Private Equity is an exclusive, highly competitive and elite space within finance. It’s also very white and very male. Each year, hundreds of elite investment bankers and MBA grads from top schools try to break into PE to make upwards of $500K annually, and that’s without bonuses or carried interest.
Tiffany Luna, a Mexican-American daughter of immigrants who grew up in the South side of Chicago, was an unlikely candidate to break into private equity and become a principal by the age of 30, but that’s exactly what she did – in a very nontraditional way. On this episode, Tiffany doesn’t hold back on what it took to break into – and succeed in this space.
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Tiffany: I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Today’s episode is pure fuego. You don’t want to miss Tiffany Ramirez Luna. She is my college acquaintance from Wellesley and broke into private equity in a very non-traditional way. She didn’t do it going through the investment banking route that most people do. She actually did it on her own. Pre having an MBA and now she has an MBA from Northwestern Kellogg. This episode is a little longer than my normal ones, but it’s because as I was editing, I just could not get myself to cut out some of this juiciness. We talk about imposter syndrome, working in a male-dominated environment, the hidden rules of working in elite spaces, and how she’s dealt with some major BS to get to where she is today as a private equity principal in Chicago.
Priscilla: Hey, Tiffany, welcome to the show.
Tiffany: Thank you so much Pricilla, I really appreciate you having me here today.
Priscilla: Of course. So Tiffany, we’re here to talk about your really exciting career path in private equity. You and I crossed paths at Wellesley College many years ago, and it’s been so cool to see your success in the private equity finance world. You got your MBA at Northwestern and you’ve just been killing it, so really excited to dive in. Why don’t you start by telling us a little bit about how you grew up in Chicago?
Tiffany: Yeah, of course. So I am a first-generation Mexican-American. I was born and raised in the South side of Chicago. And as you mentioned, I went to school at Wellesley with you and then came back to Chicago right after, pretty shortly after starting my career up in private equity. And I got there through a really unique path that I actually want to talk about it. It started in high school. So I went to high school in South side of Chicago at a school called Cristo Rey. And I don’t know if you’ve heard of it before, but pretty Cristo Rey has a program where students can work, not can, they all work actually at a corporate position one day out of the week and use that to pay for their tuition. And so when I was in high school, I worked in private equity. I worked at a private equity firm here in Chicago and that’s how I got my start. Now, back when I was doing that, I was obviously 15, 16, 17. I was there for four years. I was really young, not doing any type of private equity type work at all, but it really was my first exposure to it and I’d say how I got started down the private equity path.
Priscilla: Yeah, like it planted a little seed for you.
Tiffany: It did. And what’s interesting, it did it in two ways. First when I was there, I had a really rough time because the environment was so different from everything that I had experienced growing up. I’d say that growing up, I was relatively sheltered in terms of my exposure to different types of people. I lived in a Mexican neighborhood. I went to a Mexican school. All the students were Mexican or like 99% of them were Mexican. My grammar school, my high school was the same way. So I didn’t have as much exposure to different types of people and different ideas until I started working. And when I started working, it was a culture shock, I’d say, because I, all of a sudden, got access to all these different types of people that had all these different types of backgrounds and this field, private equity, that is almost exclusive in a way, but it was a good way to start getting an idea of how things worked, and that’s where it started.
Priscilla: Yeah, I can totally imagine how intimidating it would be to be a teenage Mexican-American girl from Chicago at a private equity firm. It just sounds like a totally different world. But yeah, so you went to Wellesley. I know you were an international relations history major, and obviously you did not pursue anything in that world. So how did you end up landing in private equity after college?
Tiffany: Yeah. So right after graduation, it was so tough. I remember applying to so many different places and not getting jobs. And my loans were looming and I thought I have to find something. And I want to be picky but I don’t want to be too picky because I want to be able to pay this stuff back at the same time and not be in debt. So right out of school, what I did is I did a couple different positions, one was more hedge fund oriented and it was temporary. And I knew it was temporary leading to a potential of the long-term full-time position but I didn’t like it. And so I thought, “Okay, this is the first one. I won’t get sad if I go onto something else.” So then I moved on to a more of a consulting role, which I did not like very much for myself. The pace was a little bit off for me. So I kept trying to look for PE positions and I couldn’t find anything just because most PE firms, when they’re hiring for their junior base, for their analysts or their associates, they’re looking for people that have investment banking experience. That’s just the way it is. It’s a very traditional route that most people take to get into PE. So I wasn’t having any luck, but I had all these great connections that kept hooking me up to different people and different networks. And so I thought, “Okay, there has to be something here for me.” And so through some of that networking, someone mentioned to me about a position at the firm where I’m at currently. And the interesting thing is when I applied to that job, the person who is now my boss said, “I would love to have you and I would love to hire you as a junior person. But because we’re not a dedicated PE firm, we’re like a smaller group within this asset manager is we grow as our allocations grow. So we can’t hire you right now but I want to keep you on board.” So I was like, “Okay, well, how are we going to make that happen?” And here’s the interesting thing. So he offered me a position as their admin. And I was like, “No, I did not go to Wellesley, I did not go through all this stuff to be an admin.”
Priscilla: Yeah. I feel like that would be super triggering and messed up if I was interviewing somewhere after college with a college degree and they were like, “You can be my admin,” right?
Tiffany: I agree, Priscilla, it totally is. I was like, “Are you serious? Is this what we’re going to do?” I kept applying to different places and I kept talking to people that were mentoring me and I feel like something interesting happened. So one, I felt like I started getting a little bit more desperate because it was, again, the loans and all my bills and everything was coming up and I thought, “I have to pay for this stuff.” And the other thing that happened is I had another conversation in a follow-up with my current boss and he said, “What would you like to do? What can we do to bring you on board?” And I said, “Look, I’m going to go get my MBA. I am going to be successful in finance. This is my plan.” I was like, “I have a plan.” I was like, “I can’t come in and not know that I don’t have a potential position.” And so we made an agreement. He said, “If you work for me as our admin for two years, I will let you work for us like you’re our analyst. You will do everything. You will sit on every meeting. You will talk to the attorneys, to management teams. You will have access to everything that everyone on a deal team does. You can run an entire deal with the deal team, but I need you to answer phones and book flights too.” And I took it and I was like, it killed me, Priscilla, it really killed me. At first I was ashamed that I did it and I was like, “But they’re offering me this option.” And I thought, “And if it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave.” I kept saying, “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll leave,” and it happened. The way my boss, to his credit, exactly how he promised, I did two years and then we brought in someone else and they put me through business school. And now, I mean, I’m a principal now. I’ve worked on deals since day one. I looked, I learned everything from them. I learned how to do the modeling, everything I would have done in banking I did with them, but as an admin. And I got other roles, like I got promoted to analyst before becoming a principal. But it was the toughest thing to do because I had to eat my own ego, swallow it. But at the same time, I don’t know that I would have been able to get in if I hadn’t done it because I didn’t do investment banking.
Priscilla: Because that is the traditional role, right? Like, you have to do your two years and then they start recruiting you from either PE or hedge funds, right?
Priscilla: Yeah. It’s amazing that you were able to do that.
Tiffany: Yeah, that is exactly the traditional route to do. And even then, it’s very difficult because here in Chicago, and this is like many other cities too, there’s only a select number of PE firms. There’s a lot more in New York. There’s a lot more in the coasts but here in Chicago, there’s only a certain number. So there’s a lot of students who are coming out and even out of business schools with some type of experience, and they’re all competing for these same roles, and it’s just, it’s extremely competitive, extremely competitive. So what you end up doing is you end up getting a huge base of people that are applying to these jobs, and then it just comes down to the small details. Everyone starts being top of their class, full-rounded people, everyone’s excellent at everything. And so it’s okay, who knows someone that knows someone? And a lot of times that’s how people end up getting hired, because everyone is so excellent at what they do. Do you know what I mean? So it it’s just extremely difficult. And that’s how you ended up getting a lot of the same type of people working in PE, because people look for people that look like them. And so that’s my background. That’s how I got in.
