Leiva’s story is all about turning tragedy and misfortune into opportunity and hope.
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Leadership for Educational Equity
And at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now.” It was one of those moments of, oh, crap.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable 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.
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Okay, so today’s episode is really exciting for me. I’m interviewing Katherine Leiva who goes by Leiva, and Leiva and I crossed paths in 2012 when we were both brand new high school teachers doing Teach for America in Miami, Florida. Leiva taught ESL, English as a second language to English language learners for nearly eight years before deciding to transition out of the classroom and figure out a new career in social impact and advocacy.
Today, Leiva is a senior manager of Leadership Innovation at Radical Partners, and on this episode, she’ll talk about what it was like to make the decision to leave the classroom, a decision that is often very difficult for teachers to make and how she made that choice, what she ended up exploring, and what she gained in the process as she was willing to re-imagine her career.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey, Leiva, thanks for being on the show today.
Katherine Leiva: Thanks for inviting me, I’m so excited, this is so cool.
Priscilla: Yes, it’s so wonderful to have you here. So, Leiva, why don’t you start us off by sharing a little bit about your personal background, your personal experiences? I know that they informed your career decisions, so yeah, tell us what it was like to grow up in Miami for you.
Leiva: Oh, my goodness, this is such a loaded question. So, I’m going to try to keep it short and sweet, but real. So, a little bit about me. I’m a first generation Nicaraguan American here, born and raised in Miami. Both of my parents were political refugees that were coming from Nicaragua during a state of civil unrest that was happening in the country and is still currently happening today. They came to the US in the 80s, I believe ’86, ’88, don’t quote me, my family might come from me later, but they came in the eighties and I was the first one born here in 1990. I’m the daughter, I’m number six out of seven kids. So, my family is, like, various generations are included. Like, my eldest brother, I think, is about to be 50, so there’s, like, vast generational gaps within us. All of them were born in Nicaragua except for me and my little sister, and we are a mixed status family. So, I’m a citizen, I have people in my family who are naturalized citizens, I have people in my family who hold a green card and are residents, and then I have people in my family who are undocumented until this day. So, because of all of that, I’ve grown up with a very interesting sense of what it means to be an American and what it means to be poor in the US. I grew up in, like, extreme, low poverty here. Both of my parents died when I was very young. My father died when I was nine years old due to hepatitis C. He had an issue with his liver due to being an alcoholic when he was young, and then my mother shortly passed away a couple of years later when I was 14 and she died of diabetes. She actually had a heart attack in her sleep and died at home, so I was very young when I was thrust into adulthood, I moved in with my big sister and her three children, my nieces and nephews that I see them as my siblings, and to this day, my big sister is the only person in my family that I recognize as anyone who’s taken care of me and helped me along on my journey. So, yeah, that’s been my life. I’ve seen Miami through the lenses of growing up, as a daughter of immigrants growing up in a household that was undocumented in poverty. I mean, I’ve seen Miami and some of the darkest possible spaces that I can be in. I tell people all the time, I’m a Miami mutt. I didn’t grow up stable at all. My senior year in high school, actually, I moved 13 different times and each time, because we were evicted, so it’s been rough. It was a really rough upbringing, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’ve been thinking a lot about it because of this podcast and truly humbled to share this space with you, Priscilla, and have you elevate the voice of people like me, because I feel like there’s not a lot of that. So, that’s me in a nutshell, and I think, I don’t know, it’s all those struggles and hardships that have made me the person that I am and truly ground me into the leader that I’ve become and will continue to be.
Priscilla: Yeah, I mean, Leiva, at this point, you could write a book, there could be a movie, like, there’s just so much that you have overcome and yet somehow, you’re always laughing, you’re just always bubbly and positive, so I always have appreciated that about you, but yeah. So, let’s go a little bit towards high school, like, where did you go to high school? What was that educational experience like? How did that lead you to making it to FSU?
Leiva: So, one of the biggest gifts that my mother ever gave me was making sure that I attended a magnet high school before she passed away, so my mother died my freshman year in high school, which was rough. I ended up in MAST Academy, I got accepted, and that school completely transformed and changed my life, Priscilla, and I’m saying that because you’ve heard about my senior year, right? I moved 13 times that year. We were homeless, we were transient, we were, like, living on the floors of peoples that we knew and it’s couch surfing, it’s like staying at a friend’s house for a week while my sister tried to figure something out. That was my high school living situation and MAST Academy made sure not only that I graduated, but that I went to college and I thrived there, like, that school literally made it happen because they were invested in me, they knew everything that was going on. My mom died my freshman year and it was like, my mom died on a Saturday, Priscilla, and I went to school on Monday and everything was normal, and then the counselors found out and it was like, oh, hell no, like, they pulled me out of class. They were, like, trying to unravel the years of trauma that I had and I’m just sitting there like smiling, I’m fine. Let me go back to my science class, that’s where I want to be, and because that happened, there was just such an investment in me in what I represented, in what I brought to the school, it was transformative on so many levels, and in my senior year, while everyone’s applying to college, I wasn’t going to go, I don’t have the typical Latina story of you’re going to college and you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, like, I didn’t have that. I had, hey, you have three jobs, you are income for the household, great. When you graduate high school, let’s get you a full-time. That was my expected life. So, college was never on the table. It was never something we discussed at home. It was never an expectation. It’s just not, college is not something that my family does, and to this day, I’m the only one who’s gone, still. So, really, like, my high school played such a vital role. If it were not for MAST Academy, I don’t think we would be having this conversation right now. My college advisor at school, Ms. Whitby, she literally put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me in the eyes and she was like, “Leiva, if you stay in Miami, you’re not going to grow the way that you need to grow,” and she was like, “I see so much potential in you. This school sees so much potential in you that you’re not seeing in yourself, and the only way you’re going to see it is if you get away from the life that you live here, and if you get away from your family and just breathe,” and that’s the first time anyone had ever told me that, and I was 17, I was 17 and I had two jobs, like, it was the first time that someone told me to think about myself, and Ms. Whitby, like, she changed my life and I tell her every single chance that I get, we’re friends on Facebook and I shower her with her flowers every single chance, every single opportunity. She said, “I want you to look at UF, which is the University of Florida which is in Gainesville, Florida, which is about six hours away from Miami,” and then she said, “I want you to look at Florida State University, FSU,” which was about eight hours away and she gave me pamphlets for all of them, and she pointed out that Florida State University had the CARE program and the CARE program stands for the Center for Advancement and Retention Enrollment, and it’s pretty much a first-generation low-income program for kids who have never heard, no one in their families has gone to college or do not have the money to go to college and probably don’t have the scores to do extremely well in college if I’m being 100% percent honest, and not only giving them the opportunity to go to an institution like Florida State, but finish with the support needed. So, they actually had a summer bridge program which allows me to go to Florida State the summer right after I graduated, so my graduation was in June, I was in my dorm in July. You only have a month off. You’re there, you get dorm, you get boarding, and you get food, they give you a meal plan, they pay for all of your courses, you get a counselor, you’re there with everyone else who is in the program, which is about 100 other kids from all over the state who share your background and share the struggle, and it’s welcome to college bootcamp 101. So, you’re starting to go to classes and then they give you, like, tutors, and after looking at all of that, I was like, that’s what I want, and I turned in my application in November, I turned in my regular application of Florida State, and then I turned in my application to the CARE program, did all of my essays, got my letters of recommendation, and within a month in December, I was accepted and I knew where I was going at that point, I was going to Florida State, which was such a relief as a senior and going in December, it was amazing.
Priscilla: Okay, so you graduated from FSU, you joined Teach for America in your hometown of Miami, and you were assigned to teach ESL, which is teaching English as a second language to English language learners, so mostly immigrants, high school students learning English from a variety of different countries. You ended up teaching ESL in Miami for seven years, seven or eight years. What was that like? What was hard about it? What did you love?
Leiva: Oh, my God, honestly, the whole time, this whole experience of teaching ESL is a gift. It is honestly a gift. It is, oh, my God. I am forever indebted to Teach for America due to that because I was so riled up, the mission of one day, one day, all children will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education. It’s so perfectly crafted, right, to say, “Hey, you’re going to have a chance at this. We’re going to make sure you have at least a chance,” and I was so ready to make that happen and when I got placed in ESL, I remember just having this fear of wait, we are not trained in ESL, right? First of all, we’re not trained in anything, but let alone ESL, right? And the second thing was, I thought I was going to have a community of English teachers, but it’s no, you have a community of ESL teachers and there’s only four of them, right? And you are one of those four. So, it was very much like you are on a ship all on your own, buddy, you got this though, TFA out. That’s what it felt like. So, it was very scary. I remember lesson plans, it was lesson planning and the structure of you need an objective. What are your students going to do today? You need to have activities. How are you going to make sure they learn the thing that they need to learn? Like, that whole structure was new to me. Backwards planning, which is you plan with the end in mind was brand new to me. Girl, come on, I went to college with trash bags. I was not planning with the end in mind. My life has never been planning with the end in mind, so this was a whole new gamut that I was just so, I cannot mess this up, these are ESL children, I can not mess this up, I cannot mess this up, and I remember I am myself up with that fear of I’m going to mess this up in the first day of school. As I was teaching, I was doing my thing, literally, by, I’m not even exaggerating, by my third class that day, I knew that this was the perfect placement for me in the perfect school with the perfect kids and that I was going to knock this out of the park simply because every single child, every single one of them in my class was an immigrant, every single one of them had such a desire to be in that classroom. Every single one of them that spoke Spanish sounded like my mom or my dad, it was eerie. It was just one of those, I don’t know why I’m here, but there’s a reason why I’m here and I will never take that back. I knew by the end of my week, by the end of the first week of school that I was going to stay beyond my second year, I knew it, I knew it. I loved it. Those kids fueled me. They literally lit a fire inside of me. They transformed me as well. They’ve been just a part of my leadership journey as I’ve been a part of theirs. It was hard, but it was so worth it and I would never ever take it back, and I mean, you saw it. I was in the classroom for seven years and all seven, I was an ESL teacher. That is my craft. That is my home, and to be honest, like, teaching the kids was the easy part, like, teaching them what they needed to know, going outside of the norm, right? Because I was always the teacher who went above and beyond for the kids in the sense of the curriculum, right? I wasn’t just going to teach them what the school was asking me to teach, I was also going to teach them about social justice and the ways that immigrants have impacted the world and how we can all make a difference. That was literally my curriculum and what I was structuring, like, yes, I’m going to teach you the main idea as we learn about mass incarceration in my ESL class, which is like, people don’t even expect ESL children to be able to perform, let alone talk about social injustices or anti-Blackness that we have in our communities, and that’s why, like, I had the highest scores every single year, like, back to back because I’m teaching the kids English and things that they want to know and things that they need to know and in something that they’re truly invested in. So, honestly, that was the easiest part.
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Leiva: The hardest part was learning that ESL kids get the short end of the stick in our educational society. It was learning that educational inequity was even harder for my kids and learning that if I didn’t spoke up for my kids, nobody would. So, it was being a teacher by day and an ESL advocate at night is what made it hard when I was constantly getting in trouble constantly, whether it was with my superiors at my school or people at the district, I just never shut up. I really didn’t, to this day, I still don’t, and that was the hardest part.
Priscilla: Because you’re such a fearless advocate for your kids.
