Earlier this month, NEA facilitated a panel focused on the Hispanic and Latino/a experience in the United States. This conversation was geared toward giving us a better understanding of the breath of backgrounds and experiences of Hispanic, Latino and Latina entrepreneurs, executives, investors and ambassadors in the U.S.
J.C. Lopez: Can you share a bit about your childhood – where you grew up, college, your first job, etc.
Vanessa Larco: I’m currently an investor at NEA and I’ve been here for about five years. My mother is from Colombia, my father is from Peru, and they both immigrated to the States to go to college. They met in Miami -- which I still consider to be the northernmost point of Latin America.
I grew up in a very traditional Latin household. We spoke Spanish at home. I learned English when I went to school at about six years old. We traveled back to Colombia in the summers, Peru on our winter breaks, so I grew up traveling frequently to Latin America.
But I did something that many of my friends from Miami, most of which who were first generation Americans like myself, did not do – I left for college. In Latin America, you don't move out of your parent’s house until you get married and that persisted in Miami as well. So, when I told my friends, I was going to Georgia Tech for college, nobody understood why I would do such a crazy thing. My community thought my mom was nuts for letting me go away. But I stayed firm, I knew I wanted to study computer science and University of Miami didn’t offer it, so I had to go somewhere else.
I received my degree in computer science from Georgia Tech and worked at a series of tech companies including Xbox, Microsoft, Twilio, Box. I even started my own gaming company at one point. Before coming over to investing, my roles had always been in product management.
Lalo Flores: I was born in Chile, in a beautiful city in the southern part of the country, but in northern Patagonia. It is a beautiful place, an agricultural area. My parents are veterinarians, so, I grew up in a house where science was valued.
When it came time to think about what I was going to do with my life, I knew I didn’t want to pursue a traditional career, like a doctor or veterinarian like my parents, but I wanted to do something with science. I had some mentors that influenced me and helped me realize that I really wanted to become a scientist.
The university or college system in South America is not like in the U.S. It is akin to the European system where pursuing a bachelor’s degree in science was not available. So, I had to emigrate and go to college in the U.S. I was accepted to Stony Brook, and I ended up graduating from Rutgers. I was one of the first in my generation to get something like a bachelor's degree in science.
My goal professionally was to be a professor, but through other mentors and relationships, I was recruited to company called Tularik. They were great formative years for me to see how the sciences connects and to gain a passion for biotech. I then was at Merck for nine years. In 2009, I became an entrepreneur and started my first company Novira Therapeutics, which I later sold to J&J. Then I started Century Therapeutics which is where I am today.
All that said, I strongly believe that the exposure to science in my childhood created a strong impression on me of the value of scientific innovation. It was a big reason as to why I chose the path I did. I've been very fortunate that something I planned when I was 18 years old has worked out.
Elena Gomez: I grew up in the Bay area. My parents immigrated to San Francisco from El Salvador in high school. They met in the Salvadorean Club at Galileo High School and got married right after graduating.
I grew up just like Vanessa, in a very traditional Hispanic Latino home. I spoke Spanish, that was my first language. I was not allowed to have sleepovers, ever. So much so that when I went to college at Berkeley (go Bears!), my parents didn't want me to live in the dorm. So, I didn't because that no sleep overs trend continues.
Another funny cultural moment is when I was visiting El Salvador for a family wedding. I was already into my career, as a VP at Charles Schwab, and I remember, as I was leaving a conversation with a bunch of my tias (aunts), I overheard someone say, “Le dejo el tren.” They were gossiping about me, like great Latina women do at weddings and parties. That literally translates to “the train has left her behind” because I wasn't married. That is how I grew up. In a very traditional home.
I have spent most of my career in finance. That influence really came from my grandfather, who was my “nanny” for a number of years, because he was an accountant. I remember, when I was little, he would always tell me, “If you become an accountant, you always have a job. So, I think you should do that.” Now, I am the CFO of Toast. I don't know that I ever thought I'd be a CFO, not even 10 years ago, but I wouldn't do anything different now.
