the case for everyone. And so that’s not the case, then there are alternatives. So if you can’t quit your job and make a big career switch and lose half of your salary or whatever it is, then maybe you make a gradual shift. Maybe you start off working at a big national nonprofit or maybe you start off working in corporate social responsibility, or maybe you work in a public sector or a social impact consulting company. There are other options that you can explore that maybe will provide you more salary flexibility. But I won’t sugar coat it, if you work in the nonprofit public sector space, starting salaries will be low. And I think what really motivated me was knowing that I would be able to work my way back up. No salary is permanent, but I took probably a 20-25% pay cut when I decided to make that switch.
Priscilla: Yeah. And I appreciate you being so candid because I do think people need to go into this transition with eyes wide open and having a very strategic plan in place, understanding the tradeoffs. And in your case, recognizing that personally fulfilling work and mission-aligned work for you was worth making that temporary sacrifice. So do you feel like now in your new job, you feel a lot more excited and more aligned and have found what you’re looking for?
Lily: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. The first and foremost, the work I do just has so much meaning. I wake up every day and I know exactly why I do the work I do. Secondly, I’m building another skill. I love the work I do now and I love education, but there’s nothing that’s stopping me from saying, “Okay, maybe I’ll work for the Chamber of Commerce doing education work” or “I’ll make another switch back into private sector doing lobbying work.” These are all things that I could do down the road. So I don’t feel limited at all. I just feel like my career just continues to grow and grow.
And then I think the last thing I’ll really say about all of this is your time just feels so much fuller. Before, I would try to rush through my nine to five, so that at the end of my workday, I could go and do the things I actually like to do. Now it feels like that’s a part of my life. And so when I’m done with work, I feel like I’ve just had a really productive day and I don’t feel like, okay, now I have to go and do the things I actually wanted to do today. And that is something that I think is just so fulfilling. And it just opens you up to so many more opportunities. And so because of that, I’m so much more engaged in the city and in my community in such a different way now, because this new lifestyle has allowed for me to have that time and capacity to do it.
Priscilla: Well, Lily, thank you so much for being with us today. I feel like this conversation is super inspiring for anyone who’s looking to try to make this leap. I love the faith in yourself that you have shown through this whole process. And thank you for being an example of that.
Lily: This has been so fun. Thank you for what you’re doing and keep it up.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Did you know that since 1978, the number of Black men enrolled in medical school in the U.S. has actually decreased, from 3.1% to 2.9%? It’s a sad state of affairs when it comes to Black male representation in U.S. medical schools, which makes this episode very special. Dekoiya Burton is an MD/MBA fourth year student at UT Austin and Dell Medical School, and is the only Black male in his entire medical school class. Born to teenage parents in Houston, TX, Dekoiya’s story is an unlikely one, and on this episode, he details the obstacles he’s overcome on his journey to becoming a Black doctor.
This episode is great for: pre-med college students, MD hopefuls, those applying to med school, going through the MD process, or anyone who’s had a big goal and had to overcome significant obstacles.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Dekoiya: There are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who were like, “It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 No’s and all you need is one yes.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, so I have a crazy stat for you. Did you know that in 1978, Black men made up 3.1% of all medical school enrollments? But in 2019-20, that number has actually decreased to 2.9%. That means that in nearly 30 years, we’ve actually moved backwards in terms of Black male representation in med school. As we know, this has nothing to do with innate ability and everything to do with systemic racism and educational opportunity, which is what makes today’s episode so special. My guest today, Dekoiya Burton, is a Black male MD/MBA student at UT Austin. Dekoiya is a Houston native, who was born to teenage parents in a family that struggled financially. On this episode, he talks about the challenges that low income and people of color face in their pursuit to becoming a doctor, the shocking grief that he felt when he realized he was the only Black male in his medical school class, and the strategies that helped him make it through that difficult chapter and emerge into a stronger person.
Priscilla: Okay, everyone, I’m super excited to welcome Dekoiya Burton to today’s podcast. Welcome, Dekoiya.