Priscilla: When you were going through this journey of every year deciding, okay, I’m going to stay another year, okay, I think I’m going to stay another year, were you thinking, I think I’m going to become a lifelong educator or were you just kind of taking it year by year?
Leiva: So, I knew that I was going to stay at least for my third year because in Florida, when you have a teaching certificate and when you don’t have a degree in education, you get a temporary certificate and that’s good for up to three years. After your third year, you have to have some sort of education credential behind your name, or if not, you’re not allowed to teach anymore, so I knew that I wanted to stay at least those three years, but my second year was when I made the decision that actually, I really like this and I’m not good at it yet. Even though people were like, “You’re amazing,” yada, yada, yada, whatever. It’s like, I know that I’m not as good as I possibly could be, so I decided to enter the Johns Hopkins graduate school program which was a partnership with Teach for America to get my masters in Education to allow me to continue teaching beyond my third year, which is what I did, and once I had that masters under my belt, it was my fourth year, that masters really helped me reflect over my four years of teaching. The fast growth that I had as an educator, not just as an advocate, right, but also in the curriculum, the design for the kids, and I honestly was able to reflect and see that what I loved about teaching and what I miss about teaching to this day is that genuine relationship that you build with children and with that relationship, you use it to teach, and when the light bulbs go off in a child’s brain, it brings me so much joy. To see a kid grapple a concept, that at the beginning of the year, maybe they didn’t even know how to say “door” or “thank you,” and then at the end of the year, they’re talking about social injustices brings me such a joy in my heart, and so every year, I became better and every year that I became better, the more I wanted to do it longer, I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to become an administrator, I just didn’t. I felt like the further away you get from kids, the less impact that you have, and I actually dabbled a bit in coaching. So, I was actually a full-time teacher in the day and then I was a coaching teacher in the evenings for ESL teachers who taught adults at night, and I actually did that for about a year and as I was doing that, it brought me joy and I loved it and it stretched me, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I wasn’t teaching during the day. So, that really helped me see that my gift and my passion, and my love was in the classroom and that’s why I actually stayed so long.
Priscilla: Totally. So, I think with the amount of experience that you’ve built up as an educator, as an advocate and someone who has personally lived through a lot of the experiences that our students have gone through, you’re so perfectly well-positioned to do so many different things. You could be a school leader, you could open a school, you could run for office, there’s just so many options for you, and so my question to you is, how did you decide to join Radical Partners as a program manager and how did you decide it was the right time to leave the classroom?
Leiva: I did a lot of reflecting, I did a lot of journaling, a lot of running, a lot of just trying to figure out what all of it meant, and I realized just what you said, Priscilla, there are so many pathways that I can take and I knew that for me, maybe the classroom wasn’t it anymore. Maybe the impact that I was making on 180 kids a year was just not enough, so I got involved with Leaders for Educational Equity. I took a couple of courses that they had and they had a fellowship for emerging political advocates and they were doing it for different sectors, and I was chosen for the LatinX sector, right? So I was an emerging political advocate for LatinX folks around the US and that granted me access to go ahead and be a part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that happened in September and it truly showed me all the ways that Latinos are kicking ass around the nation. I got to rub elbows with people in Congress. Julian Castro, Joaquin Castro, Velasquez is over in New York, and I also got to meet people who were the heads of Univision but also Humana and seeing how all these sectors came to play to move the “Hispanic agenda” forward in the US and I realized, like, the classroom, isn’t the only avenue, and at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Vasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now,” and was one of those moments of, oh, crap, that trip, I really thought about it, and I saw they had another fellowship available for teachers who were working full time to be able to give a political insight and voice to nonprofits and for-profits trying to make social impact in the region. So, I applied to that fellowship and I was accepted, and when I was accepted, it was a policy and advocacy fellow, so I became a national policy and advocacy fellow right after that and my placement was at Radical Partners. So, Radical Partners is a social impact accelerator here in Miami that invest in leaders that are growing the city through social impact, that engages locals in decisions that are made by the government and by the community every single day, and that works with collective partnerships in order for us to move closer to a stronger and better community, and in that fellowship, I started to help out with different programs that they have. 100 Great Ideas is this awesome program where for one week, there’s a Facebook group that’s open to anyone in Miami to go ahead and contribute their ideas and their solutions to a problem that we have in the region, and this year that I was a fellow, the problem with climate change, and you have people from all walks of life just giving solutions on how to fix the problems that we’re seeing in our communities – the massive flooding, the heat index is just rising every single day, right? Like, the fact that low-income communities are on higher ground and therefore are now being gentrified is a climate change issue, so you saw all aspects of Miami contributing to this, and then after that week, it’s closed, it’s consolidated, it’s written up in a report and it’s handed over to our political powers here in Miami and saying, “Hey, Leiva from zip code 33138 believes that this is a solution that can be implemented in order to elevate the voices of the community,” and as I was working on that project, a month in, I was offered a full-time job. They were just like, “Listen, you are doing phenomenal work here. Everything is great. We can’t see us functioning without you moving forward. Do you want to be a program manager?” and that was in October and I told them the soonest I could join them would be January in order to prepare my students for their exams in January. I wanted to teach until December to prepare them and see them off, and that’s how I landed at Radical Partners.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s so cool. I had no idea that Lee was actually an instrumental part of that for you.
Leiva: Absolutely, yeah.
Priscilla: Yeah. Tell me some of the cool projects that you’ve worked on or are working on and how have you transferred your skillset as a teacher over to do those things?
Leiva: I was hired to be the program manager for the strategic planning summit which is pretty much 50% of nonprofits right now don’t have a strategic plan, and if they do have one, they paid about anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 for that plan and they don’t implement it because they didn’t make it themselves. So, literally, our former executive director, Rebecca Fishman Lipsey came up to me and she’s like, “This is a problem that we have. I want you to solve it in any way that you want over the next year.” So, I literally created a curriculum to help people understand the strategic planning process. I had to teach the strategic planning process to myself first which almost every teacher knows that’s a skill that we have, you teach yourself before you teach the kids, so I had to teach it to myself and then I broke it up into bite size pieces. I created a whole forum. This program started with just me, Priscilla, like, me in a room with a whiteboard going crazy. That was literally it to what it is now, and just to see that my teaching skills were able to be meshed together with helping a community and seeing that the organizations that are receiving this help are the same organizations that are helping my kids in the classroom today is, like, such a different level of fulfillment that I’ve never had before. So now, I’m working on projects that involve philanthropists who want to make the educational leadership arena in Miami better. I’m now currently developing a professional development for principals in my city, in the same school district that I taught at, in the same district, so to see it all work full circle has just been, for lack of a better word, delicious, to see that, like, I can, like, truly be an advocate in this different arena and continue to hone and make everything about the kids first, has been just outstanding that I can continue to do that outside of the classroom. To me, it’s just been a realization journey that holy crap, I’m still having an impact in this very different way.
Priscilla: I love that. I love seeing you thrive and still be aligned with your mission and do it in a different way, right? Like, teaching was one way to do that but there are so many different ways to have an impact and make a difference in people’s lives. So, thank you, Leiva, thank you for sharing your incredible story with us.
Leiva: Oh, thank you. Thank you for giving me the space. Thank you for allowing me to reflect and truly enjoy this time, and I can’t wait, I can’t wait to see what comes out of all of this.
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.
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In the journalism and media field, you see so many people saying, “Take that unpaid internship, work on the stipend, work, extra jobs,” which I did also, I did daycare, but I think the way I saw it then was like, well, why would I do that? Because I don’t have a financial safety net to fall back on. I felt like this kind of advice appealed to more people with generational wealth or people with connections, quite frankly. So after that, I was like, okay, I’m going to seek opportunities where I get paid.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, 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, everyone. Today, I’m excited to introduce to you Lyanne Alfaro. Lyanne is a Mexican American from the Chicago area who works at producer host and social media strategist at NASDAQ. Lyanne graduated in 2015 from the university of Illinois with a degree in news editorial journalism. After graduating, Lyanne cold emailed her way into a social media role at CNBC where she got to pick it’s stories about the intersection of the Latino community, business, and entrepreneurship. Her pieces have been featured in CNBC, Business Insider, and NBC Latino. She’s also the creator of Moneda Moves, a bi-weekly newsletter and podcast where she dives deeper into the LatinX influence in the world of business. If you’re interested in journalism, a career in social media, or if you’ve ever been told that you should take an unpaid internship, this is a great episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Lyanne, welcome to the show.
Lyanne Alfaro: Thank you so much for having me, Priscilla.
Priscilla: Of course. So, Lyanne, I’m really excited to dive into your really exciting career that you’ve had in journalism and learn about what you do with Moneda Moves, but before we go in that direction, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Lyanne: Yeah, of course. I’m first-generation Mexicana, my parents are from Guadalajara, Mexico and I grew up in Chicago, Illinois on the Northwest side in this neighborhood called Humboldt Park, and from the very start, my parents were educators in Mexico, so coming here to the US as immigrants, they may not have gone to college here, but they certainly had that grounding where they believe that education was so important. I grew up speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak a lick of English and neither did my parents, but they realized that kind of the first goal was just like, okay, we need to make sure she learns the main language in this country, and so I did see, I think early on, my parents really extend themselves, even though I recognized we were lower income, they extended themselves to make sure I had the best possible education on a low budget. So, that meant I spent a lot of my summers in libraries, I spent a lot of time reading. Eventually, I ended up in the school where I learned English and I fell in love with writing, and to be honest, for as long as I remember, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to tell stories, and funny enough, my dad did name me after a local well-known journalist called Lyanne Melendez, she was a Puerto Rican on ABC7 and she would cover stories about our community but just general assignment as well, and so I started tracking her career and I was like, okay, I see another Latina in the field. This was in the nineties, but my parents gave me the kind of like backing the education or the ability to get access to these institutions and just seeing them extend themselves and how hard they worked, I knew I’d be doing all of us a disservice if I didn’t pursue what I was truly curious and passionate about which was journalism, and it wasn’t always about in particular Latinos and people of color communities, I covered a little bit of entertainment. I started writing when I was 15 and I did a little bit of even fashion writing, but what I really fell into post-grad was business news, and in business news, I saw not a lot of people looked like me, not a lot of people of color and certainly not a lot of first-generation, and I thought to myself, I have so many friends in my life that are going through this, navigating the system for the first time, but also people that I’ve seen be very successful in starting their small businesses, why aren’t we seeing that represented in these national newsrooms? So, that that’s what has been my driver to do what I do to navigate my full-time jobs the way that I do, and so today I’m a producer at NASDAQ stock exchange, where I tell stories about technology companies or listed companies, market technology. But of course, at any chance that I get, stories about people of color.
Priscilla: Yeah. I’m so excited to hear like how you got to where you are today. So, when you were in college, what did you do during that time to figure out what kind of journalism you wanted to do?
