Turning Adversity Into Positive Career Traits

Lately there has been a lot of talk in the media about the lack of diversity in Silicon Valley technology companies. According to a recent USA Today article, Lack of diversity undercut Silicon Valley, 7% of tech employees in Silicon Valley are African American or Latino. In some of the newer and well-known tech companies, African Americans and Latinos represent 4% and 2% of that company’s workforce, respectively. Sadly this issue isn’t new. The lack of diversity in the workplace has been an ongoing problem for many years. Just look at the makeup of Fortune 1000 companies. There are some companies that have made headway, but more needs to be done – both by companies and jobseekers.

Recently, I was honored to attend the Extended Opportunity Program and Services (EOPS) graduation at Foothill College. EOPS’ mission is “to establish ‘over and above’ support services and programs for financially needy and educationally disadvantaged students”. Over 40 students received their AA degree and many of them are transferring to a 4-year college. As each student’s name was called, counselors made brief comments about the graduate and in some cases the students shared a little bit about their story. A couple of students received their diplomas with their daughter by their side. The keynote speaker, a student, who was incarcerated and now turned his life around, spoke eloquently and passionately about his journey. Friends, family and faculty were there to cheer the students and give them one more hug or say one more word of encouragement.

As I sat at the graduation, witnessing this significant moment for the students, I was filled with pride and joy. I also reflected on my own story and remembered the programs and individuals who helped me attain my educational goals. In high school, programs like Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement (MESA) and EOP, led by my now good friend, Alicia Cortez, served as “bumper pads”, like in bowling, to help me stay within the boundaries of the University of California eligibility requirements.My last semester in college, I attended a college job fair, only to be disappointed at my job prospects. I was a Chicano Studies major and most of the companies were hiring engineers. The recession also complicated my job prospects. The few companies that were hiring liberal arts majors had positions in areas that I was not interested. I heard from a fraternity brother about an opportunity at the management consulting firm he was working for. The company had started interviewing college graduates, but thanks to my fraternity brother, I was given the opportunity to interview. I made it past the first two rounds of interviews before I was told, “thank you, but no thanks”. I was disappointed, but it was a learning experience. An experience that would take me years to understand, value, and know how to explain to others. An experience that few companies interview for or understand.

I’m referring to non-technical skills or what some call soft skills. These are skills that revolve around personal attributes, attitudes or habits. I sometimes refer to it as emotional intelligence (EI) – the ability to manage your emotions, function under pressure and meet deadlines despite S#!@ hitting the fan. When I was a kid, everyday after school, I would ride my bike to my dad’s work. Each morning my dad cleaned the bar and separated the garbage bags from the bar. I would sort the aluminum cans to recycle so we could earn extra money. I hated the smell of the trash, touching slimy cans and bottles, and the danger of cutting myself on broken glass. When I was in the 6 grade, my parents started a side business, selling fresh meat and making chorizo. In Mexico, my dad had a successful butcher business. Every Friday evening we went to the slaughterhouse in Gilroy and slaughtered different animals. I was very embarrassed about our side business. Very few of my friends knew about it. My senior year in high school, I remember rushing home from school on Friday afternoons to make chorizo. Afterwards, I would jump in the shower and scrub my arms to try to rid the pungent smell of chorizo so that I wouldn’t smell when I went out with my friends. Even during college I came home every Friday to help my parents.

Reflecting on my experiences, I realize that my trails and tribulations, my many embarrassing moments and my sacrifices are actually assets, as LinkedIn Founder, Reid Hoffman calls them. At an early age, I learned:

Strong work ethic – Work hard first, then play.

Responsibility and Discipline – Helping my parents because it was the right thing to do for our family, not because it felt good.

People Skills – Observing how my parents interacted with others.

Teamwork – Working together as a family.

Delayed gratification – Seeing my parents reinvest profits back into their business, instead of spending money on nonessentials.

Perseverance – Not quitting when the tough times come.

Humility – A dollar honestly earned is nothing to be ashamed of.

In my role as President & CEO of the Chamber of Commerce Mountain View, I am responsible for the Chamber’s influence in the economic vitality of our city. I work collaboratively with many businesses, community and civic organizations and individuals. I look at problems and find creative solutions. I juggle multiple priorities at the same time. I manage our finances and explore new revenue sources. I advice and mentor other businesses and individuals. I realize that my life experiences taught me many lessons that have served me well in my professional life. Yet, this discovery has been a self-realization. No one has ever helped me correlate my life experiences with the requirements of a job.

When I heard the EOPS graduates share their struggles, I heard them talk about working multiple jobs. I heard them talk about the challenges of being a single mom. I heard them talk about choosing between buying food or books. I heard them talk about almost giving up on school. But, despite their obstacles, they persevered. Like me, I know these students have developed tremendous assets from their experiences that will prepare them to take on many of the challenges they will encounter in their careers. Here are 5 things that have helped me in my professional life:

Accept your past – You can’t change it. Your past is part of your historical DNA and it has value.

Self-assessment – Look at your past and ask yourself “What did I learn?” There is always a life lesson to be learned.

Inventory your skills – Start by looking at the skills required for a job. Then look at the skills you learned from your life experiences and match it to the job’s requirement.

Find a mentor – A mentor can advise you and help you see things about yourself that you can’t see.

Believe in yourself – Perhaps one of the toughest things to do, but the sooner you do, the better off you’ll be. We are our toughest critics, with close friends and family members not far behind.

Out of every adversity there is a seed of equal or greater benefit. Realize that our past doesn’t define us. What we view as crap in our life is actually fertilizer for a better future. Now if technology companies can improve their interviewing methods to identify these soft skills, they might be pleasantly surprised where their next star candidates come from.

Oscar is Founder & Chief Empowerment Officer of Aspira, a community relations, workforce development, and training firm that empowers, engages and educates clients.
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Oscar Garcia

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