J.C. Lopez: I would love to hone-in on the idea of opportunity. I think there can be two flavors to opportunity. The first is around the opportunity to move from Latin American countries to the U.S., and what that presents by just being here in the U.S. And the second is related to general career advice and guidance. Can you share insights around an opportunity that opened doors for you, as well as, how you think about giving back to younger generations that might be going through similar experiences to yourselves?
Lalo Flores: I think a lot of opportunity centers around economic opportunity. Unfortunately, a lot the Hispanic and Latino communities, come from disadvantaged backgrounds. And actually, this is true for minorities in the U.S. generally. I am fortunate to have grown up in an upper-middle-class family. I had the support from my parents when I emigrated to the U.S. to go to college. Without that support, I could not have moved here for college and have done what I did.
Helping people from social or economic disadvantaged backgrounds get opportunities for higher levels of education is a big challenge we need to try to overcome. It is tremendously important. It helps get people out of cycles that they might be stuck in and will do incredible things for our society.
Elena Gomez: I wasn’t that fortunate. My dad was a milk truck driver and my mom worked at a doctor's office. We lived paycheck to paycheck, so I didn't have economic support from them. But what I did gain from them is confidence-building. I share that because you can rise, even if you don't have economic stability. Now I don’t want to discount the importance of having support. I feel strongly that if you have an opportunity to help (like I do now) you should (as I do now). But I also believe you can rise, regardless of your social background.
Now going back to my own professional experience, when I was a senior direct at Charles Schwab in my mid-20s I had a boss, Dave, who took me under his wing. One day he told me I had the opportunity to become the VP of Finance for the Chief Marketing Officer and that my interview was in an hour. I completely freaked out. But I went up to the executive floor where Charles Schwab literally sat because Suzanne Lyons, the CMO I was interviewing with, sat next to him. I had complete imposter syndrome. I had no reason to be on that floor and I’m still convinced the security guy looked at me and thought I was 12. But I did the interview, went back down to my floor and Dave told me I got the job. He relayed that Suzanne thought I had potential. I will never forget that comment because it inspired my new mindset of, “I'm going to show them that even though I am young, I am going to just crush this job.”
The other thing Dave said was, “you're going to grow in two years, what most people grow in five and I am going to help you.” That is another moment I will never forget. By doing this, he took me in and gave me the confidence that 1. I could do the job, and 2. he would be there to help mentor me along the way. Of course, there was curveballs and things I didn't understand, but I was able to persevere.
How does that apply to me today? I want to do that for someone. I want to tell someone you're going to get this job, and you're going to grow and I am going to help you. If I can do that for someone, or even better, all of us can do that for someone, that's pretty powerful because they might be talking about a 20-years-later, like I am.
Vanessa Larco: There are two things I’d call out from my upbringing. The first is hustle. My parents came here to do better. My mom came to the U.S. to study computer science in the 70’s, because she wanted to be an engineer and that was not an option in Colombia. I grew up watching her hustle. She had her own company, so she was always trying to inch out a new deal or sign a new partnership; it was constant. And we were all part of her team. My brother and I were in the office every weekend. I was doing accounts receivables and my brother was driving a forklift in the warehouse. We were always helping her and the business and we were all in on her being successful. That was a really good foundation.
The hard part was that none of us knew how to navigate the system in the U.S. I remember going to school and being told I had to take this thing called the PSAT. I remember thinking okay and just waltzing straight into the test. I didn't know it was important, that I had to study for it, or what it even was really. I didn’t even know what the SAT was. I did horribly; I think I got a 900. One of my teachers told me that I had basically received a failing score and that I was not going to get into college if I got that score on the SAT. So, I immediately (and thank God the Internet was around) began researching what this magic gate keeping thing called the SAT was and how to crush it so I could go to college.