Lyanne: Yes, that’s a very good question. I think one of my biggest learnings was that there is no linear path, especially when you’re first-generation, you don’t, or at least I didn’t have access to the connections to get the references, to have people push me through the system, and I feel that’s the case for a lot of people that are Latino and first gen and/or lower income, we don’t have this network. So, I became aware early on that I needed to get out there and meet people, and yes, I loved to meet Latinos, but I need to get out there and meet all journalists, so I didn’t limit myself to journalism when I did internships, but I did start writing for my school paper in high school and there was a city paper, the Chicago Tribune which had a program for teenagers called Mash, so via that you would be able to do journalism at the scale of the Chicago Tribune. They picked a handful of people, everyone had to apply, and this was such a critical step for me for many reasons, I started writing at the age of 16 at a city-wide level. I was getting the skills from editors, professional editors and commentary on my work, and I got access to these connections, right? But the other thing that I realized and started getting a hang of was how the system worked and I think it was so valuable that at 17 or so, they started paying me for my work, so I may not have had a ton of experience writing at that level but the fact they they paid me for work set me up with this mindset where I was just like, okay, like, I value experience this much and I’m going to seek free opportunities, but I don’t believe any more that I will be doing free internships. So, I think that kind of set my mindset a little bit differently because in the journalism and media field, you see so many people saying, “Take that unpaid internship worth on the stipend, work extra jobs,” which I did also, I did daycare, but I think the way I saw it then was like, Well, why would I do that? Because I don’t have a financial safety net to fall back on. I felt like this kind of advice appealed to more people with generational wealth or people with connections, quite frankly. So, after that, I feel like that was very formative because after that I was like, okay, I’m going to seek opportunities where I get paid. So, that meant that I wasn’t always working in straight journalism. Sure, I always made sure I was freelancing at some point for a journalistic company, but I would pick up jobs in PR, in comms, in strategy, and these are the kinds of internships that I did. I worked for a channel called Weather Nation which is, like, Weather Channel’s competitor and learned about acquisition of companies. So, I learned a little bit about the business side and I found that to be very instrumental.
Priscilla: Yeah, I think that’s really important, just the mindset shift and the realization that yes, that advice around getting an unpaid internship might apply to someone who literally can do that or someone’s going to help them, or they have the connections to get in the door, but for us, when we’re, like, literally the first in our family to do this and we don’t have anyone we can talk to to get us in the door, it’s, like, such an important realization to say, yes, I need to take care of myself, but I also need to proactively look for opportunities where I will get paid for my time and my work. So, so cool that you were able to have that shift pretty early.
Lyanne: Yeah, no, it was absolutely instrumental because I was in college and I’d hear people who would advocate for taking free opportunities, and don’t get me wrong, I did do things at some point unpaid, but they weren’t internships, they weren’t long-term commitments. I did short term commitments to get experience where I was just like, okay, there’s a skill share swap here, but at the end of the day, I am of the field of thought that interns should be getting paid, and I would say that most of this burden doesn’t actually fall on the interns or students themselves but on the corporate companies, like to me, the older I got, the more a little bit frustrated I became with the fact that we okayed these unpaid internships and said, “This is fine,” knowing very well that not everyone in society has an equal shot at these kinds of things, or even being able to do it even if they did have the talent and skill.
Priscilla: So, tell us about your first job as producer at CNBC. What was it like to get that opportunity?
Lyanne: So, this is an interesting one and a pivotal move because it’s my first full-time job in New York city, so I got this after doing six months of an internship at Business Insider also in New York and this came as a result of a cold email. I sent a cold email to the head of social media at CNBC at the time, her name is Anna Gonzalez. She had about 15-plus years of journalism experience. I did extensive research on her and it really appealed to me that she was head of this at what seemed to me at a very young age but also was Latina just like me, and so I was like, okay, we have something in common, and I knew that wasn’t gonna secure it, but I said, maybe I can reach out to her. We can talk about what value I can provide and what things she needs in her team. So, I cold emailed her, I reached out to her via Facebook. It worked because she was hiring for social media and I will say social media was my way in for journalism and I find that for a lot of times, young journalist today is you can move across, but it is a way in because people tend to look increasingly towards younger people for social media, it’s just the way it is, but so the cold email set up a call with her and that was probably one of the quickest processes ever because once we got on the phone, it became very clear what she needed and actually, the original position I reached out to her for, I was underqualified for it. It was my first job, and so she’s just, “This isn’t quite the fit, maybe in a couple of years, but I do have another position that’s opening up that I think would be great for you,” and so I started as associate producer, started doing social media, realized CNBC has free range for you to pitch stories. So, I started doing that. I worked across networks. I went to NBC Latino, met the editor in chief, Sandra Lilly. She was fantastic, pitched my stories, worked on them after hours. So, that’s what CNBC was like. I got a little bit of experience in a bureaucratic environment because it was, it’s a bigger company, but also being able to have that leeway to do things beyond what’s written down in your role.
Priscilla: What were the biggest challenges for you in that role, especially as someone who was, it was your first job, you were fresh out of college, what did you have to ramp up on pretty quickly?
Lyanne: Yeah, I must say graduating from college, I thought I knew more than I actually did, and so I learned to be a student. I think that was the first thing that just because I had graduated from college didn’t mean I was done being a student. I needed to continue being a student. Media is very different from the world that I am now when you talk about work-life balance and what it means to be a good employee. I feel like in media and in journalism, you need to do a lot more managing up. You’re often working on a very lean and mean team. You don’t always get guidance that you need, you get very aggressive KPIs that you need to meet in working for a social media department, and it’s just not easy. It’s not easy, period, but what helps is setting these managing upskills for you in place so that you can set the expectations for your boss because they won’t always do it for you. So, that was one of the big learnings, which is more corporate, actually, than you might think. The other thing, I guess, is just like in terms of reporting, it was just that you’re going to be your biggest advocate, like, my boss was a really big advocate, but at the end of the day, I was the person who needed to reach out for the additional opportunities, I needed to speak up, I needed to work those extra hours, and I needed to really explore it and then finesse what it is that I wanted to do.
Priscilla: And so, tell us about the passion for the Latino population and money, how did that start for you and at what point did you start to think about pitching stories or creating content around this?
Lyanne: Yeah, honestly, it’s when I started to have my own journey where I was coming back in touch with my own roots and culture, and that probably started towards the end of college. I think I was coming more to term with my roots and I spent a very long time not talking about my identity and not really exploring it. Maybe when I was younger, there’s a little bit of not really wanting to embrace it fully, and then in college, I was just like, our culture is so rich. I became fascinated with a little bit of history, with a little bit of culture, music. Actually, one of my earliest stories for NBC Latino was about a woman mariachi band in New York City. It was nothing to do with business, but the fact that I was in the business space and I saw a need, it wasn’t completely, solely passion. I was like, okay, I’m passionate about this and I see a need, those two things can intersect and fulfill me and drive me, and so that’s where I was just like, okay, the market needs this because it’s not there. I think that’s one of the fallacies, I think, of national media that we get placed into one bucket and we increasingly need to have these hard conversations about how we’re a lot of people, Latinos, we’re a very diverse bucket.
Priscilla: Absolutely agree, and I think we saw that with the election, right? Like this past 2020, we’re not a homogenous group. There’s a lot of intersectionality and race, and class, and so many other things play into our understandings of ourselves and, like, how we show up, and yeah, so I love that, I totally agree. What really resonated with me was that I’m Mexican Peruvian American and I grew up going to predominantly white schools, my whole life, and so for me, I was in a space in school constantly where I just wanted to survive. Like, I was just trying to survive, just trying to do well in school, just trying to get to college and make my parents proud, and then there was also a lot of racism I grew up in Texas. There were definitely always comments being made about Mexicans that were derogatory. So, for me, when I went to college, it was also a time of re-embracing that identity.
Lyanne: As diverse we are, like, that’s one thing that we can resonate on. You’re saying you embraced it in college. I feel like I met other people in college who had a similar narrative and said growing up, it was just so hard for me to see the things, the way that I see them now, and I appreciate things so much more, and just having that community and being able to relate to that meant so much.
Priscilla: And so, on the topic of money and career, what comes to mind for you in terms of one of the biggest lessons that you had to learn in terms of navigating money and career, whether that’s, like, negotiating for a salary or honestly, just anything?
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Lyanne: Yeah, I would encourage you to keep tabs on your wins. Literally keep them in a folder, keep them in a Google Doc, keep those emails that you get from clients or from editors, readers, praising you, use that as leverage when you’re asking for a negotiation and if your company doesn’t do this, set metrics for success a year out or even six months out, but six months to a year out with your manager. Again, managing up, so that that way, you can revisit those and use that as leverage when you’re asking for a raise.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay, so now, I want to transition to your decision to leave CNBC, so what prompted your decision to leave and then what made you move over to NASDAQ?
Lyanne: Yeah, I got to say, I didn’t think I’d leave a full-time journalism job in the near future, but the opportunity came up. My former boss actually moved over and she wanted to bring me with her, and so to that end, she became a big thread in my early career because she was what I realized we call a sponsor. She was more than a mentor. She wanted to take me with her under her wing to advocate for me, put numbers to that too, like, money and, and say, “We can offer you the opportunity that you’re looking for,” and so what really drew me to NASDAQ was the opportunity. It was an opportunity for growth in skillset. At CNBC, I was doing social media and I was writing articles in my after hours, and while I really appreciated that flexibility, it was a little bit harder to get some of these other hands-on experiences at such a big outlet that I wanted to get. And NASDAQ was in a time of growth, and so they had a studio, they were working on video production which is really fascinating to me. After I joined the CMO, even became interested in a podcast, which I launched for the company alongside our comms team, so the opportunity for growth is really what appealed to me. Once the opportunity presented itself, I really pursued it for the skills and the growth proposition that was there.
Priscilla: That’s huge, and so has it fulfilled a lot of what you expected in terms of your growth and, like, all of that?
Lyanne: Honestly, it’s more than I could have imagined. I went there not with the title of, like, supervising producer that I have now. I went there as a booker. That’s what I was, I used to book people for our live interviews, and the thing about NASDAQ, it has a very flat structure, at least on the marketing end, which I sit under, which means that you have insane access to the C-level executives and I was just like, what is this place, this amazing place? Because that certainly was not CNBC which is very structured, and you had to really climb up and do time and all of that. Here at NASDAQ, it was the second day and I was sitting in the studio in an interview. So, the opportunities and the speed at which they were coming I think brought about by such an innovative company, because NASDAQ is relatively new for stock exchanges founded in 1971, second biggest stock exchange, but it’s not that old, so I think it was that, that kind of just, they move really fast. You have access to all the C-level executives, and so the opportunities have been endless, like, I’ve been sent on projects around the world to do video, to speak with different companies, I’ve learned so much about different fields, from the health industry field to biomedicine, just things that I would’ve never thought that I would cover, and I just, no, not all of them is related to Latinos and money, but tactically, I’m just like, okay, I love being in these different environments and I love learning things that I can apply then to my coverage which I continued to do around Latinos and money. So, I found it a great place to grow and get experience of everything, a smattering, so to speak, across the board.
Priscilla: Yeah, and what’s really cool to me is that you didn’t really have a business background, right? It’s not like you worked in corporate or finance or had a BBA or something, but you were willing to be a beginner and be like, I’ll learn as I go, and I think that’s a big deal, that you were willing to do that.
Lyanne: It’s a big deal, but I think I practiced that muscle early on. I will say, I think it’s difficult for a lot of people in the Latino community to admit to things we don’t know and be vulnerable in that way, and I would venture to say that in my family, it’s because they went through such hardships early on immigrating here, everything they had to go through that it’s just, okay, I’ve lived, like, what else do I have to do? Especially for my parents, it’s a lot, but for me being a first generation who didn’t have to go through that immigrant experience in all of that, I’m just like, okay, well, this is the least I can do, admit that I don’t know things and then say, okay, I’m going to go out and learn it, and that’s been my approach to life. That’s my approach now, too, as I’m even getting my personal finances in order, because I’m still on that journey and I don’t mind saying that because I like being transparent. I like for people to know where I’m coming from and that we may be coming from the same place.