And when I went to business school, I mentioned at the beginning of business school, people would ask, people who were interested in getting in private equity, and they were very bothered by it. They were very bothered that I slipped through the cracks or I got in through the back door. And I’d say that in the beginning, I felt really bad about myself thinking, “Hey, this is not the right way to do it like I did.” I got this imposter syndrome feeling, where I didn’t earn this, I didn’t do it the way I should have. But honestly, by the time business school was over, oh, that was gone. I ended up realizing that there were people that I had worked with at school who had gone the investment banking route and didn’t have the experience or the knowledge of certain things that I’d already been exposed to, that I was already doing even though I had been an admin. So I credit that to my department, to my company, and to my coworkers who honestly said, “We’re going to do this, we’re going to bring you in,” and did it for me the entire time. And they continued to do that for me.
Priscilla: Well, that’s good on them, but definitely I’m sure that was scary and risky for you to trust them and hope that it would work out, right? And now you’ve been there for nearly nine years. Is that right?
Tiffany: Yeah, it’ll be 10 years in May, so I’ve been there for a while. And I thought about it a lot early on, where I thought maybe it’s not true, maybe they’re not going to help me get through or it’s false promises and it’s not something. But I didn’t want to risk it and I thought, “You know what, I’m going to work my ass off.” And I worked my ass off really hard to get where I am, and I learned everything I could, and I try to absorb all the information that they were throwing at me. And I’m glad I did, I’m glad I did. I’m glad that I had that time. Now I feel in a great position, every time we get anyone who’s coming in new, who doesn’t understand, who needs guidance, I like to be the first one to step out and help them just because I understand what it is to be in a position of not knowing what’s ahead in PE.
Priscilla: Kind of like you mentioned earlier, PE is a very elite industry. It’s an elite space. A lot of people don’t know what it is. So how do you explain to their family members what private equity work entails?
Tiffany: I explain it to my family and my extended family as house flipping. That’s the easiest way to explain it because I was like, “Look guys, we buy companies with pools of money that people,” I was like, “If you guys give me a bunch of money and I buy a house and then I flip it, and I give you proceeds.” I was like, “That’s what we’re doing. It’s a large pool of money from people coming in. We’re buying a company that we think has good potential or is in distress position and we could turn around or different scenarios, we try to clean them up, fix them up and sell them. And the idea is that when we sell them, they’re better companies than they were when we purchased them.” So on a large scale, that’s how I explained it to my family as house flipping, and it seems to be a good explanation for them. So it’s an easy way for them to understand, I think.
Priscilla: When you started in this world, it’s not like you had a BBA, right, like a bachelors in business. You had to probably fill in a lot of learning gaps for yourself. So how did you end up ramping up and learning what you needed to do to do the work?
Tiffany: When I first started, like you mentioned, my background was in international relations. I’ve taken some econ courses or required courses but no finance courses. So what I did was while I was working full-time, I took nighttime courses in accounting, in finance, in modeling. So I was supplementing what I was learning in real-time with some of those courses in some of the local schools here in Chicago. I did classes at Northwestern. They were continuing studies program for students that already have gotten their bachelors, who want to take college level or higher, depending on which courses you were taking courses in. And that’s how I did accounting and finance.
Priscilla: Got it. And so did they help you pay for that or were you just, “I’m just going to pay for this”?
Tiffany: Nope, they helped me pay for it. I told them, I was like, “Guys,” I was like, “if I’m going to do this, I need to understand what it is that we’re doing.” And they work a hundred percent for it. I think that’s rare. I don’t think that there’s a lot of companies nowadays that do stuff like that, but they were able to help me through whatever courses I needed and I would just pitch it. I would say, “Hey, there’s this class. I think it’s really good. I think it would benefit me.” I’d write up the value that I thought it would bring. And then if they thought that it was something that I could benefit from, they’d approve it. And ultimately that’s how I was able to get through some of those courses early on, which I think actually helped me. So by the time I was applying to business school for the MBA, it was really beneficial and really good to reinforce even to the business school, “Hey, this is something I’m really dedicated to. I’ve been dedicated to this for a couple of years. I took these courses, some at your business school.” So it was also helpful there in that aspect, but that’s one way that I started learning more of the technical side.
I think the other side is really just talking to people and finding mentors internally, who have experience in PE, who’ve done it for a couple of years. And one of my colleagues, who really is a mentor and has been a mentor for a couple of years for me, I’d say he’s the one that really took me in early on when I had so many questions about a lot more detailed things that we were doing on a day-to-day basis with deals. So that would be my recommendation is maybe look for ways to add to your education where you’re missing gaps and also find people who can give you the reality of it, right? Because in the classroom, you tend to learn the academic way to do things but it’s not always the way that things work in reality. I’ve taken classes even at the business school level that this is the way things should do and we should calculate valuations or do this XYZ method, and in real life, that’s not how it’s done. And it may or may not be the correct way but it’s not done the way they do it in business school. So getting someone who can walk you through the reality of it too is very helpful.
Priscilla: And why do you think that PE firms do only recruit from ibankers? Is there a real reason for that? Or do you think it’s just like an antiquated system and pipeline?
Tiffany: I have a theory for that. I think it’s two main reasons. One, I think they don’t have the time to train people. They don’t want to have to sit there and wait for people to have everything explained to them, to get these rotation programs or anything going on. Some do but it’s very rare. It’s easier for larger PE firms to just have people filtered in and taught through investment banking. The other reason I think is because it actually helps filter people. I think it filters people because investment banking is a grind. It’s a lot of work and you work long hours and that’s an expectation for when you get to private equity. And so if you can’t handle it, when you’re doing it through investment banking, it almost weeds people out. And I think it helps get a better pool of candidates that are used to the workload to get rid of the people who just don’t have what it takes to get that kind of work schedule and work-life balance working for them.
Priscilla: So I think people know that there’s a lot of money that can be made in private equity and that’s what makes it such a highly coveted and very elite space to get into. Has that been your experience? Would you agree with that?
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Tiffany: Yeah, I mean, I don’t disagree. PE definitely does offer a lot of people in terms of salary. There’s three different types of ways to incentivize like an employee, there’s that base salary, then there’s also the bonus pools. So your bonus pool would be a certain percentage of your salary, anywhere between 20%, 50% up to 50% or more. So you can have that on top of it based on performance. And then there’s that third aspect, which I think is actually probably one of the biggest factors that get people interested is carry, and carry offers people who are getting into private equity, maybe not the analysts and associates, usually it’s more senior people. It gives them the ability to invest certain percentage of their own money and that percentage is allocated to them from the top. So the bosses, whoever’s in charge, they’ll get a certain percentage that they are to invest alongside the investor base. So you’re investing your own money in these deals and it’s supposed to incentivize you, because you have skin in the game. So depending on how well that company does, once you exit the transaction, I mean, the return on the deal is the return you’re getting on your invested portion. So you’re locking up money for a while, depending on how long you hold a company for. But in the long run, it gives you a great opportunity if you have deals that generate pretty big multiples at exit. So people love it but at the same time, I’m going to tell you, people work hard for it. It’s hard hours. You’re working all the time. You have so much invested that you really can’t afford for it to fail.
Priscilla: Yeah. And what has it been like being a Latina in private equity when there’s so few of you, if any, right? What is that like, how do you deal with the imposter syndrome that has maybe come up for you?
Tiffany: Yeah. I have had some very interesting experiences. It’s been really hard, to be honest. I feel like my team and my group has been really kind and really helpful to the extent that they can in guiding me and helping me to meet new people. And the different people that I meet, whether they be management teams, CEOs, CFOs, or maybe either lawyers, attorneys that we work with or whatever, consultants, whoever it is that we’re meeting, different people tend to react very differently to me. When I go to a board meeting or I walk into a boardroom where I’ve never met the people before, I tend to get stares. I think most people think, “Oh, she must be confused, she must not know where she is,” because they seem very confused by me being there.
