We are emerging from one of the worst economic recessions in our country’s history. Industries like automotive, housing, manufacturing and high-tech are once again experiencing growth. Areas like Silicon Valley, Austin, Chicago and Seattle are booming. Unfortunately, for our current recovery, the adage that “a rising tide raises all ships” isn’t true. We are experiencing a socioeconomic chasm that threatens to undermine one of our country’s core beliefs – that America is the land of opportunity.
In Silicon Valley, companies like LinkedIn, Google, Twitter, Facebook and Apple have created new millionaires, and tech accelerators like 500 Startups and Y Combinator are investing and advising the next wave of IPOs. But under the bridges of Silicon Valley’s “information super highway”, there exists a growing population that lives in extreme poverty or is a paycheck away from being homeless. According to the Silicon Valley Index, homelessness increased 20% in the last couple of years and the number of people on food stamps hit a 10-year high. How do we react to the growing inequality? Some will say:
“This isn’t my problem.”
“If you want a job, go apply at a fast food restaurant.”
“No one gave me anything.”
“How can one person solve the problem?”
I grew up in a low-income household. My father worked as a dishwasher and my mother worked in housekeeping. In school, I was on the free and reduced lunch program. When my brother was born, I remember traveling with my parents to the free clinic in Alviso so my mother could receive assistance from the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Program. In Mountain View, we sometimes visited the Community Services Agency (CSA) for clothing, groceries and other assistance. Thanks to CSA’s summer camps for low-income families, I was able to go camping to places like Yosemite, Folsom and San Gregorio. My neighbor coached a little league baseball team, and invited me to join his team. My dad at the time was working two jobs and my mother didn’t drive. So my neighbor became my baseball coach, chauffeur, and mentor. In high school, Mr. Randall, my geometry teacher, nominated me for Math Student of the Month, which I received the honor. Mr. Randall’s belief in me gave me the confidence to persevere academically. I am grateful to the friends, neighbors, teachers and organizations that offered their hand-up to my family.
My attitude of gratitude, however, changed in college. I struggled academically my first two years. As a first-generation to attend college, I also struggled to fit in and understand how to navigate the college experience. At times, I operated in survival mode, only caring about myself. I volunteered for a couple of nonprofits, but they were in areas that I felt comfortable in. Around the UC Berkeley campus, there is a lot of homelessness. In the five years that I was in college, I became desensitized to the issue. I saw homeless people on drugs, drunk or begging for money. Some of my friends would argue against giving money to them because they believed they would use it to buy drugs, cigarettes or alcohol. And I would be contributing to “their problem”. I embraced this selfish attitude. An attitude of “screw the less fortunate”; whenever I saw a homeless person, I never gave them anything.
After I graduated from college, I started my career and a family. Life got busy. I was working at my dream job, a manufacturing consulting firm, and traveling to Mexico. My kids were in private school. I was helping care for my sick parents. I fell victim to the attitude that I was “too busy” to help others. I had forgotten what I was taught as a child that family isn’t only your blood relatives. Our community is our family. One day while walking back from lunch to my office, I saw a homeless person standing outside in the courtyard of the building. Without hesitation, I reached for my wallet and gave him a few dollars. I did not care what he did with the money. It was my unconditional gift to him. I realized that it was time for me to change my attitude, stop making excuses and stop judging others. It was time for me to take my eyes off myself and place them on the needs of others. Thank God those that helped my family never judged us! I challenge you to reflect upon your own life. Have you forgotten some of the values you were raised with? What excuses are holding you back from giving more?
The need is great. Some of us, by the grace of God, have triumphed against great odds and achieved success in our respective field. However, let us not be lulled into an illusion of success, of having arrived or that we can’t give more. Instead ask not for a lighter load, but for a stronger back to help carry the load of those who are unable to. If you have money, give of your time. If you have time, give of your money. If you have neither, give of your heart. Whether you sit behind a mahogany desk or you clean a mahogany desk, you have within you the power to make a difference in the life of others. We are indebted to others who gave us a hand-up, and it is our responsibility to continue to fund the social and moral accounts their generosity gave to you and me. We must continue the legacy of compassion, community, and collaboration so that current and future generations can continue to reap the rewards of an even better tomorrow.
Perhaps you’ve heard this story before, but it is worthy of retelling it.
“Once upon a time, there was an old man who used to go to the ocean to do his writing. He had a habit of walking on the beach every morning before he began his work. Early one morning, he was walking along the shore after a big storm had passed and found the vast beach littered with starfish as far as the eye could see, stretching in both directions.
Off in the distance, the old man noticed a small boy approaching. As the boy walked, he paused every so often and as he grew closer, the man could see that he was occasionally bending down to pick up an object and throw it into the sea. The boy came closer still and the man called out, “Good morning! May I ask what it is that you are doing?”
The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the youth replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.”
The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.”
The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled and said, “It made a difference to that one!” One Step Towards Changing the World, by Peter Straube
It is interesting that in Silicon Valley, some people have an unwavering conviction that their startup will be the next successful IPO. The reality is that less than 1-in-10 startups succeed. Despite the odds, I wholeheartedly support the entrepreneurial spirit. Imagine if we applied a fraction of this conviction towards the belief that we can make a difference in someone’s life. If a college dropout can build the world’s largest social media company. If two nerds can create one of the most profitable internet companies. If a fired executive can disrupt the mobile phone industry and bring a company from the brink of bankruptcy. Imagine what you and I can do for others with a little belief. Time and time again, the human spirit has proven “Si se puede”! In Silicon Valley we dream big. I dare you to increase the size of your heart to match the size of your dream.