Priscilla: That’s the thing is I think so many people, we’re actually all in the same boat, like we’re all figuring things out as we go, and we all have to be beginners at different things at different times, but we have such a hard time admitting that to each other and we build so much, so much community when we can actually just be vulnerable and be authentic about where we are and what we’re doing to get to where we want to go.
Lyanne: Yeah, I am absolutely about that, and I’ve embraced that a lot in the last year, I think, with more online communities where people can be vulnerable like that.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so I noticed that you’ve interviewed Ryan Leslie, which I was really impressed because he was, like, one of my favorite RNB singers and he kind of stopped singing, but what has it been like to interview these really cool people and what has been your highlight from that time?
Lyanne: Oh, my gosh. Oh, boy. Yeah, no, Ryan, he was great. He was so down to earth and we interviewed him because he started an app on his phone to kind of help facilitate communication. He’s a really smart guy. I would say I just enjoyed the diversity of it. I interviewed the first company to go public on an American exchange from Costa Rica, which is so specific. It’s so specific, but I was just like, this is really cool, and at the time, we did the interview in Spanish, too, where I was just like, wow, this is powerful, like it’s just the Costa Rican media outlets picked it up too, and honestly, that was an interview, I know he’s not a celebrity, but that really stuck with me because my heart swelled with pride where I was just like, okay, the whole theme of opening doors and paving roads, and being the first, that, I feel like the most impressive part about that is not that you were the first. It’s that now you’ve opened up a road where you won’t be the last. That’s what is most impressive about that, and so I think I really enjoyed interviewing people, not just Latinos, but people of color, people in general, who were the first to do things, but if I could think of one person, oh, my gosh, there’s just so many. I interviewed at some point the actress from Nikita, and I love her, I interviewed Maggie Q because she has her own fitness line and I think she was with some health company that came to ring the bell, but I absolutely adore this woman as an actress. I watched her shows like all throughout college and I was just, I don’t get starstruck very often, but I was just like, I literally, I watched all of your acting career and I literally felt so empowered watching you, and so the fact that she’s also a business woman is obviously really appealing. So, yeah, she was definitely a memorable person for me.
Priscilla: So awesome. It sounds like your job gives you a lot of energy and like you’re really excited and super engaged a lot of the time.
Lyanne: Yes, it’s super engaging and that’s kind of exactly what I look for. I like being able to move from one thing quickly to another, adapt and just continue to tell those stories.
Priscilla: So, I’m really curious about Moneda Moves. Tell us how it started, what it is and your mission with your podcast.
Lyanne: Yes, of course. So, Moneda Moves is a platform, newsletter podcast all about Latinos, our relationship with money and role in the American economy. Basically, what a CNBC would be but to Latinos. It’s largely aggregated at this point because it’s just me, but I have a weekly newsletter where I give you the kind of top line stories that you should know. Lately, we’ve been covering the Latinos on the Biden cabinet, and actually, they would have a big hand in managing money in this economy. So, it’s really important to track those and see where they are. It usually takes a hundred days for cabinet members to get approved, so that certainly will be really impactful, and then we have a podcast that is bi-weekly. The goal with that is to have different conversations around money with people who are successful in the field, that money can mean a lot of things. So, I’ve been talking to people in financial technology, people building personal finance platforms for Latinos by Latinos, but the goal is also to provide contextual story. So, we’ve done a story about the PPP loans from last year, 2020, and how Latinos were having a really hard time getting these loans for their businesses. So, I think just giving a little bit more context is really important. I love the profiles, but I also think we need to be aware of the bigger picture and our role in it.
Priscilla: So, my last question for you, what would you tell your younger self if you could tell her anything today?
Lyanne: I would tell her to trust yourself a little bit more. I think sometimes, I held myself back because I wanted things to be perfect or I just didn’t think I was good enough. I think that leads to overthinking and analysis paralysis, which is understandable, but taking risks once in a while and trusting yourself, and trusting your gut and your intuition, I would tell my younger self to trust yourself and take the risk because action is how you get started. If you have an idea, go for it, shoot for the moon, and then see where you land.
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.
Are you a woman of color seeking to transition or thrive in the tech industry? Are you someone who struggles with imposter syndrome, speaking up for yourself or prioritizing your wellbeing at work? On this episode, you’ll hear from mindset & career coach Rebecca Garcia, a daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. Rebecca is a self-taught developer, ex-product manager and, as of the publish date, a program manager at Facebook. With experience working in tech startups and tech giants, Rebecca inspires women of color to step into their power in tech.
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And then there’s this playing big kind of fear where you’re like, I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet. And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks.
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.
Hey everyone, today you get to hear from Rebecca Garcia, a mindset and career coach for women of color looking to transition into tech. Rebecca is a first-generation American and daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. She’s worked across tech startups, big tech giants in several different roles as a self-taught developer, a product manager, and now a program manager at Facebook. I really love this conversation with Rebecca because she has a very calming presence and she helped me reframe a lot of different ideas that I had around imposter syndrome and how we really need to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing above all in our careers. So if you’re looking to transition into tech, look no further, check out Rebecca Garcia and check her out at MindsetCoachForWomen.com.
Priscilla: Okay. Welcome, Rebecca, to the show.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me, so excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start by just having you share a little bit about your background so that our audience can get familiarized with who you are or your personal background, and then what you do today?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So I’m so excited to share my work as both a mindset and career coach. I specifically work with women of color and started off working with women in tech. And I have grown my career as a woman in tech as a self-taught developer turned product manager, program manager, doing a lot of different shifts along the way. And by day, I am a program manager at Facebook on the developer programs team, specifically working on a lot of different partnerships and events. And I’m also first-generation a daughter of immigrants. My mother immigrated from Mexico, my father immigrated from the Philippines. Growing up, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me and I didn’t know that there was a career path for me in tech. I had been learning to code as I was growing up, copying and pasting HTML and CSS on my MySpace, my Neopets pages. It was really fun and exciting.
I knew that when I was little, that I wanted to help people but I didn’t know at the time how to be able to combine that. I ended up starting to follow that passion and built my career as a self-taught developer. I was at Squarespace as it was growing from 250 to 500 employees. I found myself as a program manager at Microsoft, managing a full-time technical training program for underserved New Yorkers, helping them to become IT and assist admins. And in between, I’ve been a technical product manager at a handful of different startups most recently at a startup helping to end the gender pay gap, and most recently as a program manager at Facebook. So that’s my little journey in a nutshell with a lot of pivots and twists.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool. So tell us what it means to be a program manager, especially now at Facebook. What are you responsible for? What does that kind of look like for you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So at Facebook, as some folks may know, there’s a lot of different emerging technologies, whether that’s augmented reality, AR, or virtual reality, VR, or technology around natural language processing, NLP. Essentially, my role as a program manager is to help get more developers and more creators on these new emerging Facebook products. It’s really fun because I get to work with a lot of different teams. So I work with engineering, we work with marketing, and we get to dream up these different programs to get folks engaged and involved and give back to the community. Some folks like to ask me, “Well, why did you transition from being a developer or transitioned from being a product manager?” And honestly, I think the role that I’m in right now is just a really fun and exciting combination of my different various experiences and it helped set me up for it. So for anybody out there who’s thinking that you have to have a straight and clear narrow career path, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. If you think about the tech industry being a, quote-unquote “young industry” there’s so many different roles out there that didn’t exist 5, 10 years ago. So it’s like sky’s the limit and yeah, it’s just a lot of fun what I get to do at Facebook.
Priscilla: Now tell us a little bit about how you decided to become a career coach and then becoming a mindset coach, and what does that mean?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So a handful of years ago, I used to meet folks for coffee very often. So I’ve spent the last 10 years in New York City and I would get reached out to and folks say, “Oh, I’d love to hear more about your background. I’d love to hear more about your story. Tell me how you that into X role at the time, whether that was as a developer or program manager, product manager.” I used to meet them for coffee and, quote-unquote, “have them pick my brain” and I realized that a lot of these folks could use a more structured way to help them to define their unique value proposition essentially about themselves and their transferable skills and how to interview and move into a new role, because tech interviewing can be nuanced and some folks might seem intimidated or scared by it, but it’s actually not that scary. It doesn’t have to be that scary. So I transitioned into coaching because I wanted to help a lot of these women and especially women of color who were struggling with how to make those pivots and make those shifts.
So I’ve been doing that work for handful of years now, and I then realized that there was an even bigger gap with imposter syndrome that, you know, even though I helped these folks move into new roles, that the imposter syndrome still followed them. How can we start to dismantle the imposter syndrome and realize that it’s not just, “Oh, you need to work harder. You need to” quote-unquote, “be more confident” especially for people of color, it’s not that easy. So that’s the work that I’m doing today is to help people understand where imposter syndrome comes from, the unique challenges that come along with it as a person of color and how they can start to essentially reprogram their brains to stop feeling — not to stop feeling that imposter syndrome but to start realizing just how amazing they are and the skill sets that they’re building and the things that they’re learning that are so much more than their imposter syndrome.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so when you got your first job in tech at a big tech company, what were some of the immediate challenges that you identified when you were first starting out your career?
Rebecca: Yeah. When I was first starting out in tech, I think one of the biggest challenges that I realized was, especially starting out at some smaller companies, at some startups, I noticed that it was very easy to get sidetracked and to want to do all the things. That’s the exciting part about tech is being able to do all the different things. But I realized that I wasn’t helping myself for the long term, for my career and honing in on what were the strengths that I had versus trying to level up all the, quote-unquote, “weaknesses” and I think that this is something that prevents folks early in their career from moving more into a mid-level or senior role is that they become generalists. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting out, you start out as a generalist, but I have learned from Tim Ferris to become a specialized generalist. That’s essentially how I felt my career is as a specialized generalist, where I can do all the things but I know what I am not only, quote-unquote, “good at” but more passionate about, even though I can do a lot of project management, that’s not the only value that I bring. I bring innovation and I bring rallying people to the table. How can you start to figure out and narrow down on, “Okay, I’ve grown a bunch of these different skills. Now, what are the skills that I want to start to focus on that I’m passionately moving towards?” And it doesn’t mean you have to be good at them right away but that you’re letting them push you forward.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you help women break into tech. What are some of the pain points or maybe issues that you see, some of the people that you help get tripped up on the most? Is it something like in the interview process? Is it once they’re in the door and more of that mindset challenge? What are maybe one or two things that you’re like, “Oh, people really struggle with this?”
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve got a few. So one of the first ones is definitely discrediting their previous experience, and I’ll give an example of, say, somebody went to a boot camp but they worked in finance before. On their resume, they take out the stuff from finance because they’re like, “Well, this isn’t relevant to the job that I want as a developer”. They’re leaving off all that valuable professional experience, going back to your point about the soft skills, right? So they’re missing out on that they’ve worked on multiple teams, that they understand the product, that they have this background in finance that’s valuable. That’s the first thing is discrediting their experience. And when I say experience, it doesn’t have to be working experience. It can be volunteer work that you’ve done. It can be side projects that you’ve done and. Again, if you’re feeling that you’re lacking experience, these side projects or the volunteer work is a really great way to boost that. So that’s the first one is discrediting experience.