I’ve had some really nasty experiences that have left me bad taste in my mouth. I’ll give you an example. It was the first time we’re meeting a management team for a company that we were looking to potentially acquire. We flew over to New York. I went with two other colleagues and we’re all in suits. It’s a suit meeting and we’re walking into the conference room. It’s supposed to be about 20 people or so in the conference room. And I’ve one colleague in front of me, one colleague behind me, and the management team is lined up shaking everyone’s hand as we walk in. And so as I’m walking in and I started shaking everyone’s hand saying hello, introducing myself, and we’re all walking in the line. And one of the people from the C-suite shakes my colleague’s hand in front of me, and then goes over my head and then shakes my colleague’s hand behind me, and completely skips me, just literally what right over my head and did not even shake my hand. And I get stuff like that more often than you would believe. I get people who come to meetings and, I don’t know, don’t realize that I’m part of the group. I really don’t know what excuses they can come up with. But stuff like that happens so much more than you would believe it to happen. And it’s really sad and it’s been really hard to deal with because it’s hard enough with that imposter syndrome to make yourself believe that you belong there. And then when you have other people doing stuff like that, it really adds to it.
But over the years, I’d say my skin has gotten so much thicker and I’ve become a lot more in-your-face when people do stuff like that to me. And so like in that example, I stayed right in front of them. The person who didn’t shake my hand, the line stopped moving because I stopped moving and everyone kept — and he looks at me and I stuck my hand right under his nose and then he goes, “Oh, hi,” and introduces himself. But it takes stuff like that to get them to realize, “Hey, I’m in the room. I’m also part of this team. I’m not here to clean the table or do stuff like this.” I think it’s been interesting to see how some people react so well to me, other people don’t, it’s just a mixed bag. It’s not always the people you would expect but I guess, one, getting a thick skin has helped me and honestly, two, sometimes getting the support of colleagues when they notice it. Cause we’ve had a conversations now internally with our group after some of the experiences that I’ve had, where they’re now being a lot more aware as to what’s happening when people interact with me versus how they interact with them.
Priscilla: That is so challenging. That feels, I mean, not only is your job so demanding physically, intellectually, your time, but to have that on top of everything, to feel invisible in the room, it’s just such a terrible feeling.
Tiffany: Yeah. And one of the reasons that I really wanted to get my MBA is to say, “I want to continue to level out the playing field.” I don’t want anyone to have an excuse to say she did not come prepared. She is not as prepared as some of our own or doesn’t know what she’s talking about. I feel like the expectation is you have to come twice as prepared. You have to be maybe even three times as prepared and you have to be twice as vocal as everyone else and a little bit more aggressive and also more kind and also more everything, which is really hard to balance and learn and adapt to, but it is, that’s just the reality of it. It’s the only way that I can manage to sometimes get a word in or get someone to give me attention. Now, the interesting thing is I’ve had friends that I’ve made in the same industry who are Latinos, who are men and they don’t have as much of a tough time. Now, I don’t know if that’s everyone, but the few friends that I have who are Latinos in PE who are men don’t seem to have the same experience. And it’s so frustrating to me.
Priscilla: Yeah. So it’s funny you say that because I was literally just thinking that. I was thinking, “I bet it’s so hard as women of color to compartmentalize those identities because we’re just all of that all of the time,” right? But I think in finance, like we talked about a little earlier, it is so male-dominated and it’s shocking to have a woman principal period in the room who knows what she’s talking about, who could command the room. And so they’re able to look past, and I say look past intentionally, like your race, if you’re a man.
Tiffany: Yeah. And I’ve had to do other things to adapt. I had to golf when I was at Wellesley. And I took it for fun but then when I started working where I’m at now, I thought, “Oh, this is going to come in handy.” And a lot of my colleagues make and develop relationships through golf. And so I thought, “No, hell no, I’m not saying behind. I need to keep up. I’m not going to have the excuse that I didn’t make contacts or connection because I don’t golf.” So I took up golf lessons and I bought golf clubs and I took lessons. And now if the invitation goes out, I have a conversation again with my colleagues telling them, “Hey, it’s unfair. I’m not developing relationships because you guys are golfing and I’m not getting an invite.” And so they make sure to speak up for me now if anyone invites them and say, “Hey, Tiffany golfs too. She should come.” But the things we have to go through just to get in there and be part of the same conversations, it’s annoying and it’s very difficult.”
Priscilla: Yeah. Playing golf to fit in and not miss out on any critical conversations that can advance your career. It’s crazy that as women, we have to be thinking about those things, especially if we’re working in male-dominated spaces. So what were other things that maybe you have done or situations that you’ve been in, where you’ve had to really think about what are the hidden rules of this elite space?
Tiffany: In the beginning, I remember we’d go to annual meetings and we’d be sitting at dinner and they always seat you with a variety of people so you don’t just sit with your colleagues, et cetera. And I remember hearing conversations between the people at the table, “We’re going skiing to over here. Oh, my children play lacrosse and this and that.” And here, I kept thinking like, “Here I am, this tiny little Latina from the South side of Chicago.” I’m like, “I played basketball. That’s the only thing I could talk to you about.” But being able to have those conversations about topics that you know nothing about, it’s tricky. And I think that learning how to maybe guide the conversation towards other areas where you can participate, that’s what becomes a little bit more helpful. And it’s what I’ve been trying to do over the last few years, where once people start talking about things that I have no experience and I have nothing to be able to relay, I try to get that conversation somewhere else and ask different questions that lead people towards things that I do know something about or that I do have experienced, just so that they won’t exclude me from that conversation.
Priscilla: Yup. And have you had to mute different parts of yourself or code switch at work in order to really be successful?
Tiffany: Yes, yes, every time. I think it tends to be a very conservative space and a very traditional space. And PE has this thing where cultural fit is big. And if there’s something about you that doesn’t fit, then that’s a point against you. That’s a reason not to hire you. That’s a reason not to get you because you’re not a cultural fit. So what you end up doing is you end up hiding a lot about your life or about where you’re from or what you believe in if you are different because you don’t want to risk being flagged as the person that’s a bad cultural fit. And PE, there’s no fear of letting people go who are not cultural fits, that’s common. And if you’re a junior person and I feel like you start exposing yourself, then you’ll be cut out. And it stinks because why would you want everyone to be exactly the same? The companies we buy sell products to people that are so different. You want variety, and they want variety at some level, some opinion of it, but if you’re cutting it out from the bottom when you’re getting analysts and associates come in, I just don’t know how that’s going to change. But yeah, I’d say it’s something that I’ve curved a lot in the beginning. I think now that I’m moving up, I’m trying to curve it a lot less and be a lot more vocal just because I feel more secure in my position, and I feel like I can say things without the fear of all they’ll realize that no, I’m problematic or they don’t want me here and will just say, “Sorry, you’re not a good fit.”
Priscilla: Yeah, there’s definitely a lot of D&I work that has to be done in finance, for sure. So my next and last question for you, what is your recommendation for people who want to get into private equity? Maybe it’s through the more traditional iBanking MBA path, but what’s your general advice about breaking into this industry?
Tiffany: Yeah. I’d say it’s a couple things. One, prepare yourself as much as you can. Try to get to business school, try to get through places that have — if you’re doing the investment banking route, try to go through the big names, that’ll make it easier to get into. And then the other thing I’d say is if you’re choosing to go in through a non-traditional route, it is possible, definitely is possible. I got there and not just myself. I didn’t mention this earlier but every one of my colleagues, none of us went through investment banking. There’s 10 of us and all of us came from non-traditional routes. Some did consulting, some were auditors. Others, for example, a close colleague of mine, he came in as a lawyer for PE and he was hired from the lawyer from our legal side, sent to business school, and then continued working for us. So he went in through the legal aspect of it. And then another person came in through operations. So he actually worked at a company, worked in the operations team, learned about the companies from the inside and then joined PE. And that was super beneficial and I think it’s something that maybe coming a little bit more common now, just because a lot of PE firms want to be able to hire people who actually have experienced working a company. You can manage a company a lot better if you’ve worked in one, if you’ve known how it functions. So I think that’s also — you can make really strong point and be able to get into PE through that method especially, for example, if you have experienced in, let’s say, healthcare, strong experience in healthcare and you’re looking at a PE firm who’s focused in healthcare, then you’re a strong asset for them. So, looking at different ways, that’s helpful. And then the only other route that I would suggest too, just to wrap this up is, you don’t always have to end up at the big PE firms. There are asset managers, there are family offices, there are endowments, pension funds. There’s so many different types of firms that you can go to that have a PE wing to them. And you can start there and then work your way up and transfer over to the large PE firm, if ultimately that’s where you want to end up.