Dekoiya: Thanks. Thanks for having me, super excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So today we’re going to hear a little bit about his story and specifically his MD/MBA story. So let’s go ahead and kind of jump in here. I would love to hear a little bit about maybe your own personal background, where is home for you and what was it like growing up where you’re from?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So I am from Houston, Texas, H-town, what have you. My parents had me when they were 14 and 15. And so I was born to teenage parents, which presented a lot of different challenges, I would say. We definitely struggled financially. Definitely have seen my parents grow up and grow into parenting. It’s been interesting because I feel like they’re more like my big brother and my big sister than sometimes my parents. Especially as we got older, I feel like the age gap between us has really gone down. But home for me is Houston. I had a large supportive family. Obviously, my parents were very young raising a child and so I owe a lot of my success to my grandmothers, my aunts, uncles, church community, just like a really broad community that really inspired me to be my best, and really inspired me to do well in school. I think sometimes with teenage parents, people write them off as though their children can’t be much. And I will say my mom, even though she had me young, she was really big on education and going to school, and really big on holding her children to their dreams. So I told her when I was maybe way little, at some point I wanted to be a doctor. And she said, “Okay, I’ll hold you to that.” And here we are all these years later. I’m in my fourth year of medical school and things like that. She didn’t accept anything less than excellent from us and she still doesn’t. And so I really owe a lot of my success to my mom.
Priscilla: Pretty incredible. So she held you to that. So many people have that dream of becoming a doctor, and it’s so cool that you’re actually making it happen now. And in terms of your schooling experiences, were you someone who always tried to take the AP science class? How did that play out for you in school for you growing up?
Dekoiya: I am very lucky because statistics show that young men from my background, my social economic status have to decide that they want to go to medical school at age 10 in order to get there, otherwise they’ll face some significant hurdles. And the reason being is because you’re able to basically get all the way up to calculus in high school. And being able to get all the way up to calculus in high school and things like AP chemistry, because I was able to take some of my science and math classes in middle school, allowed me to be on this fast track and allowed me to see a lot of the same stuff that I saw in high school, especially as a senior, to see it again in college and do really well in those classes. And so as disheartening as that is, I think it’s super important for young especially Black men, women, and children, to have mentors to say, “This kid wants to do this. I’ve identified this kid as someone who can do it, and I’m going to make sure that they’re put in the right bases to accomplish their dream.” So my mom was big on magnet schools. I always went to magnet schools.
Priscilla: I never really made that connection that you just mentioned in terms of getting to take calculus before college and how that would prevent people from being able to perform at a high level with the pre-med courses that you have to take. Another thing that I’ve noticed, which I’m curious what you think is, I feel like a lot of people who I know that go down that track of becoming a doctor, maybe their parents were doctors or someone in their family. I wonder if there’s data out there that shows that if someone in your family is a doctor or your parent is, you’re just so much more likely to go down that path. Have you found that at all, like your classmates?
Dekoiya: I mean, yes. Well, what’s interesting is that medicine, and it’s so sad, because to be a doctor, I’m not going to lie to you, is quite expensive. And we forego a lot of pay in our 20s to become physicians, right? I’m 26 now going on 27, and I’ve only worked for one year. And my salary for that year was $30,000. Whereas some of my colleagues, I have friends who studied other things, who were already making six figures. And so if you are someone who is of low social economic status and don’t really have a lot of support, it’s really hard because you have to forego a lot of opportunity costs and a lot of pay, which you could be earning in order to come out on the other side. And as far as knowing people in medicine, it’s such a hard system. You have to take the MCAT, so you have to know, understand the MCAT and you have to understand how to apply to med school. You have to really understand what is it like to interview. What are people looking for at medical school applicants? And there’s just a whole culture of medicine that all of us have to adjust to. But I think it’s particularly hard for students of low SES because they’re literally learning how to operate in a system that was built for middle, upper middle-class, and wealthy students to thrive in. And so it’s just really complicated. But with that said, I will say I’ve had amazing mentors throughout high school, throughout college, even now in medical school and as I’m applying to residency, mentorship, getting people in your corner to say, “Hey, I see something in you. Hey, let me know how I can help you. Hey, I know this person, I know that person. Let me give you money. Let me just build you up.” I think that is crucial to anybody who wants to become a doctor.
Priscilla: Because it’s such a long road, right?
Priscilla: And you almost need that community and also people supporting you.
Dekoiya: Right, yeah.
Priscilla: You ended up at Boston University for undergrad. What was it like for you entering knowing this was a big goal for you? Did you feel that high pressure competition at the beginning?