And the second piece on the interview process, what I tend to see goes one way or the other. The first way leans back towards that other one of discrediting their experience. And so they’re not really sharing their background and how it got them where they are. Usually what I see folks doing is they start off in their most recent experience. They say, “Oh, I’m a developer at this. And then before I did this and I did this, and then I studied this in school.” And so they’re doing it in the reverse order, where they should switch the order and they share what is it that led you to where you are now? How has that built up so that they can start talking about that. So sometimes they’re leaving stuff out, or the other thing that I see is that they’re over-preparing and just talking at the interviewer. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I practiced my elevator pitch. I did this and did that but they didn’t listen to me.” And well, it’s a two-way street. You got to ask them questions too, give them room to breathe. Instead of just talking at the interviewer, see the interviewer as a person and start to get comfortable asking questions, which as a person of color, it can be very hard because you might think, “Oh, in some cultures that might be considered disrespectful” or in some cultures you’re taught not to speak unless you’re spoken to or all sorts of unique experiences that people of color and people with different backgrounds have. Those are some of the common themes.
And then the last piece, the imposter syndrome piece, where for anyone who’s not familiar with imposter syndrome, it’s this idea that you feel like you might be a fraud, like you don’t belong there. Especially if you’re a woman, you might think this because I know for me I’ve many times been the only woman on a team. And so it can feel like, “Oh, I don’t know if I fit in. Do I belong here? Is this the right company for me?” And so you start to question your experience. You start to question your capabilities. And in terms of tackling imposter syndrome, I actually think that you can flip the narrative on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome doesn’t mean that you don’t know enough. There’s actually a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where once you start to learn things, you realize how much more there is to learn. And the folks that think that they know everything, it’s because they are not willing to look at all the things that they could learn, so they’re staying stuck. You’re actually at a great point if you’re coming up against imposter syndrome. Yeah, because it means you realize how much more there is to learn and that means your potential is limitless, in my mind.
It doesn’t have to be something terrible that we keep trying to get rid of. That’s another thing that some of my work is going into, which is people from underrepresented backgrounds, we are taught to discredit our feelings. We’re taught to stay quiet or we’re taught to not let things get to us. When we push down those emotions, they bubble back up to the surface and all that resistance that you were having against taking action or against speaking up, it kind of daze itself in and it grows roots. So how can we learn to care for our emotional wellbeing instead of, I think a lot of the advice out there is “just be more confident and speak up” and the reason it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t feel safe as a person of color or it doesn’t feel right. Or maybe you’re like, “I’m an introvert. I can’t do that.” So understanding why it might not even feel right in your body and being able to work through that by working through your emotions and knowing that it’s okay that you don’t know everything. That actually means you’re growing.
Priscilla: So that’s really interesting, that phenomenon you mentioned about people who are probably doing the same thing feel confident in what they’re doing, right, because they’ve been doing it for so long. But yeah, try something different and I’m sure people will feel not so secure, right?
Rebecca: And just to that last point that you had on doing something new, I think there’s also a way that you can differentiate between the, “Oh, this is really scary and I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t know if I can do this” and that kind of “This is new and exciting. I want to do this.” Another thing I learned from the author, Tara Moore, is there is this kind of staying small fear, right, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.” and you’re hiding. And then there’s this playing big kind of fear, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet.” And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks and you can start to see it as excitement rather than anxiety.
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Priscilla: Did you experience that in your career where it felt really unnatural and maybe kind of like, “Am I bragging on myself” by talking about your accomplishments or anything like that?
Rebecca: Absolutely. That is something that definitely comes up a lot, where I hear folks say that like you said, you don’t want to seem braggy, you don’t want to seem like you’re boasting. And maybe in your culture, I know that I was told be humble. I think that there is a difference between bragging and boasting and puffing out your chest versus sharing the work that you do or telling people the work that you do or the work that you’re excited and capable of doing, because that allows you to be of service to others. Because if you don’t speak up and you don’t say those things, then how are the opportunities going to find you? How are you going to make the right connections if you’re constantly — you’re waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and give you a permission slip to be successful? You’re basically placing your success in somebody else’s hands versus you being able to pick the direction that you want to go in because that’s how opportunities come to you is when people know you for certain things. Or a lot of the early advice is like, “Oh, build your network”. I think of networking, it’s a long-term strategy. I think of it as a boomerang, right? You make connections and then they come back around and then they happen to be helpful later. But those connections are only as valuable as much as you let people know what it is that you want to do or what it is that you’re capable and excited to do. So just putting it out there as a reframe of it’s not you bragging, it’s you advocating for yourself, advocating for your career because you are the only person who can be that advocate for yourself. So not just a mentor, not just a manager, you get to pick the direction of your career.
Priscilla: What are some wellbeing things that you do or maybe even advise your clients, people that you work with to do to find some kind of sanity and separateness from work, because work is in our house now, right? It’s like at home all the time.
Rebecca: Yeah, that is a great question. One of the things that I like to do, especially after having a lot of Zoom calls, meetings, back-to-back stuff going on, is to take a nervous system break. I’m sure if I had just started spouting off to folks like, “Oh, you should meditate”. Everybody has heard that they, quote-unquote, “should meditate” but before even meditation, just giving your nervous system a break, meaning how can you get out of that heightened state of doing stuff all the time and go, right? Because we’re working from home, we have to create that. Whereas in the past we might’ve had it naturally built in, right? So I’ll give an example of when I worked in Manhattan, for lunch I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go walk and I’m going to go pick up lunch from somewhere and maybe I’ll listen to a podcast while I’m walking.” That was essentially a nervous system break. And now that we don’t have that built in, how can you build it in? One practice is to notice the things that help get you out of that going mode, and so whether that’s listening to a podcast or doing the dishes for 10 minutes or just being away from the computer, being away from your work. And make a list of those things that allow you to feel a little bit more relaxed and incorporate them into your day and don’t feel guilty about it because we don’t have those things built into our day now. If we don’t build them in now, it’s building these wellness practices into your life, everybody’s, “I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy.” But it’s learning to swim before you’re drowning, before you’re burnt out, before you’re really tired, before you’re just, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t function.” So just throwing that out there is taking a nervous system break here and there and the world will be okay. Your inbox, your emails will still be there. The notifications will still be there 10, 15 minutes later.
Priscilla: So true, yeah. I think those walks are just like creating your own version of a commute, right, like before or after work. It helps so much to get out of your head for sure. Well, my last question for you before we wrap up is just what is maybe your number one career lesson that you would want to impart on younger folks, especially those looking to get into tech?
Rebecca: Yeah. So one of the quotes that I love to say is from the author Jon Acuff, and his quote is “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” It’s really easy for us to look at other people and say, “Well, they have this thing. I don’t have that thing. I don’t have these skills yet. I don’t feel ready.” When you look at a job description, actually see it as a wish list. Don’t see it as you need to meet every single thing on that list. I say this as somebody who has worked in hiring and has worked with recruiters, and sometimes those job descriptions aren’t even written by the hiring manager. Sometimes they’re written by a recruiting team with the things that they would in an ideal world love to have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow into doing those things. So that’s one thing to keep in mind.
The second piece is how important mental health is. I know that there’s a stigma against it in many cultures and where, “Oh, therapy is only for people who can afford it” or therapy means that there’s something really wrong with you or “Oh, meditation and yoga, it’s too woo-woo for me” or “I can’t do that” and you end up putting off all of these things. I wish that I had spent more time helping myself. It’s like that when you get on an airplane and they’re like, “Put your oxygen mask on first,” because how are you going to put out your most valuable work and how are you going to provide the most value if you are unable to function well? So taking care of yourself is important. It’s not a luxury. It’s a base need. So honor yourself, honor your feelings. You may have family members or cultures that don’t agree with this but at the end of the day, who is it that’s living your life and building your career? It’s you, right? So why not take that time for you? So I hope that’s helpful for folks out there who are thinking, “How can I become successful?” And I will tell you at the mid senior part of my career of working in tech at big companies and small companies, burnout is real and it happens at any stage in your career. And if you can take care of yourself now, do it. Put yourself first and keep putting yourself first.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Well, Rebecca, where can people find you online and potentially even work with you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So come find me on Instagram at Mindset Coach for Women. That’s also my new domain MindsetCoachForWomen.com, if not, RebeccaGarcia.tech. I would love to connect with you, shoot me a DM, tag me if you listened to this podcast episode and you found it helpful. I do career workshops, as well as mindfulness and wellness practices, and I’m excited to help more folks with imposter syndrome. So thank you so much for having me.
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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever wondered how you could merge different passions, or “take-and-leave” different aspects from different careers to build one that works for you? Well, that’s exactly what Frankie Arvelo did during his early career years. A child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, Frankie defied society’s expectations by attending a top 10 law school and working at Goldman Sachs by his early 20’s. When his first career stop didn’t quite cut it for him, Frankie decided he needed something more: an MBA. The MBA journey exposed him to a new career vision that could blend the law with the exciting startup ecosystem and allow him to call the shots in his own career.
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Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable 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.
Hey, everyone, today, you get to hear from Frankie Arvelo. Frankie is a startup counsel based out of Austin, Texas. He is a child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. He has his JD from UPenn, his MBA from UT Austin. He currently specializes with working with early stage startup founders and helps them with issues like seed fund raising and investor management. His story was really inspiring to me because he’s someone who’s really intentionally crafted his career to make it into something that really works for him and is in alignment with his own passions and values. He loves working with underrepresented founders and he is also a big DEI champion. So, if you’re someone who’s really interested in the intersection of business, tech, law, this is the episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Frankie, welcome to the show.
Frankie: Thank you, nice being here.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m really excited to dive into your early career story and hear about how you eventually became a startup counsel, but first, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you grew up, where you’re from, and also talk to us about going to Penn Law. I know that you went to Penn Law right after undergrad and graduated during the great recession. So, talk to us about how you got there and how you thought through financing that chapter of your life.
Frankie: Absolutely. So, right now, I’m based in Austin, Texas. I have two toddlers and a wife that I love dearly. But let’s go way back. Originally, I was born to immigrant parents. My father’s Dominican, my mother’s Ecuadorian. They split up on when I was a child in New York City, so that’s why I always think as this whole, I live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West side and it was, this was eighties, early nineties, it was rough back then. It’s gentrified a lot now. It’s changed so much the last time I visited, but back then, there’s a lot of drugs, prostitution, people out of work, it was hard getting through it, but as I tell people now that it was an important part of my journey because getting through that really helps you understand that nothing I face now is that hard, right? And nothing can be that bad. So, we moved to Boston when I was in middle school, I have a little bit of an Northeastern accent and that’s where my family is now. I went to a testing school out there, but even then, we lived in section eight housing. We lived in neighborhoods that weren’t super nice but were okay. So, I went to UMass Amherst, I studied Sports Management, and I knew I was getting a law degree, went directly to Penn out in Philadelphia. During law school, actually, was looking for alternative careers outside of law. I decided to join Goldman in New York as a compliance officer, so I worked in the commodity trading floor and it was a great experience, a lot of brilliant people, didn’t want to do that the rest of my life, so I decided to get my MBA. Fast forward a little bit, decided to get back into law, I professionalized my practice and worked with startups. So, I’ve been on my own as a solo attorney for about little over a year now. I was the first person in my family to go to grad school, the second to go to college. My brother beat me cause he’s six years older, but yeah, so we really, I didn’t have much guidance. I had some guidance at UMass, but at a big school like that, it’s hard to find the right people. I had people telling me to go to schools that weren’t really that good and I think that they made assumptions about me because of the way I spoke, and I can dive into it a little bit more, cause I did grow up in the hood. Anyway, so I decided to be really focused. I think I bought some books that are like Ivy League admissions, how to get in, and I couldn’t find people that are alums or anything like that, but I just did as much research as I could about the school.