Priscilla: Amazing advice. Thank you, Tiffany, for being with us today and letting us hear your story and allowing yourself to be so vulnerable, opening up about the hardships involved. So thank you.
Tiffany: Yeah, no, of course it’s tough but it’s really rewarding. And if people can get a little bit more exposure to it and really understand it, then I think it’s something that more people would be willing to try. But thank you so much for having me.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
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.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
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!
On this episode, you’ll hear from Isabel Longoria, a French-Mexican-American policy and public affairs professional from Houston, Texas. Isabel, a queer Latina, ran against an incumbent on the Houston City Council in 2019 and narrowly lost by only 16 votes. Isabel shares what the experience was like, what she learned, and how she’s pivoted into a new exciting role leading voter innovation in Harris County.
Check out the Highlights:
2:09 – Isabel’s personal background and influences
3:26 – How Isabel got involved in Texas politics back in 2011
6:10 – How Isabel began to consider running for office herself
8:10 – What to keep in mind when deciding where and how to run for office
10:58 – How being gay impacted Isabel’s experience running for City Council
14:07- Isabel takes us back to the 2019 City Council race and loss aftermath
17:56 – How Isabel got help launching her campaign as a new-comer with no name recognition
19:37 – The hardest parts about running a campaign
22:43- Isabel’s advice to anyone interested in running for office
25:24- Isabel’s take on career strategy using design think principles
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Latino Texas PAC
Isabel’s LinkedIn – Reach out to her if you’re a young BIPOC interested in running for office!
Isabel: It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so, I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
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 everyone! Today you get to hear from the amazing Isabel Longoria, a Mexican-French-American and proud Houstonian who is also a policy and public affairs professional. Isabel has been heavily involved in politics & policy in Texas for over 10 years, and in 2019, she ran against an incumbent for a Houston City Council position and lost narrowly by only 16 votes. In 2020, she led voting innovation for Harris County during the election, and shortly after was sworn in as their first-ever Elections Administrator. This interview did take place before we found out the results from the 2020 election, so just keep that in mind as you listen…She is such a wonderful example of resilience, true public service, and paying it forward to queer communities and communities of color who are interested in running for office. If that is you, make sure you hit her up on LinkedIn as she is very open to helping people fo’ free.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. I’m really excited to have Isabel Longoria on today’s episode to talk about her career in public service. Thank you so much, Isabel, for being with us.
Isabel: I’m excited.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t you kick us off by telling us a little bit about yourself?
Isabel: So I am Houston born and raised. I’ve loved Houston ever since I was born. My dad’s a Mexican immigrant and my mom is a French immigrant. So I’m a first generation Houstonian along with my brother, and, yeah, we’ve got an interesting dynamic of being the epitome of that melting pot here in Houston, different cultures, different regions of the world, but always, always feeling like I’ve had a place in Houston. Yeah. I’m a big nerd for pretty much anything public service, talking about urban policy, and I think that comes from growing up in Houston and my dad being an architect….it really helped frame for me growing up how we design communities and what it means to build up that environment and how communities interact in spaces big and large. And one thing I like to point out too, is that both of them, that French and Mexican side, my grandparents, my uncles, were all part of city council in their cities, ran for state legislature and were heavily involved in politics. But no one knows that for me here in Houston, and it doesn’t apply, (laughs), once you actually get to the city you love and end up growing up in and living in.
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into that, I want to hear a little bit about what your experience was like at UT Austin LBJ School of Public Affairs. How did you use those two years? What did you get involved in?
Isabel: I ended up working at the legislature. So I first started checking mail for a state representative and she said, “Hey, the legislature’s coming up in Texas. Do you want to work to get extra credits while you’re at policy school?” I said, cool, why not? I’ll make a couple extra bucks. And it was the 2011 legislative session. I was working for the head of the democratic caucus, Jessica Farrar, and I fell in love with it. I was Head of Redistricting for her, I worked on the Democratic Women’s Caucus and every day was an exciting adventure in new policy and new things to do. You could do education and transportation and women’s health and all of these things. And I actually started specializing in a way that maybe some of the folks at LBJ had more of that consultant or non-profit kind of real-world business experience, I now had that political experience.
Priscilla: Where did life lead you after graduation from LBJ? What did you do next, and how did you figure that out?
Isabel: It was just a natural progression. So after having worked at the legislature, I developed those contacts of people who were in the Democratic Party. And when I graduated LBJ that summer, I got a job working on Democratic campaigns, right? Those were my contacts. Seemed like an easy enough thing. And I always thought campaigns would be for me, just something I did until I found my real job. (Laughs.) So I started working on Democratic politics in South Texas and Houston, because that’s where my family’s from. And then, you get to know more people, and through that, I always told two of my contacts that I wanted to get back to Houston. And so there was a special election for Senator Sylvia Garcia in Houston. Jumped back on that race. It was a quick two month race. She won and I ended up working for her. And so then became my cycle of working at the state legislature doing policy work, and then in the interim, working in Houston on the community organizing and district office side, and through that always kind of political campaigns in the background, because I just started getting that specialty. I mean, that’s, that’s what I know. That’s where I have my contacts and I’ve really developed a strategic mind for it.
Priscilla: How many campaigns did you work on for, for Sylvia Garcia?
Isabel: So I worked on Jessica Farrar, Sylvia Garcia, twice. But in South Texas, I worked on two House races. In Houston, I worked on the Ann Johnson race, the first time against Sarah Davis. And now she’s back running against Sarah Davis. So that’s five. I’ve also advised on the Wendy Davis campaign for governor and various races here in Houston. And I’ve actually, I don’t charge to work on these races in Houston, especially if it’s for young progressives or young people of color. I love, love, love, breaking that barrier, and getting away from paid consultants and saying, “Hey, here’s my advice. Here’s what I would do. Let me connect you to the people who can help you”, because I want to break down that barrier of entry for anyone interested in running for office, and for too long, quite frankly, it’s been a good old boys club, even on the Democratic side in Texas. And it’s great, I know some of those people, I know they do great work, but I still want to break down that barrier. I still want to give radical access rights to the kind of information that can help people run for office.
Priscilla: During this time, while you were running all these campaigns, did you ever imagine that you yourself would be running for office? How did that idea come into play?
Isabel: Yeah, I started seeing people doing it more and more, and I realized that elected officials are just human beings, just like the rest of us and that they had the same passion for public service. And I think for me it helped demystify it that it wasn’t, it wasn’t something where you had to be born a Kennedy and you get to be part of a special family that does this, especially when you’ve listened to Senator or, now Congresswoman, Sylvia Garcia’s story, where she grew up on a farming family just outside of Corpus. That she worked her way up by going through law school and then becoming a municipal judge through networking here in Houston, that she’s now a Congresswoman. And I think for me, it really put it into perspective that what is more important for an elected official is to have that passion and then to have the skills of being able to talk to people, policy analysis, strategic negotiation…which are all things that I’ve developed in my time at LBJ and in my other jobs. And then, being able to watch it in action so many times at different legislative sessions started putting in my head that, yeah, hey, I think I have the skills to do it. And now the question and the question always for me was, where can I be an authentic community leader? So it’s not about moving into a neighborhood and six months later running to say that I’m running…Where’s my place, where’s my city, right? Where’s my group that I really want to defend and take care of? And then how can I work to really earn the respect of that community to serve them and to represent all of us in office?
Priscilla: Yeah, I respect that so much about you because you’re right, I think that people can be strategic sometimes about, “Oh, there’s a seat, an opportunity that can be flipped. I’m going to move there.” That kind of thing. But I think you’ve been intentional about slowly building the community, like from the ground up.