Looking back and juxtaposing my experience against the high school students that I interact with here in Silicon Valley, I am amazed at how much more they know about the whole system. Now I make sure that when I meet young Latina girls and guys, I walk them through all of the things I wished I had known when I was applying to college. I am often the first person to discuss the ACT and/or SAT with them or to tell them that student loans aren't necessarily bad. Our parents grew up in a generation with the belief that – you don't take out loans for anything, not for a car, not for a house, not for anything; never owe someone money. So, I explain these things that they don't have a lot of guidance around, the things I stumbled through and got lucky figuring out. But I think not having exposure to these systems puts a lot of people at a disadvantage, particularly in our communities.
J.C. Lopez: Can you share how you’re creating culture and spearheading diversity within your organizations? It is a pretty tight job market and there is a generation full of new workforce demands. How are you rising to those challenges and ensuring that you are maintaining and attracting diverse and top talent to your organizations?
Vanessa Larco: When I entered the workforce out of college the message was “fit into this box,” which was a very masculine stereotype. My first job was at Xbox, so not only was I trying to act like a guy, but I was trying to act like a gamer guy. It couldn't have been further from who I was as a person, but I felt this insane pressure to fit the mold. That can be really taxing. Not only are you trying to do a good job at your job, but you’re also devoting energy to being someone you're not.
I've seen a lot of progress towards this in my short career already and I like how the conversation around this topic has changed. Now it's more about figuring out your strengths and playing to them. Different backgrounds, different cultures, different ethnicities, different genders everyone has their unique set of advantages that we are encouraged to lean into and then soften around the areas where you have weaknesses.
Elena Gomez: I will never forget when I was a CFO at Zendesk, someone came up to me, someone I didn’t know, and said ‘you have no idea how big of a deal it is that you're Latina, you're female and you're on our leadership team.’ It struck me because, for whatever reason, I hadn't really appreciated the importance of looking up and seeing someone that looks like you.
The other thing I’ve really come to understand is that learning never ends. I try to have a very open mindset to the fact there are things I won’t know about other cultures and their experiences, as well as even other cultures within the Latino, Hispanic ecosystem. Listening, paying attention and trying to help sounds really tactical and simple, but it goes a long way.
Lalo Flores: This is a very important conversation. I agree with Vanessa and Elena. If I could add, I think one of the biggest issues we face is bias and unconscious bias. It is something I am focused on, and I believe we all need to make a concerted effort to remove all types of biases from our hiring practices.
But moving to the topic of retention for a moment, I believe a lot of this revolves around creating an inclusive culture. You have to empower your employees by showing them you trust them because of what they do, not who they are or where they came from. And you have to mean it. It is not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk and living it on a daily basis. So, for us, creating a culture of inclusion, trust and empowerment is key. People demand it and they respond really well to that. It can be a challenge, but it is what we need to do.
J.C. Lopez: I came across a statistic this week from a report Pew recently published that states that Latinos currently makeup about 17% total of all employment across all occupations, however, they only make about 8% of all STEM workers. That differential is different across other minorities but tends to be even smaller. Have you thought about ways to access systems earlier to help improve that discrepancy and potentially change the pipeline of candidates that come into STEM?
Lalo Flores: At Century we try to have proactive diversity and inclusion programs and activities. A large part of that includes fostering, bringing in and motivating young people, across backgrounds, to get into careers in STEM. For instance, we partner with a group in Philadelphia where our scientists go and volunteer at public schools to talk to young kids about science.
Another program we have is focused around giving opportunities to underrepresented kids that come from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as kids from public schools. We specifically recruit from these areas for our internship program. The idea, and the challenge, is to try to open up our pipeline of candidates for our internship programs beyond just private schools or the typical places we’d recruit from. We also have a similar program focused on recruiting girls.
Elena Gomez: I agree that the key is starting earlier in the life cycle of an individuals’ experience. I had the opportunity to be a mentor when I was at Zendesk to a 12-year-old girl. She spent six weeks shadowing me in my office. She came to meetings, of which I’m sure she probably understood very little of what the topics were, but she was so curious about what I was saying, why I was saying it, who was in the room, etc. It gave her the opportunity to see what was possible.