Dekoiya: I think we, in our education system, worry about what other people are doing too much. I think we worry about meeting these standards. Yes, you want to do well in your pre-med classes. But for me, I knew that meant building a really good community around myself with people who I could trust and people who would be in the trenches studying on Friday night with me, studying on late nights with me. And I really was lucky enough to find a community at BU of people who also wanted to go to medical school. And the way that I got through that was to study with them and really lean on them. And they also leaned on me and we would just, you’re not in this alone, right. And also asking for help. So if you don’t understand something, going to office hours, right, going and asking questions and raising your hand, and having a discussion with the professor is super important because at the end of the day, you’re paying to be there, make the most of it. And then I also think being willing to take advantage of the university resources, whether that be tutoring, I would do that. And whether that be quizzing yourself with your friends. I don’t know. I think you got to have fun with this because especially something like medicine, it’s so long that if you’re like, “Oh, I’ll just wait until I’m a doctor,” well, it takes a decade essentially to become one. So I’m like, you can’t just say, “I’m just going to power through this for the next 10 years.” You got to really learn how to build some skills that’ll keep you growing because it’s a long road.
Priscilla: Do you think that you also always had a mindset of “I’m going to get through this. I know this is going to happen, and it’s just a matter of time and hard work”? Or did you have moments where you did doubt it?
Dekoiya: Oh, I definitely had moments where I doubted. I’ll never forget. I remember physics, I hated physics, still do to this day. And I remember one day, I was a junior then, I called my dad and I was crying and I said, “Dad, I don’t know.” I was like, “I don’t know if I can do this.” And I said, “I don’t know. I’m so tired.” And I said, “What if I fail, dad? What if I fail?” And my dad, he said, “Well, if you decide you want to do something else, we’ll still support you.” And he was like, “And if you don’t want to do it, that’s okay.” And he was like, “It’s going to be fine, just keep going.” But yeah, oh, I definitely had my moments of real tears, and real frustration, and those moments happen and you just kind of pick yourself up and keep going. You know what I mean? And you lean on your family. Call your dad, call your mom. Call anybody you need to be like, “Hey, I’m struggling with this and I need to hear some good thoughts. I need to hear some positive energy, definitely.” Definitely lean on your community. It’s super important.
Priscilla: So for someone who might be listening, who’s like, “Well, what does it look like to apply to med school?” What did that process look like for you?
Dekoiya: Well, it’s kind of different because there’s two applications you need to fill out. So there’s the AMCAS American Medical College Application Service, and that is a central application process to apply to most medical schools in the US. And, of course, being from Texas, we are Texas, we have our own, and that one’s called TMDSAS. So most people in the US don’t even worry about Texas because they’re not from here. But me, I had to fill out two different applications, one of them from Texas, and then one of them for the rest of the US. You have to write a personal statement. You have to link your MCAT scores, fill out all of this biographical information about yourself. And then what happens is let’s say you apply, you press ‘submit’ and you send your application to all these medical schools, and then they send you back what we call a ‘secondary.’ And a secondary is basically open-ended questions that they ask to get to know you. And I remember I was working a summer camp job, and so I was working 24-hour days and stuff, but I took little breaks and did this. And I would answer those open-ended questions and then send them back. And then if they liked me, they would offer me an interview. And if they didn’t, they would say nothing. And then you would interview the previous year before you matriculate. And basically the interview was just about, they wanted to know who you are. It’s kind of like this who you are, what led you to medicine? What do you see as your strengths? What do you see as some weaknesses? And they just try and get to know you. It’s definitely a very long process. It takes a year to do, but it’s definitely worth it.
Priscilla: Did you pay anyone to help you navigate the admissions process or did you just figure this out on your own? Did BU help you?
Dekoiya: Yeah. So BU has a pre-professional advising office that was super helpful. Actually, they were infamous for crushing people’s dreams, but some kind of way. Okay. I will say this, I’ll say this, there are going to be a lot of people who will tell you you can’t do it, and you can do it. There are a lot of people who are like, “I don’t know, et cetera, et cetera. It’s really hard to get in medical school.” Don’t let them deter your dream. Even if it takes you 10 times to apply, all you need is one yes. You can have 10,000 noes, and all you need is one yes. So I had pre-professional advising at BU, which was super helpful. And then, I don’t know, I did a lot of reading. I’m a very inquisitive person. I’m like, “Oh, how does this work? How do I do this?” And so I would do a lot of just reading and trying to understand the process of how this works. And once you understand what you need to do, it’s just a matter of doing it. I think people sometimes get caught up in that anxiety. “Oh, did I do this right?” I’m like, if you can have someone look it over and have someone look over your part, you definitely should have someone look over your personal statement and stuff.
Priscilla: How bad were the MCATs?