Isabel: I can’t reiterate it enough. Even coming back to Houston and running for office later in city council, I’ve always gotten the message of, “Hey, you’re great, but we don’t know your family, right? You’re not one of the Garcia’s or Ninfa Laurenzo’s, right?” Or one of those families that have been in Houston, Mexican-American, for decades and decades that has the family that everyone knows. And so it’s interesting because I try to share my story of, “Hey, if you go to Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, people know my family, we ran for mayor. My great grandfather was head of the, essentially the state’s legislature in Tamaulipas. You go to Northern France, people know my grandparents as running on city councils. So I have that legacy, but it doesn’t translate here. And so then it was even more important…and there is some strategy, right, of who I was working for, of being with Sylvia Garcia and taking on the jobs in her office that weren’t necessarily glamorous, but they put me in front of a lot of people, like being her driver. You get to meet everyone that she’s meeting when you’re the driver. And then later on really thinking about the civic clubs and wanting to be involved in and making sure I led with service. So it wasn’t just, “Go and run to be treasurer of whatever civic club”, it was, “How can I be going to the community garden day? How can I be going to the house building day? How can I be going to every single civic club meeting?” So I learn what’s going on and I integrate myself into the community because I don’t have that name to fall back on.
Priscilla: Wow. That’s so interesting. I’m from Houston and I really hadn’t even thought about how there are these families that you really need to get to know to be able to play in that space.
Isabel: Oh yeah…Like, here in Houston, there’s the Treviños, the Morenos, there’s even people who’ve become activists lately who I deeply respect and who would become my mentors, but there’s families that you have to fight against and there’s families whose rings you have to kiss. And so I don’t want to…pretend like there isn’t any strategy. I think that you have to be thoughtful about what you’re doing and who you’re connecting with…But for me, it’s always been, I’m going to be thoughtful. I’m going to connect with people, but I’m going to make sure to check my bias. And this is big for me…I’m going to try and read the signs when people are telling me that I’m not the person to run for office, because I think that’s a mistake other people make. And if they’re saying don’t run for office, why? Is it because truly they’re saying you don’t have the experience? We don’t trust you? You’re not getting invited to things? You don’t get invited to speak at things or be part of things? That’s a big sign that people don’t want you around. But if the pushback you’re getting is, “Oh, well, you’re young”…Age is a number, right? “Oh, well, there’s been other families here.” Good and great. Are they running? I don’t know. I think that’s the hardest part quite frankly, of running for office is listening to that community feedback and deciding what’s accurate feedback, what’s an accurate assessment and what’s just people projecting their own fear of the unknown.
Priscilla: When you were thinking about running, did you think a lot about being a woman and do you feel like that held you back in any way?
Isabel: I thought a lot more about being gay. I’m gay. I present very masculine for being a woman. And I don’t look Hispanic enough. So I used to love to say on the campaign trail “Soy Guera, pero no Gringa.” (English Translation: I may look light-skinned, but I’m not Caucasian). I don’t know, getting in that I can speak Spanish, that I have this Mexican background. It’s not necessarily Mexican-American, which, I think actually, was an interesting challenge as well. No, I thought a lot more about being gay. And I know for a fact that later running for city council, it came down to 0.02% difference, 0.02% difference between me and the incumbent city council member who won. And I know without a shadow of a doubt, it was a 16 vote difference, that being gay played into it. And I just adopted very early on, this is who I am. I would hate myself more for trying to put myself in a closet or play it down. And quite honestly, I think it would be disingenuous. I think people have the right to know who they are electing into office and they expect and should expect a certain integrity of authenticity of who you are. I dressed in my jeans and my blazer, and I never hid that I was gay. I put it on all of my literature and material. I had some abuelitas, and abuelitos, more than anything, who weren’t excited about that. And I left it up to them. If that’s something that was going to prevent them from voting for me, they have every right to do that. And that speaks more about what we need to work on in a society, right, than about me and my ability to represent.
Priscilla: And now, a quick message from our sponsor.
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Isabel: But I got to 50/50. I mean, I got to…I think it was 49.98 to 50.02 or something like that.
Priscilla: Yeah, so that’s the perfect segway, Isabel, tell us about your city council race in 2019.
Isabel: So, I took on a city council incumbent, who was a Houston transplant who had run already in the scene in the head for four years. She was running again. She’s a very nice woman. She actually used to babysit me when I was younger and she was friends with my father. Her husband is an architect, so she knew my family and she just wasn’t as proactive and is not as proactive as I would like to see, and that’s why I took her on. It was tough. It’s tough to take on an incumbent and every single incumbent in Houston won, but I am proud to say that all of the incumbents who ran in the Houston City Council elections last time won by 55, 60 or greater percent. And so I’m the only one that got close, 0.02% close, to taking out an incumbent. And I’m pretty dang proud of that.
Priscilla: I guess, the aftermath. What was that day like when you realized how close you were and how did you process it in the days and weeks to come?
Isabel: (Deep sigh and long pause)…At the time that it was happening, it was happening very quickly. And there were things I needed to do as far as the provisional votes that come in and the final canvas, because at first, the night, the election night, we were only a 12 vote difference. And so my campaign manager and I had decided that after the provisional ballots came in, if we brought it down to 10 votes or less, that we would ask for a recount, because that was statistically so close and 10 is important. In every other recount that’s happened in Harris County, the most votes that have ever been overturned is 10. And so for us, that, that was our marker. And so there was a lot of strategy there and still a lot of attention to, what do we do? How do we get people out? Is there anything we can do? And then, once it was 16 votes ahead, a lot of people wanted me to push to do a recount, regardless, because…right now in City Council, of the 17 members, and that includes the mayor, there’s only one Hispanic person, Robert Gallegos. He is now the only LGBT representative as well, I believe. And so there was a lot of people asking me to do a recount regardless because they wanted another Hispanic person and another LGBT representative on council. And, quite honestly Priscilla, that was the toughest decision of the entire campaign is do I do a recount or not? And we had the money, we had the backing and all I could think is, do I want to put the city through that? What does it mean then to just, like, inflate this drama knowing statistically, we probably won’t close that 16 vote difference? And so it was more important for me at the time to be gracious in that loss and to hopefully use my race then as motivation for why we needed to do more in the future to work beforehand, to help people of color and LGBT representatives run for office than to try fighting over the breadcrumbs at the end. And I say that because several LGBT elected officials decided to stay out of the race or remain neutral or had picked the incumbent side, or mine came back and said, “you know what? I made a mistake. Had I known it would be that close. I would have backed you. I just didn’t think anyone could take on an incumbent.” And that is that’s the one I struggle with the most. Shouldn’t you back who you believe in shouldn’t you back the change that you want to see in the world? And I do hope, and I do think quite frankly, that for at least a couple of years, people will point to my race as a reason why there needs to be more, more access and more resources for people of color, especially Hispanic and LGBT members early on, because there is a possibility if you have good candidates and progressive candidates who run great races to take on incumbents.
Priscilla: When you were running your campaign, were there any PACs or any organizations that really helped you launch this campaign?
Isabel: Yeah. I, I think again, having been in the Democratic politics for a while, right? Most of the biggest strategists in the city, county and state, were my friends, my best friends. So I was really lucky in that they all came to help free of charge. I would say organization-wise Latino Texas PAC, based here out of Houston, came on early and hard and they gave me, I think, towards the end, nearly $10,000 over the run and the runoff, ‘cause there was a runoff, to beat this incumbent. And it was that seed money that helped me make the pitch to unions, that helped me make the pitch to the LGBT caucus that I was viable, that I could raise money and that I had people behind me. So that was fantastic and I give them a lot of credit and honestly, Sylvia Garcia, who I worked with, she came out for me early and said, I know it’s tough taking on an incumbent, we’re cordial, she mentioned that she didn’t think that particular incumbent was doing a good job either, and she wanted to see more Hispanic representation. So she backed me early and that did send a signal to the other elected officials that this is something you should jump in on and they made their decisions as they needed to strategically. So I’m very grateful for those two entities, Sylvia Garcia and Latino Texas PAC.