I will never forget at the end of the program she said to me, ‘I would love to come work at Zendesk one day.’ Just the fact that she said that was completely worth it, because I opened her mind to other possibilities. We need to find opportunities to open up our world to people at younger ages, and especially those that are underprivileged. It enables them to think and imagine what is possible.
The first time I was in a corporate office was the first day of my first job. I couldn't ask my parents questions about what to do, because they'd never been in a corporate office. I just think gosh if I had an opportunity like that when I was younger it would have made a big difference.
J.C. Lopez: Can you share any practical, current items that you're doing to help improve recruiting talent from diverse backgrounds or how you are looking for diverse founders to back and invest behind?
Vanessa Larco: When I was at Microsoft, I was involved in recruiting and pushed Microsoft hard on not only recruiting from the top ten engineering or computer science schools. My logic was, I got lucky that my parents let me go away to college, but there's some brilliant people, many of whom are Latinos, that are choosing to stay close to home. They're incredibly hardworking, they have straight A's there, they are studying computer science, but they didn't go to Stanford; not because they didn't get in, but because staying close to their family was their priority at 18. We have to do the work to find those candidates. I think Covid has actually made this a bit easier too, because with remote working you don’t have to deal with the battle of asking people to relocate away from their families, communities and what they know, while still getting access to some of these really great jobs and experiences.
Overall, I think the tech industry is pretty myopic when it comes to recruitment. There is this assumption that if you aren’t from Dartmouth, Penn, Stanford, Harvard, MIT, etc. you must not be smart and ambitious. I really challenge that, and I couldn't disagree with the notion more. There are a lot of reasons including not understanding the benefit of taking that type of sacrifice to go to those schools; the loans, which can be prohibitive, being away from family, your culture and everything that you know and love. I think we need to respect everyone for their own priorities, and if those don’t align with what society has decreed for generations, then we should meet them where they are, instead of expecting them to go to Stanford or Harvard otherwise they can’t get in sounds crazy to me.
Elena Gomez: I agree 1,000%. And what I would add is there's a war for talent. Why would we limit our talent pool, when we all know that we can't find enough talent? Hopefully that's a forcing function to introduce broader strategies too.
J.C. Lopez: How do you balance things that are culturally important to your family, while also working hard to succeed in corporate America and assimilating into a more American identity? How do you maintain some things that are culturally important to you or that you grew up with like, even though you're navigating a different world than maybe your parents or grandparents did and instill those things on your children?
Vanessa Larco: I struggle with this for sure. My kids will benefit from understanding the systems I did not, just because of where they will likely go to school in the Bay Area. I do little things like speaking Spanish at home, eating Spanish food to try and reinforce that yes, you are American but you're also South American. I think little efforts can make an impact.
Elena Gomez: I am fortunate that my kids have my parents, their grandparents, to help them understand our culture. We also make sure to bring them to El Salvador, we’ve taken them back many times which we feel is important too. But I agree with Vanessa, there are simple things, like how you cook meals and tell stories.
I think the best thing you can do is be a role model. I show them I am multifaceted. They know I have a big job, I don't know if they know exactly what I do, but they know mom works. They also know mom loves Mariachis too. All of these things are tied to my identity and who they understand mom to be. Similarly, we have a lot of friends who are not Hispanic. Instead of hiding our culture from them, we share it, we cook our food and celebrate it, so they see how normal it is. I don't know if I have all the right tricks, there is no one size fits all for parenting, but one thing I make sure and I think is really important is having a family connection. That is a thing in the Latino community, that no matter what family is first, and keeping that a common thread.
J.C. Lopez: Thank you so much for your time today. I have really enjoyed this conversation and I hope you have too.
I also hope that everyone walks away from this discussion with some more knowledge of the Latino experience; that it is highly diverse within itself, not only because of the countries that Latinos can come from, but even the experiences in the United States. I also want to impart this concept: everyone, no matter what their background is, can be a role model for someone else. I think it is important to be mindful of that and give back when you can to the to the right groups.