Dekoiya: They definitely require you to be disciplined. I remember the summer before my senior year, I was working part-time and I was studying. So I would do 20 hours of work every week, and then 20 hours of studying. My job from 8:00 to noon, take a break. And then I took a little course, a little MCAT course, which helped me a little bit with Kaplan. You don’t necessarily need one but just something I did. And then I would go to that class from 1:00 PM to 4:00, and then I would take a dinner break from 4:00 to 6:00. And then I would study from 6:00 PM to 10:00 PM, and I would do that. I did that my whole summer, yeah, before your senior year.
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Priscilla: And so you decided to come to UT Dell. What was it like finally being like, “I’m a med student”?
Dekoiya: Shocking, culture shock. I am the only Black man in my class. And so for a long time, I had relied on community and relied on the feeling of belongingness to get me through. And when I got to med school, I felt like I didn’t belong. And I was passing my courses fine and everything, but I became severely depressed and severely anxious. And I’m saying this, not because I want pity but I want people to know that it’s very real. And especially in high achieving students like medical students, and you get to medical school and it’s nothing like what you ever thought it would be. And there’s a lot of expectations of yourself and a lot of expectations of you. Learning how to navigate that in which you’re willing to give up, to me, these expectations and what you’re willing to keep really keep yourself grounded and vitalized. I think, I really struggled with that first year. And it was hard, it was really hard. At one point I was like, “I’m going to leave.” Yeah. I mean, I thought about quitting. I thought about, “Am I doing the right thing? Do I belong here? Can I stay here?” Here I was, my dream becoming true from age 10, and here I was in medical school and I was ready to give it up. I didn’t, clearly.
I forget where I heard this, but I heard someone say one time, “You don’t get to quit on your worst day. You get to quit on your best day. If you don’t like something, stick with it. And on your best day, if it’s still something that you can’t do, then okay, you can quit. But you don’t get to quit on your worst day.” And so I powered through it and really found the things that brought me life in medical school, whether that be doing things like this, like talking about my past or really talking about health equity and anti-Blackness and medical education and anti-Blackness in medicine, those things bring me life. And so once I was able to find my niche in medicine was when I was like, okay, I do belong here. I can do this. I will do this. I just got to figure out my own two feet and where I’m going to take this. Yeah. So it’s been hard but it’s been very, very rewarding.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you’re really unique in that you decided to add the dual MBA to your path. So how did that happen? What made you decide to go in that direction too?
Dekoiya: So actually it’s so funny because when I first went to Dell, I told myself I would never get an MBA. Why would you ever do that? And then here I am on the cusp of getting both. I think for me, once I realized that so much of healthcare is run by finances and business, and I just wanted to understand what are the business schools that drive healthcare, and how do I understand it? There’s so much happening as far as healthcare innovation, healthcare tech that a lot of physicians should be a part of. And a lot of physicians could offer a lot of insights to the solutions. Because I think now, we’re in a space where if we want to really solve some of the healthcare systems issues, it’s going to take more than just physicians and business people alone. We’re going to have to be really talking to each other and try new different models of care. And so for me, having that interdisciplinary background, that interdisciplinary experience was super crucial for me into learning how do we rebuild or how do we build parallel systems of care outside of the one that we currently have? So that’s why I did my MBA.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone who’s interested in pursuing your path? What would be your one piece of advice, and then what are you just most excited about for your future?
Dekoiya: Oh, I kind of have a bunch of little neat things to say, but I’ll try to be concise. Find yourself a great mentor and stick with that person. And that person doesn’t necessarily have to look like you or come where you come from, but someone who sees you and knows you really well and will advocate for you. And obviously that means putting yourself out there and trying to get to know your professors and advisors and things like that. So I would say that my second thing would be to surround yourself with good community. And I’m not just saying people who you can go party with and have fun with, all that is great, but people who will study with you and challenge you to be a better student and challenge you to level up. Luckily for me, my friends who I often had really great time were also the same people that I studied with. So that’ll help you realize that you’re not alone in the process. And then my third advice would be to ask all the dang questions in the world. Don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know” or “I don’t understand” and “can you help me?” I think those would be my three biggest things for people who want to pursue medicine.
And what am I most excited for? Well, here, I’m going to graduate soon and figure out where I will train for residency. So that’s what I’m excited for. I know it won’t be in Austin because the program that I want to do, they don’t offer it here. So I’m going to be moving in the next year, which will be exciting. So I’m excited for that. And I’m just excited to see the dream realized. I’m excited to see how I will change. I’m excited to see what the future holds as far as what I can do with my MD/MBA. I’m just super excited for the future in general.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.