Priscilla: So I assume that speaking in front of crowds and building relationships comes very naturally to you. What were the parts from the campaign that were a little more challenging or just harder for you?
Isabel: Yeah, so you’re right, speaking publicly – I loved it. I get a big energy kick out of that, and debates were fun. Being on the quote-unquote campaign trail didn’t feel like a campaign trail ‘cause it was all my friends, right? Like I said, it was all the people I’d been shoulder to shoulder with working at civic clubs and doing all this great work. So there were no real new introductions I needed to make. The hardest part was every day I was pretty much alone. You do so much alone on a campaign. I wasn’t a big fancy campaign that had a dozen staff members. I had me and my campaign manager, Rob, who’s my dear friend, almost brother now, who was volunteering, but he had his own family. I had a communications consultant, Ben Hernandez and then I had a field consultant and strategist, Delilah, but basically every day was me alone in my house. I would pick my block walking packet. I would go block, walk alone. And I would come back to the house and do my thank you notes or do some social media, but it’s a lonely thing. A campaign can be a lonely thing. It’s a lot of you on the trail, especially when you’re starting off the first time, a lot of friends coming over late in the night, if they need to help you after work. But the days can be very long. I had to quit my job at AARP to run. So I quit. I saved up a bunch of money knowing I wanted to do that for at least two years. And then it was that for six months, me living off my savings and I had plenty of savings, but I didn’t have health insurance either, and that got very scary. At one point from block-walking so much, half of my right foot went numb and I could not feel it and I couldn’t go access health care. And quite frankly, I didn’t want to, because I didn’t want someone telling me that I had to stop because that wasn’t going to be an option when it’s me just block walking every day. There’s no option to stop. So there were some very scary moments physically of being able to push myself to finish the campaign.
Priscilla: Have you thought about whether you would re-run for City Council or have you thought about maybe even pulling an AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and running for Congresswoman right away?
Isabel: Yeah, I’d love to. I would love….I do. I want to be an elected official and be part of that public service. City Council? I don’t know. The reason I ran last time was because there was an incumbent, I didn’t think she would do a great job and everyone else was too scared to run against her because incumbents always have so much money in momentum against them. So there was a clear person who needed to be challenged, even if I didn’t win. And there was always that possibility. I wanted her to go challenged so that we could bring up as a community the other things we wanted to see done. So now I’m looking at, okay, let’s see how the City Council does the next four years, who is doing their job well and who isn’t and what openings are there? I thought about running for County Clerk, that came open in May. It didn’t work out because of where I was financially and COVID-19, but my, my great friend, Chris Hollins won, and he actually brought me on to the office. So now I’m working for him in the County Clerk’s office on elections doing special projects, that’s been fantastic. Had I not run for office I don’t actually know if he would have pulled me in. And then looking ahead….heck yeah. My passion is always getting back to the state level somehow, whether it be state house representative, senator, secretary of state, Lieutenant Governor, I’d love to do the state stuff, but for me, like I said, and what I’ve always started with is, where can I be helpful? and what is the job I’m passionate about doing? Not, what is the job that happens to be open, and so I’m going to do it just to say, I am an elected official. I, I will never be that person.
Priscilla: What would you tell someone like a younger person who was interested in running for office? What are like some lessons or some tips that you would give that person?
Isabel: Absolutely. I tell them to get involved and not just, “Oh, go register to vote or volunteer with the League of Women Voters one night”, truly, get a job working for an elected official at any level, because you learn so much about what the different levels of government do. And one thing I actually challenge young people who say they want to be in a certain level of government, they usually say, every one, I kid you not, if you took a poll, everyone would say they’re passionate about education or transportation. And you say great, why? And they may or may not be able to tell you. And then I say, great, what level of government do you think affects that most? And they will always say Congressperson, and that is always wrong. If you want to do anything with education funding specifically, or education policy, it’s usually at the state level or the school district level. And I know, Priscilla, you know way more about education than I do. If it’s transportation, it’s absolutely at the state or County level. So that’s why I encourage younger folks to actually get a job, an internship, whatever it may be, no matter how quote-unquote menial it may sound, get your foot in the door right now, while you can, while you’re okay living off that $30 or $40,000 a year salary to start off with. So that you see what’s happening, you network, and you get it on your resume right now. Unfortunately, I think people want to wait until later to get those glamorous jobs of chief of staff or head of policy and all those people who are chief of staff or head of policy are people who started off first as a district assistant, talking to constituents, or campaign field block walker. It is an industry that is very hierarchical in that way, so getting in early helps.
Priscilla: Tell us a little bit about what you’re doing now at the County, especially as we get ready for the 2020 election
Isabel: I’m pumped. I am working on special projects for Harris County. So you might’ve heard, we now have 24 hour voting. We have drive-through voting. We’ve changed how we do mail ballots so that they are more easily read by voters, for example, and easier to use. We’ve done some innovation work on the inside and how we perform our analytics and how we actually track our progress. And I think we’ve done an even better job of changing things on the exterior, like the hours and the locations and how we communicate to people. We’re excited! Now I’m at like the heart of democracy running an election, and I’m really excited to be doing that at Harris County and fixing things from the inside out.
Priscilla: I’m really curious. What would you say is your approach to figuring out your career moves?
Isabel: I was listening to a podcast, incidentally, once about design think. So you design something, you put it out in the world, the world tears it all up, right? So, you say this works, this doesn’t work, great. You keep going through the prototyping phase until you find something. Instead of saying, “where am I now, what is my ultimate dream job, how do I get there, and everything that deviates from that path is a failure”….How can I then apply design think and say, “What if everything I do in life is just prototyping and trying new things?” And that completely changed how I thought about my life, is not, “Am I getting to my dream destination fast enough?”, is, “Oh, here’s a fun and interesting job…here’s a place where I can learn new skills, right? How can I go along with this prototype, learn what I need to do, and then essentially either when it’s been fixed or not fixed or when it’s broken or when I’m bored or whatever, how can I say “Good, this has been a wonderful path. And now it’s time for me to prototype something different, right? Or bring something new into my life, or look for that new adventure.” That is something I’d love to share, is like releasing you from this idea that your life is one path and any deviation from it is a failure.
Priscilla: That’s such a cool way to think about our careers. So thank you, Isabelle, for sharing that. Isabel, I have enjoyed this conversation so much…thank you so much for being here with us today. I’m so excited to see what you do next.
Isabel: Yeah. And I always offer, if you find me online anywhere, I always always offer any information or advice for anyone interested in running for office or getting into public policy like us, absolutely for free. Like I started off this podcast, my goal is to break down the barriers for people of color like ourselves and queer people to find their passion and get engaged in politics. So please hit me up and I would be happy to share my connections with you and get you on your next adventure.
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!
After graduating as a civil engineer major at Rice University in 2014, Maria Paula Muñoz opted for a stable career path within the oil and gas industry, only to soon realize that the role wasn’t exactly the best fit for her. On this episode, Maria Paula talks about what it was like to start and go through a challenging yearlong job search process only months after taking her first job after college, what it took to pivot into a brand new industry and function, and how she used her MBA to later break into a career at Google in the tech industry. This episode is a refreshing story for the job-searcher who is seeking career fulfillment or for anyone who has ever felt alone at work.
Check out the Highlights:
2:37 – Choosing engineering as a major, and the pressure of being a child of immigrants
4:44 – Something missing in her first job out of college
7:02- Being the only Latina engineer on her team, and not feeling a sense of belonging at work
10:33 – Pivoting into an internal consulting strategy role, but it doesn’t last long
14:50 – Maria-Paula gets engaged, decides to move to New Jersey, and her yearlong job search process begins
18:40 – Landing a Product Specialist role at Google
19:47- What it takes to succeed in a career in tech
Links Mentioned In Episode:
Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Maria Paula: Being an engineering major in college, the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me!
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! On this episode, you get to hear from Maria Paula Munoz, who graduated from Rice University in 2014 and now works as a product specialist at Google. She talks about what it was like being the only Latina engineer on her team when she worked in the oil & gas industry, going through a grueling year-long job search process, and what it’s been like to break into tech and finally find a role that suits her strengths best.