So, the second piece is paying for it. So, I graduated in, what was it, it’s technically December of 2007 or something, yeah, 2006, I’m getting my years confused. I’m getting older. December 2006, so I had a, basically, half a year or nine months or eight months or something like that before school started at Penn, and I made it my job to look for scholarships. There are so many scholarships that go unused because people don’t, not enough people apply to them. I applied to things like the MCCA scholarship, that’s the Minority Corporate Counsel Association scholarship, I got something called the Edward scholarship in Boston. So, I was able to cobble together in addition to some of the money that Penn got me, an additional $30,000, $35,000 just from applying, even though it was $1,000 a year, $500 there, just, I made it a job just to apply. I was like, hey, I need, cause again, I grew up poor. It’s not like I had a ton of money sitting around, right? I had some need-based grants, but still loans are loans, you got to pay them back.
Priscilla: Yeah, and especially when you’re first gen, you have to think through how you’re going to pay that off and how long it’s going to take because you’re the only one responsible for making that happen. So, I’m curious, what was the biggest pain point for you when you did transition to law school at Penn? What was it like being in that super elite space?
Frankie: It was culture shock, if you will. I, again, I grew up in inner cities with a lot of Black and Brown folks, even at UMass, I would say, I was mostly around Black and Brown people, and then at Penn, the classroom changed in terms of racial diversity and also in terms of, just as important to me, economic diversity, there were people with a lot more money than people I met at UMass, right? They’re daughters of, like, senators and governors and people who would go on to become congressmen and whatnot. So, that was a big shock, I did not expect that. I mean, I was always different in a room, but I was really different in the room. Even the Black and Brown folks were different than me. They were rich. So, there’s something called the Socratic Method, right? Which basically means that the professor calls on the student, cold call, and then they’ll ask them a ton of questions, and the student has to be, like, on the spot, they have to oftentimes stand up in front of a class of 80 people where everyone’s, like, trying to judge who’s the smartest, who’s the alpha, who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? So, just that intense pressure you feel from being cold called. So, I remember I was cold called once. I think it was a civil procedure class and I made some comment, whatever, I don’t even remember what it was and I sat down. After the class, one of my colleagues said, “You made a really good point, but you sound a little urban saying it.”
Frankie: I was like, “What does that mean?” He said, “It sounded a little different,” and I remember I took that back, I was like, he’s calling me ghetto, oh, okay, oh, wow, and then I found myself actively changing the way I spoke after that, and it’s still to this day, I still do it to the point where when I go back, even now, the people I grew up with who maybe not necessarily, didn’t go to college or have any fancy degrees, they tell me I speak white, right? Let’s just use it and say what it is, like, “Oh, you speak White now,” and then I can’t speak the way I used to because I’m just, now, this is the way I speak, right? But then, you get into the whole entire complex of, like, what is my real identity? And then, I tried to let it go and say, I can’t, I have too much to do, but it’s something that I think all of us need to keep in mind, right? But that was a shock, how people were so different and feeling like I needed to change how I spoke so I could seem “smart.”
Priscilla: Yeah, it’s such a shame that that happened to you, but sadly, it’s not an uncommon experience and many of us have to negotiate that identity and how we present ourselves in BIPOC spaces and how we present ourselves in mostly White spaces, so yeah, I know that you graduated around the great recession. How did you think through your career options? What did you end up doing after law school?
Frankie: So, part of it was just the force of what was going on in the market, so I would say summer of 2009 is when I would’ve gotten my two L internship, right? There were very few good ones. I would say firms weren’t hiring as well. I was a middling student, I’ll be honest, right? I was, like, the B+ student, if you will. So, there were fewer spots at great firms, I knew I wanted to public insurance because frankly, I was tired of being poor. Yeah, tired, right? I can’t do it, and I want to provide for my family eventually, my mom and whatnot, her retirement plan is her kids, right? So, I have to help out there, and I understood that back then. So, I knew that I wanted to do that, I knew…public insurance, there weren’t any great firms, so I started looking outside of law and I was like, what do I want to do? And I remember back then, I enjoyed my business classes better. So, I was like, I think I might want to get into business, and then I saw the Goldman opportunity as a way back in to the business because when I talked to a recruiter back then they said that people make transitions from compliance to business side. So, maybe sales or some other role, non-operational role, so I thought that could be an angle for me to make that move and also want to live in New York again. I just, all my friends were moving there, I love the energy of the city, I wanted it to be there, right? So, that’s why I was looking at going that way, but I was pretty sure I wanted to work in business, sure I want to work in New York. Goldman is a great firm although everyone hated it back then, and still hate it now. So, yeah, I just said that that was the path I want to go down.
Priscilla: Yeah, obviously, Goldman Sachs is an amazing company to have as a first job after law school, but what was that first real career job experience like for you? What were some of the challenges that you faced and what did you end up doing after?
Frankie: I know I need seasoning back then. It was a culture shock in terms of the level of professionalism that is expected and demanded of you. I had a manager who was, she was in the Israeli defense force, so don’t mess with her, and she was the first person to teach me this, right? She was the first person that said, “If you come to me for a problem, you better have a solution in mind,” and I remember our first meeting, I said, “These are all the things I see that are wrong,” and I had no solutions and she told me that, and I was like, oh, okay. I can’t complain about things being wrong. I need to fix them, right? She also just demanded perfection in terms of email communications, in terms of presentation skills, et cetera. She ended up going to maternity leave and I had another manager named David who really took me under his wing, really counseled me, really said he wants me to be the best I could be there, and then I had another African-American man named Keith, another attorney who also did the same with me and he’s actually one of my mentors to this day, and then just the atmosphere and the energy, right? Like, you’re on a trading floor, you’re going into that giant building with a billion other people that has, like, its own gym and own doctor’s office because you never leave, right? So, that energy was, like, a lot. I initially didn’t like it, but then I had learned to lean into it. I remember maybe my first year of struggling a little bit of just, like, a wild stallion, did not want to be controlled, but then I learned that, hey, this is my career, I need to show up, and this is big boy time. So, put on my big boy pants and don’t complain and get the work done, and I also learned to not be so worried about what people thought of me, if that makes sense. And then my second year, because of that, my performance jumped tremendously and I also just knew the rules a bit better, so I didn’t feel like I was faking it when I was giving people advice. I just do what I was talking about, so I ended up, like, giving presentations that were international and had more seniority, and then I ended up giving presentations to managing partners and people that ran billion-dollar businesses where I was lead, and yeah, it was good, it was good, and I’ll need to side-sleeve for a couple of reasons. One is, I didn’t like being the person that no one ever wants to talk to. When you send someone an email and it has a little compliance, cause that’s your title, like, on it, people tend to not want to talk to you and no one wants to hang out with you, and I was like, this is a weird energy, and I also just didn’t want to be back office the rest of my life. I want to be more of a revenue generator. It’s harder to replace you when you’re a revenue generator than when you’re in your back office if things go down, and also, I think that was the year where Warren Buffet did a giant buyback of equity, so the cash bonus pool dropped tremendously. So, I did better, but I got paid less than my bonus, I was like, that makes no sense. So, for those reasons, I was like, I need to leave, but it was a good place to be though.
Priscilla: Cool. So, I know you went to get your MBA at UT Austin McCombs School of Business. How did you end up using your MBA years in Austin to get familiar with the startup world and start to envision a future as a startup counsel?
Frankie: So, my first year, I was really just focused on school work and not doing anything outside of Austin and just doing some clubs and whatnot. My second year is when I got plugged into the startup scene and that’s when I became more involved in places like Capital Factory, that’s when I started freelancing and working with my friends as an attorney. I was like, hey, one of the great things about MBA is this, is that whilst you learn about risk and everything’s going to break, and start seeing opportunity, and you start saying, hey, whoa, there’s a way to make money here. So, that’s when I had my aha moment. I was like, wait, I have a lot of grit. I’m licensed to practice law. People are asking me for help. I should just put up a shingle and make some money.
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Frankie: So, during my fall semester, I worked for Longhorn Startup Lab and it’s run by Josh Bear and Bob Metcalf who are two of the pillars of the Austin tech community, and just got connected to a lot of folks in the scene, so I worked for a firm called Egan Nelson, good firm, really good people, they’re a quality boutique here in Austin, learned a lot, I think, for anyone that’s thinking of eventually hanging up the shingle and being their own solo lawyer, I do recommend that you go to a firm or somewhere first where you learn from people who’ve done it before and who really know their stuff because there are so many mistakes you can make and if you’re just learning on the job and it all falls on you, you’re gonna make those mistakes and that’s not going to be good for your clients. Some people make it out okay doing it that way, but it’s really risky.
So, went there, they focused on startups. We helped companies from formation all the way through exit, left there because a law firm model is this: law firm model is you either are a rainmaker bee or working bee, and I felt that if I stayed there, I was always going to be a working bee, and that’s just not my personality. Going back to a comment I made about working at Goldman being back office, I didn’t want to be quasi back office at a law firm, I wanted to be the rainmaker, and I want to bring in new relationships, and I didn’t see that happening there. So, that’s why I joined another firm. I ended up joining another firm as a partner, left because I thought I could do it better on my own market.
Priscilla: Tell us what it means to be a startup counsel, and what do you do and why do you do it?
Frankie: I help clients with everything. Alright, a couple of weeks ago, there was a client that was dealing with an issue where two of their employees and the contractor decided to start talking poorly of the management and how they didn’t know what they were doing, and all this other stuff, and I helped them in a situation of how to terminate those folks while also protecting themselves as a company, messaging around that to other employees and customers because they were central employees, and how do you get that done thinking through that strategically? There’s also items like I helped a client close on some fundraising, which during the time of COVID is hard to do. So, initially, they went to traditional venture capital type money and they weren’t getting any bites there because they were hitting the traditional metrics of monthly recurring revenue and whatnot, and then we were able to raise a round which is going to help the company fill some orders and make some more revenue in, and all that, right? And then, and I’ve done things, like, like what sort of entity should I be when I’m thinking of forming a company? Should it be an LLC? Should it be a corporation? And there’s many considerations around that, right? Generally, if you’re looking to get venture money and grow really fast and sell, it should be a corporation, generally, right? And so the reason I call myself counsel is I have a partnership with my clients and a real relationship. To me, it’s hey, most of my clients get it, they’re like, alright, I’m going to spend a little time with Frankie now, we’re going to think strategically about this issue or something that’s coming up, and then that’s going to save me a ton of money or a ton of dilution in the future, and then me, Frankie, I know not to burn time on things that don’t matter. I know to be thoughtful about, hey, I know their cast situation is tight now, maybe I can give them a payment plan, or sometimes, if a plan is really good, I think, I loved their idea on their team, I might take some equity and then I’ll cut my rate. Those are things that I can do when I work for my own firm that I couldn’t do when I worked for another firm, like, they take an equity thing. A lot of lawyers don’t like doing that because inside baseball, the malpractice insurance won’t cover it if you take equity in a client, so if a client has a claim against you, your malpractice is not going to cover it. So, that’s scary for a lot of attorneys, I get why they don’t do that. My risk profile is a little higher, I’m fine doing it, right, for certain clients. Those are things, like, these are things and levers I can pull and things I do with clients where I really see, like, it is a true relationship and I really wanna help them out.
