Watching our parents dip pan dulce into a cup of coffee was as normal as watching the sun shine through a window. Growing up, pan dulce was a common staple in my household and I did not value its worth until the day came that I lived in a neighborhood where pan dulce was no longer easy to find. So instead, I was offered bagels with cream cheese. For those that are not familiar with pan dulce…it’s a pastry, and this pastry is my metaphor for my comfort zone.
I still remember my first breakfast business meeting when I joined Corporate America. I was fresh out of college, working for a multinational company and our division vice president had ordered breakfast for our entire group. While I was fully aware that we were not having a typically Latino breakfast such as, avena, platanos, mangu, fried cheese, fried salami, huevos rancheros or huevos estrellados, I was absolutely not expecting room temperature bagels with cream cheese. It was different. It was not what I was accustomed to and while small in scope, it signaled a big change for me. I was now living in a different world.
Whether it was a trust factor, or I had not yet felt comfortable opening up to my colleagues, I knew it was my responsibility to make the best of the situation and to figure it out. With that said, I felt uneasy in many situations, and that feeling only gets compounded when you are the only Latino in the office, and there is no one else there that can relate to you. So to preserve your own sanity, you must hit the switch and put on your game face.
While I learned how to appreciate bagels with cream cheese, I had to learn how to live in a world that was quickly becoming my new normal. Pan dulce connected me to my most simple Latino customs, but bagels with cream cheese also served as a symbol that personifies a piece of my life at work. Both are good, but neither has anything to do with each other, for the exception that I consume both. Today, both represent me, but in order for me to balance both worlds, home life and work life, I had to learn the art of cultural code switching.
I am a believer in be who you are, but I also believe in self-awareness of your current setting. As Latinos, many of us were raised to be upbeat, say hello, introduce ourselves, build relationships, be committed, work hard and stay focused. Those simple attributes are transferrable skills to a work environment. Those skills lay the foundation for careers in business development, fundraising, marketing, sales operations, consulting, and more. Furthermore, as Latinos, we tend to be risk takers. While we will calculate the risk, we tend to move quickly and that is something not everyone can do. I believe we can use this to our advantage because we possess eager spirits to make things happen, and that attitude is highly valued and appreciated. While these may be the soft skills to business, they are not always prevalent with other colleagues and as such, place us on a different path to get noticed.
Now, work life is different. There is a certain understanding that must be learned in order to do well. As with any facet of life, there is a game that must be played. Working hard is a given. You are expected to work hard. Meeting budgets and deadlines is a given. You are expected to come under budget and produce great work in the time allotted. I was raised to be humble, not to rock the boat, and to be grateful to have a job. Unfortunately, that Latino/immigrant mentality does not always work. You must have confidence, speak up, defend your opinion and it has to make sense. As Latinos, we must learn how to balance our humility and our ability to be leaders. At home, such an attitude would be referred to as “un creído” – a know it all/arrogant – or even worse, perhaps we would be called a “come mierda” – a bull shitter – but in the land of bagels and cream cheese, it’s called leadership. Therefore, you must convey your executive presence, demonstrate that you can inspire confidence in other people too, and exert your value.
Make yourself valuable by showing how you helped your employer see things that they did not see without your perspective. More importantly, learn to convey your message in tangible terms, meaning, that you earned the company money by decreasing inefficiencies, reduced waste, improved customer satisfaction scores or by gaining a competitive advantage over a competitor. As members of the Latinx community, you must possess the confidence that you can be a business leader, community leader, play a game of loteria on Sunday night and break down a business case on Monday morning. With that said, have the smarts to build alliances. Learn how to pick your battles. Make it a point to come extremely prepared to meetings, ask for help when you do not know something, and make the time to meet people from other departments so they can better understand what you do and so you can learn what they do. This, mi gente, is called networking within your own tribe.
Lastly, I want to share the importance of being involved. Be active in company sponsored volunteer opportunities. Raise your hand to serve on extracurricular activities, and if your employer has a Latino employee resource group, become active. While the role of an ERG may vary from company to company, do not negate the fact that they serve a role. The role is to enhance the Latino employee work experience. As with anything, you get what you invest and, similar to high school, the kids who do well are the ones who do extra-curricular activities. The ERG helps develop exposure among the company and to network internally, but also remember the politics that are involved. You are an employee of the company first. As committed as we may be to changing a company’s culture, we need to remember to be excellent in our roles because we are there to do a job.
Our success is predicated on the support of people who do not look like us or even understand our struggles, but creating allies is critical to our success. It’s all about the relationships, and sharing our pan dulce, embracing differences, and enjoying a serving of bagels with cream cheese is a great start to effectively building our relationships. We are representing a community of people and we want to make our families and communities proud of our achievements. So finds ways to Rise Up y Seguir Adelante!
Jesse A. Mejia is the Founder & CEO of MBA Catalyst, an MBA admissions consulting firm. Jesse has been quoted by the Wall Street Journal, US News & World Reports, USA Today, and has been a featured guest on National Public Radio. Jesse is the author of ¡Rise Up, Mi Gente! A Roadmap for Latinos to Achieve Success in Corporate America and host of the professional development summit called, Rise Up Latino Professionals: Six Figure Summit. This article is an excerpt from Jesse’s book ¡Rise Up, Mi Gente! To learn more about Jesse, visit www.JesseMejiaSpeaks.com