Priscilla: Hey everyone! Today, we have Maria Paula Munoz who’s a product specialist at Google and she was my MBA classmate at UT Austin. She’s an amazing Colombian Latina from Houston, Texas. We’re both from Houston. So, Maria Paula, welcome to the show and, just super excited to jump into your early career story.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, I’m excited to jump in.
Priscilla: Great. So I know that you went to Rice University and you were a civil engineering major. I’m curious if you went into college knowing that that’s what you were going to major in and if you had a dream job when you were growing up?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I went in thinking I would go into something STEM related and I thought engineering would probably be a good field. So I don’t know that I ever had a dream job…was definitely not one of those people. And my dad is a petroleum engineer. And I grew up in a household where engineering was always seen as a great career option. It was stable, it was high paying. It was something that if I wanted to, I could just be very comfortable in that type of role and I could be in Houston and anybody from Houston knows that oil and gas is pervasive and most people in some way or another either work in the industry or somehow work in something related to it. So for me, I applied as a biomedical engineer, that took about a week for me to realize I wasn’t really sure I wanted to go down that path and I ended up choosing civil engineering. For me, I was really thinking more about the end goal, less so about, “Oh, do I find this super interesting?”… I did…I can’t say that I didn’t think engineering was interesting, but was it like, did the classes just absolutely light me up? Probably not. Like to me it was more about getting a good job at the end of the four years. And that was definitely something that I think my parents had a lot to do with. And especially, I know we were chatting about being an immigrant child. You just, you constantly think, okay, like my parents have done so much for me, what can I do? Or, how do I make their sacrifices worth it? And so I think that probably was also part of it, too.
Priscilla: Oh, totally. I feel like as a child of immigrants, you always carry that with you. You’re always wondering if what you’re doing is good enough or that it justifies the tremendous risk that they’ve taken. How hard was it to overcome those years doing civil engineering coursework? Like, it just seems so intense.
Maria-Paula: Yeah, it really was survival…(laughs). I think definitely the first two years, especially my freshman year, I had so much imposter syndrome because I think when you do go to a school that attracts great talent you tend to be surrounded by people maybe for the first time in your life that are just incredible at what they do. So for the first time for me, I was certainly not the valedictorian of my class, but I was definitely in the top 20 people. I was now going to school where most of my classes were filled with people who were valedictorians and who had been student president and had done all these things in high school. And now I was sitting next to them taking a really difficult class and some people like you’re always going to have the freaks of nature who don’t study and somehow ace every single test. And, you had that, you definitely had people who struggled. I definitely commiserated with people in my residential college who were in those classes with me. And you end up bonding through those things, but it was tough.
Priscilla: So, luckily you survived, you graduated. Tell us about what was your first job out of college and what was that experience like for you?
Maria-Paula: Yeah. So as I mentioned, oil and gas was just where I thought I was supposed to go. And I was lucky enough, I got an offer from Exxonmobil. And that was really through career services, so that’s how I got the job. I was working within their Projects organizations. So Exxonmobil is a huge corporation. It’s made up of smaller companies if you will, within it. And I was within the Projects org. So we basically worked for the chemicals and the refining organizations and built plants or refineries or worked on projects to improve the existing ones. And my job was as a cost engineer. So basically that was the first step towards a project management career path. And eventually, to be a major project manager. So for me, I think I was very happy with the offer. It was a great offer. Obviously it’s a great company, very well known. My parents were thrilled, it was like this big well-known very stable company. And I think for me, like I worked with some great people. I made some great friends, a couple of mentors I still stay in touch with, but generally I could not find it in myself to really love what I was doing and that, to be completely honest, probably took a month.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s not very long at all!
Maria-Paula: Not at all. And I think to explain a little bit more, my role was basically to work on projects, improvement projects or new projects and come up with a cost estimate. So the reason you need an engineer for those types of rules is because we worked very closely with process design and the engineers out in the field, like the construction engineers. And it’s not just inputting numbers based on what’s going on out there. You really have to understand the labor and the area you’re in and are their existing operations? And how do we work around that? It’s a very cross-functional role, but a lot of your time is out in the field. And I just don’t, I don’t think I realized how much time I’d be on the field, but I also just really didn’t like the environment, yes, in the field, but also even in the office. Being an engineering major in college, like you grow up in a pretty male dominated classroom experience, like the way my classroom looked most of the time, it skewed male. And, I was pretty used to that, to be honest with you. And that didn’t really phase me, but I think being out in that environment every single day of your job when you’re thinking, okay, I guess this is my life now… I think it did get to me! I was, in my team, there were three new hires and I was the only female. I want to say the team maybe had 30, 40 people, there were two other female engineers and that was it, and then me, and so it’s hard to find comradery in that environment where you really are the only one of you and especially being a Latina female…I was the only one. Like there were no others like me. Like I honestly had more in common with some of the admins than the people that I worked with. And so I just don’t really ever feel that I felt that I belonged. And I think that contributed to it. I didn’t love the work. I didn’t find it to be super stimulating. Like I got into engineering because I wanted to think creatively and I wanted to problem solve. And a lot of the work that I was doing was very like, “Look it up in the manual, Look up the, whatever the specs say,” things that had already been planned out. And it was more I was just locating something and putting it in place. There was no creative thought there, so I just didn’t really ever feel at home there. And I never really felt, “Oh, I’m excited to go to work today.” And so that was something that I think, after a month and the first couple of times I said that my friends, my family was like, you’ve just started working, it’s hard to adjust, you’re just adjusting to life after college. Six months in, a year in, when I’m still feeling pretty motivated? That’s when I started really seriously thinking, okay, what am I doing wrong here? Like, why am I not happy with what I’m doing?
Priscilla: Gosh, I feel like so many people do reach this point where they’re like, yeah, this ain’t it. And this isn’t it, what do I do? what’s next? And it seems like you reached that point a lot sooner than most people do. So what did you end up doing? What was your action plan after that?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so, I think one of the best things I did was try to talk to people around me, whether they were at Exxon or not, and just be like, what do you do? So I started figuring out okay, what do other people do? Is there somewhere else within Exxon that I could move to, like what are my options basically? And I do think one of the best things I did was really just voiced some of this to my manager, which I was pretty apprehensive about. And I think a lot of people feel this way. If you don’t have a level of trust with your manager, it can be really hard to open up. And I think what was difficult for me at Exxon, or really at any company that might have a more rigid career path, was that there were essentially three roles that I could move into after my initial cost engineer role. And none of them were things I really wanted to do. And I believe, if I remember correctly, they were all going to be a hundred percent time out in the field. And it’s just being out in the field in and of itself can be difficult. Just being a woman, you’re around a lot of craft who tend to be male, craft, the people who are out building these things who might be, pipe fitters, or who might be, whatever they’re actually working on building these things out there. And so it can be a tough environment because there are very few women, if any, represented out there. And so for you to be out there, you’re an anomaly. They don’t always take you seriously. Vulgar language is definitely much more acceptable there. It’s not like an office environment. So I just didn’t love the field. And to me, those next roles that were available to me, just were not enticing at all. So as we started getting closer to a year of me being with the team and then closer to a year and a half, like generally, they like to start moving you between a year and a half and two years in your first role. So I started talking to my manager, I was like, what are my options? what do you think? I started being more transparent that I wanted to be in the office, and, if possible, I’d love to be closer to something on the business side. And I think my manager actually listened, which I was not used to or I guess I hadn’t expected. And what ended up happening was after saying, Hey, I want to be closer to the business side, my manager finally came to me at one of our monthly one-on-ones or whatever and was like, hey, there was something that opened up and I think you might actually be a great candidate for it. There’s this strategic project going on between the projects, chemicals and refining companies and they brought in a consulting team, and they want an analyst. Is that something you’d be interested in? And so after I found out more about it, I was like, yeah, sign me up! How do I go do that? And so that was really how I ended up pivoting while I was at Exxon into more of a strategy business related role.