Quick aside, quick story, I tore my Achilles, it’s terrible, don’t play football if you’re over 35, about nine days ago, I posted something on social media about it, and then one of my clients sent me some “Tiff’s Treats” and said, “Please get better. Hope you and the family are doing well,” like, I wouldn’t get that at a big firm, right? The big firms sees you as a number. You meaning the founder as, like, a number. With me, these are people, this is, like, friends, these are friends, if you will, and I want to help them grow their business. So, I’m counsel, not an attorney for that reason.
Priscilla: Yeah, I love that. I love that you get to cultivate those relationships and make them meaningful ones at the same time. So, as you look back, Frankie, at your 12, 14-year career, your early career years, what is the one thing that you would go back in time and tell younger Frankie about career in terms of advice?
Frankie: Great question. Go back in time and shake me. I would have told my younger self to be more patient, to be easier on myself in terms of I have a tendency to beat myself up when I make mistakes, and also just to really be grateful, this is a non-career piece, but I think it flows into your life which flows into your career, t all works together, to be more grateful for what you have in your life and not focus so much on what you don’t have, and that was taught to me by my wife who’s a yoga teacher and author. She really showed me that and it’s actually made me a much happier person.
So, those are the things I would have told myself. If there’s any specific career advice I would give of myself besides the be more patient if you work is that, you’re always selling, every interaction of every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready, you never know what can come of any interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction of you or they maybe remember a bad interaction of you because you weren’t prepared, and they made, no, we’re not going to consider this person for that. Always remember that you’re selling, be patient and be grateful for what you have.
Priscilla: That is such great advice. I think it’s so true that whether you like it or not, you are always selling yourself, right? And people are deciding if you’re someone that they’d want to work with or they’d want to call up for something, so yeah, thanks for sharing that, I appreciate you being here, Frankie, it’s just so inspiring to hear your story and how you went from child of immigrants growing up with not a lot, humble beginnings, but making it all the way to Penn Law, and I know now you teach part-time at Penn Law and you do so many other amazing things, so thanks so much for being with us today.
Frankie: Awesome, take care
Priscilla: 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 loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
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?
And now a quick message from our sponsor. Hey, everyone, if you’re thinking of getting a graduate degree like many of the other Early Career Moves guests, check out our awesome sponsor, The Art of Applying. The Art of Applying has spent the last 10 years helping people who aren’t the cookie cutter applicants for top business, law, policy and other programs get into their dream schools and get money to pay for them. They have a large team of expert consultants who know what it takes to get into the school of your dreams and can give you the roadmap for how to get there, especially if you’re stuck on something like getting the perfect test score or struggling with the right words to put in your essays. They believe each applicant has more to offer than just their test scores or GPA. And that approach has helped thousands of their clients get into their dream schools and earn more than $20 million in merit scholarships and fellowships. Graduate schools care about your entire application and I love that their team helps applicants, put their best foot forward. As a sponsor of the Early Career Moves Podcast, they’ve invited listeners to explore working with their team by going to theartofapplying.com/ecm and signing up for a quick call. If you mention the Early Career Moves Podcast, you get 100 dollars off enrolling in their hourly coaching or application accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, go to theartofapplying.com/ecm.
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.
On this episode, you’ll hear from Diego Granados – a Mexico City native, Microsoft Product Manager and YouTuber. On this episode, Diego tells us exactly what it means to be a product manager in tech, how to break into this career path, and what it takes to be successful in the role. Diego reassures any aspiring product manager that you don’t need to have a “technical” background or MBA to break into this path – and his YouTube channel, PM Diego Granados, dives even deeper to help people pivot into this fulfilling and exciting career path.
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PM Diego Granados – YouTube Channel
Diego: You have to be a good storyteller as a PM. As a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them. You have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killin’ 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 breaking into product management or wondered what a product manager in tech actually does? This is the perfect episode for you. Today I interview Diego Granados, who is a successful product manager at Microsoft, and he will break down exactly what it takes to break into this path no matter where you’re coming from. Diego is a Mexico native, he was a joy to talk to, he has an MBA from Duke Fuqua and he was originally trained as an engineer, but it turns out you don’t need either of those things to actually become a product manager. So tune in, and if you want to learn more, check the show notes on my website to make sure that you check out his YouTube channel, where he really goes in depth and helps people break into product management.
Priscilla: Hey Diego, welcome to the show!
Diego: Thank you so much Priscilla for inviting me. I’m super excited about this opportunity.
Priscilla: Of course, I’m super excited to dive into your path that led you to now be a Product Manager at Microsoft. So let’s dive in, and why don’t you tell us a little bit about your background really quickly?
Diego: Yeah, absolutely. Hello everyone. My name is Diego Granados and I am originally from Mexico City and I lived most of my life there, I studied electric engineering and I always thought that I was going to be working in building computers and new cell phones and video game consoles, but very fast I realized that it was not for me and I can tell you more about it, but all I can say is that now working as a PM, there is absolutely no traditional path to get into product management. And that’s one of the things that really excites me about this role.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start with just defining product management? There seems to be lots of different terms for what it is to be a product manager. Can you tell us a little bit about these titles and what they mean?
Diego: There are different definitions to product management and depending on the book or the website that you cite, it’s going to be different yet similar in a way. But in that sense, if I can summarize what PM’s do…so, as a product manager, yes, you’ll be in the middle of technology and business and customers. And starting with the customers, PMs have to talk a lot with customers for many different reasons, right? Like from getting ideas and feedback all the way to testing or even to do a simple ideation phase where you run surveys and interview customers to figure out pain points. And that’s one of the beauties of being in product management is that you have all of this input from all these different customers. Then, product managers are also storytellers. And this is one of my favorite things that I keep talking about is you have to be a good storyteller as a PM. You have to make sure that the stories that you tell and how you convince people and how you write documents and product requirements or even presentations, they have to convey a story because like I was saying, as a CEO, yes, you have people reporting to you, but as a product manager, you don’t have anybody reporting to you. So you have to convince them, you have to influence them to make a product, to make changes, to change the priorities. And you do that through stories. And the stories are a combination of customer input feedback, data that you take and input from management and input from other teams. And you have to make a story out of all of this. So product managers are storytellers. And you also have to communicate in different languages. That’s another skill that PMs need to have. I’m not going to talk in the same way to engineering that I do to marketing or legal or finance. I have to constantly switch these quote-unquote languages so that I can be effective in meetings and be effective in the things that I write to convey that story. So we also have to understand and be empathic with not just customers, but with our different colleagues. We also have to talk about business, right? I think we always talk about improving products and having these successful features into the market, but we have to make money out of it. So you always have to think about the business and how are you going to price it and what’s the cost and is it going to be a bundle? Is it going to be attached to another license? And you have to deal with all of this ambiguity of the business itself. And finally people think that sometimes you do it alone, but in reality, it’s a dialogue or a conversation with your teammates and absorbing all the feedback from everyone and the customer. So you have to navigate in this ocean of ambiguity to basically in the end answer three big questions: What are we building? Why are we building it? And a combination of how and when is it going to be delivered? We could go into many more details, but I would say at a high level, this is what a product manager is. And just to finish answering your question, in general, the title is always, or almost always product management. There are a few exceptions, like for example, Microsoft still calls their product managers, program managers, but outside of Microsoft, I have not seen, doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist, but I have not seen other companies mix those titles. And sometimes companies also just make it a little bit more specific by saying technical product manager versus business product manager, or just regular product manager. But that will be the only difference. Everything else, like project or program manager, again, except for Microsoft, it’s a very different role that sometimes gets confused with product manager and product owner, which is another title that is out there. But to summarize everything, I would say many companies are still confused on the title. Many companies still don’t adopt the product versus program manager like Microsoft, but in general, most of the time should just be product manager or technical product manager.
Priscilla: Yeah. And obviously the word product is pretty general, right? Like people could be working on a software or a hardware product, you know, what should people kind of be thinking about as they think about that role in choosing the product that they’re working on?
Diego: I would say search for the word technology on the internet and whatever pops out, I’m sure there’s a PM role for that. And it just doesn’t just extend to things like just hardware, software, or cloud. If it goes within industries, not the same to be a PM in a software business like Microsoft than to be a PM in the healthcare industry. That’s completely different in terms of the technology. The role might be similar, but the technology is going to be completely different. Right? And so, as you think of the PM role, the soft skills, you’re going to carry those with you along different products, different technologies and soft skills, again, being a storyteller and influencing others and all that. The technology, no ledge. It’s going to be easier to ramp up on that than the soft skills. So if you start to be in a hardware product, that’s a PM for manufacturing cars, that doesn’t mean that you can not end up in a hardware product in a software company like Google and working for Google home because you have that expertise of hardware and you also bring all the soft skills. So I think for aspiring PMs or for any PM in general, I think it’s about what is really exciting to you. What are the things you’d like to be working on? Do you like the B2B side of companies? Do you like business to consumer? Do you like products that are on a windows shop in retailers? Do you like medical devices? But there’s opportunities for it to be a PM in so many different technologies and products.
Priscilla: Yeah, definitely a lot to consider there. So in terms of qualifications, I know that you have an MBA, but have you seen that an MBA is necessary to become a product manager?
Diego: Not really. And that’s one of the things that I mentioned earlier, which is, I love the fact that to become a product manager, there are so many paths to get into this. Most of the PMs that you see out there, like me, have an MBA, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only path to get into product management. It’s just one way to get into PM.
Priscilla: Got it. So from the product managers that you’ve known and worked with, what do their backgrounds usually look like?
Diego: Honestly, it’s all over the place. I have friends who used to be in the army. I have friends who used to be architects, or friends also in sales or in finance. So really there is no traditional path. I think we call it a traditional background when we say a tech background or an engineering background, but really again, it’s just one way to become a PM. There are so many product managers that don’t have a technical or an engineering background. And that’s, again, one thing that I really like about this role, because it’s about what can you bring to the table? How can you help the team and that diversity of thought and backgrounds. I think it makes it a very rich and unique role. And yeah, there’s no traditional way. Having an MBA is just one way to do it. Having an engineering background is just one way to do it, but there are other ways to get into product management.
Priscilla: That’s really good to know, and really encouraging for people who are really interested in breaking into product management. So from what you’ve seen, what are some of the traits that the most successful Product Managers have in common?