Priscilla: At this point you moved into an internal consulting strategy role at Exxon which is super cool but I know that you ended up still looking to leave pretty quickly…so, tell us why you ended up deciding to leave that role?
Maria-Paula: It was really great, but the reason I left and there were really two was one, once I hit, let’s see, a year with that team, it was about time for me to start looking for a different role. And the thing is that role, that analyst role that I was pulled into was never meant to be a career switcher for my time at ExxonMobil. They called it a once in a career role. And I was basically going to be moved right back to the team that I was on into one of those other roles that I was supposed to be looking at a year before. And so I was like, absolutely not! Like, I did not find something that I really enjoy, something I really find interesting just to go right back to where I used to be.
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Maria Paula: So I was not very happy from a career perspective. And then personally, I actually got engaged. At the time my fiance lived in New Jersey. He’s a Lieutenant in the Coast Guard. And in the military, you move around every two to four years. And so I always struggled with, why would I move for you right now when I know you’re going to have to move again? And I’m so early in my career, like I can’t just pick up and move. Something like engineering is not something you can just move around every two years and have a career with the right trajectory, because you haven’t built up time with these people. Once we did get engaged though, that’s when I knew, okay, like we had talked about it and it was like, okay, I wasn’t happy with where I was going with my job at ExxonMobil. We were now engaged. I should probably actually really start thinking about what are my next steps from here. I started looking for jobs, and it was very slow going and I was very, pretty much completely lost. Like I think finding a job when you’re in school is one thing, especially when you have a really strong career services office, when you maybe have tons of other people around you who are also recruiting for the same thing, it’s so different when you have that support network compared to doing it by yourself. I was very much just like going on LinkedIn and looking for openings or going on Indeed or Google jobs or whatever it is that I could find online and just starting to drop resumes. I just started going at it alone and it probably took eight or nine months before I got any kind of traction.
Priscilla: It’s a very isolating experience to start job searching in your early mid twenties when it’s been a few years since you’ve graduated. What did you do? How did you end up getting your next role?
Maria-Paula: It was tough because I had basically just hit two years of work experience. And it’s still, it’s so little time, I was essentially looking at like entry level jobs still. So it was definitely discouraging. I wasn’t really sure what I was doing. I’d found a few sites, like, I found Vault, I found some other sites like that basically gave career advice and how to prepare yourself better, how to make your resume stand out, that sort of thing. But I didn’t really start getting traction until later, later when I started actually telling more people that I knew what I was doing. So my close friends had already known for a while, but I just started talking about it more and I think that’s what helped. One of my best friends was like, hey, I actually have a friend at BCG. I think maybe he could submit a recommendation for you, do you want me to try that? Little things like that started helping. So I think I really learned firsthand…that lesson was so important for me that your network and your connections are almost more than half the battle, because that is really what can help get your resume on the top of the pile and not in there with the other thousands. Just getting someone to look at it can be the biggest hurdle.
The way I actually got my next role was through this, think of LinkedIn, but for Rice alumni, called Sally Portal and I just started looking there. I updated a profile there and so remember my fiance is in New Jersey, and I see a posting for a senior project analyst, doing what I was doing, strategic project work in an internal consulting arm in Hoboken, New Jersey, which is the exact city that my fiance was living in. And then it was just like, you’ve gotta be kidding me! What? And so that is literally how I got my job. I reached out to her, the hiring manager, the person who posted that ended up being my manager and she did a phone screen. She had me talk to somebody else, another director. And once I had passed those, I flew up, and interviewed in person with three or four different people that were on her team. And within a week or two, I found out that I got an offer and it was just wild because it was like nothing had happened. I was so frustrated for so long. And then all of a sudden, by just continuing to scour my network, I found someone and I think I was really expedited through this process because she was a Rice alum and she was definitely looking for someone with a STEM background and someone who had that consulting toolkit, even if it wasn’t necessarily the role. But yeah, she put a lot of faith in me and gave me the job and I was able to start, that basically two, three months later. So the end of May, and that is how I made that transition. So I pivoted from oil and gas into consumer packaged goods.
Priscilla: Such a huge accomplishment. I do think those moves are really hard to make early in your career without a master’s degree. And so I’m going to fast-forward a little bit through your early career journey…we know that you did really well at Newell Brands, we know that you went to business school, that’s where we met, but you landed a full-time offer with Google while you were in business school and so I really want to talk about what is it that you do at Google, what does that look like, what does it mean?
Maria-Paula: Yeah, so I am a product specialist at Google. I’m essentially within the customer support organization and I’m like the product arm within that organization. So I describe myself as the support lead on different devices. So within hardware, I’m on Google Home. So that’s the smart speakers, smart displays, the things that people have in their home that they can use to talk to their assistant and, as the product specialist, I support the product team and any new launches, any new products that come out, any new features that come out, and I make sure that our customer support organization is prepared to support that launch or that new feature, whatever it is, successfully so that when customers have a problem with that feature or that product, we are ready and up to speed on anything and everything that is going on with that product so that we can help them make the most out of their products.
Priscilla: Very cool! So what are the things that you’re thinking about on a daily basis and what would someone need to really enjoy doing to be able to be successful?
Maria-Paula: I think bottom line to enjoy this type of role, you really need to want to be close to a product roadmap. And what is it that we’re putting out there for people? If I put myself in the shoes of a customer, what do I want in these products that I’m working on? What do I want in a smart speaker? Or what do I want in a display or this casting thing for my TV? I think you have to really empathize and really think about the customer and their journey with a product to enjoy this type of work, because it’s very much about thinking about how a customer uses this in their day-to-day? And what are the issues they might commonly run into? Or what are the things that they constantly voice that they want to see? And how do we feed that back into the product team? How do we make this product more delightful for a user? And so I really think when you’re in something tangible like hardware and you’re in something that works around the product, you have to really want to make this product better for the users that have them in their homes.
Priscilla: So many people dream about working at Google and really want to break into the tech industry. What are some of the skills that you’re really using on a daily basis to be successful, and that you really need to be able to to really survive and do well in tech?
Maria-Paula: As simple as it sounds, just great communication. Like, so much of my work and because Google is such a huge company, is just tracking down who might know something about what you’re trying to find out. So, “Hey, what are we doing? Do we support this music partner? And if we do, what countries are they in? And, what information can I get about this particular partner that I think we should work with? or, Hey, did we ever actually launch this feature? Who’s responsible for it now? Hey, we’re seeing this issue, who do I need to talk to make sure that we fix it? So much of it is just communication. And I think the next thing is just time management, in this type of work, especially something ongoing, like support. You’re never going to get everything done on your to-do list. So you need to learn how to prioritize and manage your time and figure out, okay, here are the 10 things I need to do in the next two days. What are the three most important things that I absolutely have to do today? And what is okay for me to push further back? And especially when you think about things in customer support, like you might have an issue going on that is like “drop everything and take care of it right now”, and then there might be things where, “oh, we’re tracking down this thing that people are complaining about, but the system isn’t necessarily broken. We just need to improve something.” So it’s really about being a time manager and also someone who can drive themselves, but also just working in ambiguity. And I think that’s true for any role you can think of in tech. I think in tech and particularly in the space of smart assistants and where we’re going with artificial intelligence in the home….it’s so unknown for most people. Most people have no idea. And so I’m constantly working on things where there isn’t a blueprint. We don’t really know. And so I’m coming up with it. It’s, it can be hard, but I really love that. And I think that was the missing piece for me in what I was doing before. Like now I’m really driving my own work and while I’m still an individual contributor, I’m definitely taking a lot of initiative and ownership of my work because so much of it, I just have to come up with on my own. No one else is going to do it for me. And so I think it can be really helpful to be that kind of person who is willing to look at a problem that there’s not necessarily an obvious answer to, but be able to be like, okay, I’m going to do some research. I think this might be the right path. I’m not sure, but I’m just going to do it. And if there’s somebody that can help me, I’m going to reach out. I know who to talk to, but I’m just going to go forth and do, and I think that is probably the biggest thing that anybody could do to have a successful career in tech.
Priscilla: Thank you Maria Paula, for being with us today, it’s been such a joy to talk to you!
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!