Diego: Communication is key. Like I was saying before, we speak different languages, but the way you write your emails or text messages or user stories or product requirements, communication is super important for product management, because you are going to be talking all the time to different stakeholders, not necessarily in the meeting, but constantly talking to others. So that’s one thing. Leadership is definitely another important one. You are going to be leading without any authority. You have to influence, like you were saying, and that you have to make sure that your leadership style is helping the team. You don’t have anybody reporting to you. So how you, through your leadership, influence others. Dealing with ambiguity is a big one. Since day one that you join any company as a product manager, there’s going to be ambiguity. Tons of it. And you have to make sense out of that ambiguity and it’s your role to help the team understand the ambiguity on requirements, customer feedback, what’s the roadmap, what are we launching in the next two, three, five, six months, one year. Being a storyteller like I was mentioning before, it’s not just how you write an email, but it’s what message are you conveying to the team and how you’re communicating with these customers. And empathy. Empathy with customers, empathy with teams, understanding motivations and incentives. These characteristics are super important to product managers to make sure that it’s successful. And there are many others like being able to listen and presentation skills and how you’re going to put a presentation together. All of these, it’s important, but in general, the ones that I mentioned, like communication, leadership, dealing with ambiguity, storyteller, customer empathy, I would say those are big for a PM to have.
Priscilla: Yeah, so let’s transition a little bit to your own story and how you broke into product management. I know that you started out your career as an engineer at IBM, and then you moved into business intelligence consulting for five years. Tell me about why you decided to leave consulting to then get your MBA at Duke.
Diego: One thing to know about the consulting life is that in most cases, not all the time, but in most cases you finish a project, you give the project to the customer and that’s it. Then you start another project. And having that closure, I always felt like I needed to see what’s next. What happens next? Having that next set of next steps was missing for me. And. It was always interesting to learn from different customers, but at the same time, at some point it got repetitive. It was look at the data, understand the problem and figure out how best to represent and give them insights and then start all over again. So I was looking for what is next? What’s the next step for me?I knew that I wanted to change jobs, but I wasn’t sure exactly what type of job I wanted. And after debating, whether I wanted to simply switch to another company or maybe doing a master’s degree in the end, after talking to both people in different industries and alumni from MBAs, I realized that the potential for a master’s degree was beyond just switching a job. It was actually learning many more things about, for example, marketing and strategy and finance and all these other things that, as an engineer, I never had a formal education of those. And that’s what led me to start thinking about, okay it’s time to do an MBA.
Priscilla: So when you got to Duke, did you start off knowing you wanted to do product management or did you explore other options?
Diego: When I joined, I said, I know about consulting, why not be in a top consulting firm? I want to be in McKinsey, Bain, BCG. I want to be a management consultant. And it sounded really exciting and I put that in all the papers that I sent to Duke. And then the second day of classes, I realized that consulting was not for me. I was always thinking about my own experience as a consultant. And I said, no, I want something different. I want that closure. I want to be able to launch the products, but I didn’t know what kind of role will help me with that. So I went through the obvious ones, like marketing or operations. I was like, maybe this can help me. That was until I joined the tech club. And we started hearing from our second years who came back from their internships and they started talking about product management. And that was the moment when I realized that the role existed before that I had no clue that product management was a thing.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Priscilla: So during your business school experience, you got to intern as a product manager. Tell us about that experience and what was it like?
Diego: My first product manager role was my internship at Cisco in California. I was super excited. It was sort of a nontraditional Cisco role. So I was not working on routers or switches or access points. I was actually hired for my internship to do sort of like a business case around a new product that was cooking at the time. We know that through the network that Cisco deploys, the wireless network, we can detect phones, tablets, computers, anything that is connected to wifi. How do we make a product that helps customers think of a hospital? How do we help them to track where phones are or wheelchairs or anything that is connected to the network? A lot of equipment is very expensive and so how do we help them with that? Since we already had the infrastructure, we can build a platform for it. And so that’s what I was working on, the business case I was working on for my summer internship.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what was the hardest thing for you to adjust to as you were trying out this product manager role for the first time?
Diego: I joined and my manager and the senior PM that I was working with at the time were like, well, so here’s the idea and we need to find out if it’s feasible, if we can do it, if we’re going to make business out of it. So yeah, we need you to give us an answer. And it was overwhelming. It was exciting at the time too, because it was like this huge problem and there was no clear structure or no clear way to perceive. And it was part of my job to figure that out and talking to customers and talking to partners and talking to other parts of Cisco, just to make sense out of the, hey, should we build this or not? And that was super exciting, but super challenging too. What made me comfortable was that I was always uncomfortable because I thought I was not making progress, but the more I talked to people, the more the engineering thing asked me questions and I was able to solve them. I realized that I actually was making progress. I was actually able to answer their questions in meetings where managers would say, hey, do you have data to back up our assumption then I’ll be like, well, I’m not sure if this is enough data, but here’s what three or four customers said. Here’s the survey that we run. Here’s the studies that I found online. Here’s the competitors. So I would just be putting this data together, but it was the first business case that I would do in that sense. I was always not sure if it was the right way to do it. And in the end, what would happen at the end of my summer internship was that I left Cisco to go back to school. And then I got the offer to come back full time. And when I accepted my offer to start at Cisco after graduation, one of the PMs that was close to my team said, Hey, by the way, just so you know, they took your business case and they made a product out of it and they started building it. And then now you’re going to go back and continue working on the project. So even though I felt that I didn’t have the confidence where I was unsure all the time in the end, it was a great experience for me.
Priscilla: Yeah. That’s really cool because it goes back to what you were saying around consulting, not being able to see the final product from your work. And it looks like you really got that even through your internship, which is pretty rare I would say for a lot of interns to come back a year later and see that your project is being implemented. So that’s pretty amazing.
Diego: Yes and it was super exciting to see how something that I built, a presentation because in the end, that was my deliverable. It was super fun to see, oh, actually they did something with it and I’m going to go back and continue working on it.
Priscilla: So how did you make the jump to Microsoft from Cisco?
Diego: After two years at Cisco, I was still working on the same product. We were still making it bigger and launching new features, so I had the opportunity to see the whole spectrum of PM from ideation, all the way to launching a product. It was very fun and very exciting. But I realized that if I wanted to continue growing at Cisco, I had to start thinking of taking a more traditional path in the company. What I mean by that is that I had to understand the trends of Cisco. Like for example, routing, switching, and access points or wireless, were kind of the bread and butter for the company and I had to transition into those products for me to learn more about the company and continue growing. But being a young millennial PM, I was not very excited about those products and I had to be honest with myself and say, yes, I could learn a ton of it, but I was just not very excited about it. So I started to plan, okay, what’s next in my career and the one thing that I decided to do was I was not just going to leave Cisco for the sake of leaving Cisco. I was going to leave Cisco to another company that was really exciting for me, that I could work on products that I could be excited for and I could show it to the world, to my family, to friends and be like, yes, that’s the thing that I’m building. And I started my research and after interviewing with different companies like Amazon and Microsoft and Google, the one that was really exciting to me and I love the team and I love the culture of the company was Microsoft. And I’m a huge gamer. And I love new technologies like AR and VR. And at a company like Microsoft, what I’m working on today, even three years or five years, I want to switch to another place that gives me that opportunity to test really cool things, Microsoft is a place for that and that’s part of why I’ve decided to join Microsoft in the end.
Priscilla: That’s a really good point. And I think it’s great that you were able to be reflective and figure out which kind of product would get you really excited. So tell us what excites you the most about what you do today at Microsoft?
Diego: I work mostly as a technical PM, not fully technical, not fully just business, sort of in the middle, working on AI and machine learning. So what I do is I work with my AI team on building machine learning features that go into other Microsoft products. So we work closely within dynamics 365, the B2B product family of Microsoft. There’s one product called customer insights and they do have some AI capabilities and my role is to help bring those capabilities to life. I work on machine learning predictions and how we put those as features into that customer insights product. And I have to say before that I knew nothing about machine learning, so it’s also been really exciting from a learning perspective. It’s definitely a new world to me and it’s something that once you are working on it and you see the possibilities and even the challenges it’s really exciting to work in AI and machine learning.
Priscilla: Amazing. Amazing. So, Diego, will you tell us a little bit about your YouTube channel and the work that you’re doing to help people break into product management?
Diego: Yes. So when I was in business school, I would buy, you know, any book that was out there at the time or watch videos or read articles about how cool it was to be a PM. And the books were mostly about interviews, right, and they would give you like, oh, here’s a question and here’s a simple answer. And I would read those and I was like, that’s so cool. That’s a great answer. I have no idea how to get from where I am to that great answer. Like how did they come up with that? So after graduation and after working as a PM and after interviewing a lot of folks to get into product management at Cisco, and now at Microsoft, I started understanding more about the interview process, the things that we look for in candidates, and also just by listening to so many answers from candidates, it led me to realize that. A lot of them were having the same issues that I had, which is yes, that was a great answer in that book. But when you are in real life and in an interview, it’s hard to craft that answer. So I started helping some folks online with one-on-one sessions, especially through LinkedIn. And at some point it was impossible for me to keep up. Besides working in Microsoft, I’m also studying a second master’s degree and I just didn’t have the time to meet with as many as I wanted to help them through creating resumes and preparing for interviews. So I started thinking what’s the best way to help them. And that’s how I started with my YouTube channel. And I want to focus my channel on helping people to first of all, understand more about PM and second help them de-mystify the steps to get into product management and that is breaking down here’s what a great answer looks like and here’s how you build to that answer. And that’s why I created my YouTube channel.
Priscilla: Great. So last question. What advice do you have for aspiring product managers, other than checking out your invaluable YouTube resources?
Diego: There are many ways to get into PM and I’ll try to summarize it super fast in this answer, but essentially you have to understand that if you’re trying to go from your current role into a new company, as a PM, it can be really tricky because you’re changing probably industry, you’re changing role and company. The more variables you’re trying to change, the harder it becomes. So one way to get into product management is change the company. Like for example, if you’re interested in Google or Microsoft or Amazon or Apple or any company you want, try to change to that company in a role that you are doing today and then navigate your way into product management by networking and building side projects. But that’s one option. Another option is if you want to do it in your same company, networking with product managers and see how you can help them. That’s a second way to transition into PM. A third one is if you don’t have PMs in your company and you’re struggling to prove that you have the PM value, and this applies to both working, uh, you know, professionals and students, start building side projects. For the engineers out there, it’s not about just coding. For the non-engineers out there, it’s not about coding. It’s about thinking like a PM, building the business case, interacting with users, building a portfolio and showing to the world, hey, I can be a PM. I built this project from scratch and here’s how I would approach it if I were a PM. All of those are going to be just extra points in your resume and through the interviews. And finally, I would say, courses are going to help you understand more about the PM world, but there’s no certification, at least not today, there is no certification that is going to prove to the world that you can be a PM because certifications are not about proving the skills, it’s about proving the knowledge and PM is about skills. So the more you do versus learning and getting the certifications, the more you do, the better or the easier it’ll be to talk to recruiters or other PMs about yes, you can be a PM. So in summary don’t feel overwhelmed by the fact that you’re not getting a PM role today. There are so many paths to get into product management and reach out. There’s always somebody to help to get you into product management.
Priscilla: Diego. This was so helpful. Thank you so much for being with us today.
Diego: Thank you, Priscilla. This was awesome. I really enjoyed it. And for anybody out there struggling, feel free to reach out on LinkedIn or my YouTube channel. I’m here to help you guys. I was struggling like you a few years ago, I broke into PM, and now what I’m trying to do is really demystify the process of getting into product management.
Priscilla: 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 loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Have a great week!