I’m A Latino American In Tech And A Serial Entrepreneur

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the magic train ride that my family took to get from poverty to prosperity in one generation.

What I think about most is the price of the ticket.

I need to confess upfront that my parents’ stories are infinitely more interesting ― and inspirational ― than mine.

My mom, Rose Chavez, was born in La Espora, a New Mexico community of mostly undocumented Mexican immigrants who worked for the railroad in Albuquerque. She was the youngest of 11 children. Her parents were orphans: her dad, an Aztec Indian from Mexico who worked for the railroad, and her mom, a Basque girl from a barely existent village in northern Spain.

The family’s first house — a wooden claptrap where Rose was born — had no electricity or running water. They worked hard, saved some money and moved to a nicer place, a plain but sturdy adobe house.

They were happy — until the city put a sewer plant in their backyard. Just as soon as they thought they’d taken a giant step up, the whole family was literally engulfed in shit.

Rose did what she always did when confronting a harsh reality: She swallowed hard and swore never to forget. And then she quietly began chiseling out a plan to improve the odds.

The author on his mother's lap, posing for a family photo.
The author on his mother’s lap, posing for a family photo.

She became the first person in her family of 11 kids to graduate from high school and take a professional job at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque. At a dance on the base, she had the insane good luck to meet my dashing father, Ray. After they got married, she prayed for 10 kids, and she vowed that she’d send them all to Harvard so they could enjoy the opportunities she never had.

The good Lord saw fit to give her just five kids, but she did indeed send every one of us to Harvard.

As the middle child, I attended Harvard as an undergraduate and then went on to Stanford to earn my Ph.D. Now I’m a serial entrepreneur. I sold one of my startups to Microsoft and another to Salesforce.

I’m often asked to tell my family’s story — at conferences, on podcasts, in boardrooms. I understand the appeal. It’s a powerful story, with all the trappings of a great American allegory: overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds, lifting yourself up by your bootstraps, defying expectations to achieve what many see as success.

Ironically, some of the people who are most eager to seize upon the story miss the whole point of it. They want to say: “See, anyone with drive and ambition can achieve the impossible in this country.”

My family history involves living with sewage right outside the window, so I know a crock of shit when I see it.

The author giving his valedictory address to the graduating class of 1986 at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.
The author giving his valedictory address to the graduating class of 1986 at Albuquerque Academy in New Mexico.

That tidy narrative glosses over the systemic inequality that still hampers the actualization of our Founding Fathers’ vision of a more perfect union. It also erases the many nuances of my own experience — including my struggles, setbacks and shortcomings as I try to live up to the examples set by my parents.

Not long after the team at my first startup began to grow, my mother came calling.

“Tommy,” she said, “you have all of these great jobs to offer. Why aren’t you hiring more Latinos?”

“There isn’t a big Latino population in these roles or with these skill sets,” I told her.

Technically, I wasn’t wrong. In my graduating class at Stanford, I was the only American-born Latino. I conveniently wrote it off as a pipeline problem. I told her it was too hard to find Latinos with the qualifications I needed.

My mother, a woman who had never let “hard” stop her from doing anything, listened politely, but I doubt she was convinced.

My mom is infinitely proud of all of her children, but as I reflect back on that conversation today, I wonder if she wasn’t at that moment just a little bit ashamed of me. I wouldn’t blame her if she was. As I think back to that moment, I’m ashamed of myself.

I wish I could tell you that conversation was the turning point for me. I wish I could say that I hung up the phone and vowed to do better. But the truth is, I didn’t change much of anything at all.

The author (fourth from left) with his siblings, their spouses and children celebrating his parents 50th wedding anniversary in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
The author (fourth from left) with his siblings, their spouses and children celebrating his parents 50th wedding anniversary in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

What did begin to shift over time was my awareness of how others perceive me. While having a drink with one of my earlier bosses, I remembered a funny incident when he received an edict from higher ups saying that every team needed more diversity — ours included. When he shared this hiring imperative with the team, I thought he meant that there wasn’t enough diversity. But that wasn’t what he meant. This man, who I had worked with for years, assumed our staff was entirely white — he had no idea I was Mexican American.

Sitting at the bar and laughing as we recalled the incident, I asked him, “So you didn’t know I was Mexican — what did you think I was?”

“I guess I just thought you were…” he paused. “I dunno — vaguely Mediterranean?”

We both laughed, but later that night I couldn’t sleep. As I lay in bed, staring at the ceiling, I finally computed the obvious: I’m white-passing.

Don’t misunderstand. I’ve worked hard to get where I am. My family worked hard to help me get where I am. I will never discount that work or those sacrifices — Mom and Dad struggled too long and hard for me to disavow now. Yet I wonder: What doors were open to me that would have been closed to other Latinos who weren’t white-passing?

I’m a data guy, and the numbers don’t lie. In 2023, those who are Latinx account for 19.1% of the U.S. population. But they only account for 8% of tech workers, 3.1% of tech executives, and 2.1% of the venture capital that winds up being invested in companies.

You don’t need a Ph.D. in math to see that these numbers are out of whack.

Lately, the absurdity of my experience has been washing over me. There are millions of other Mexican American kids from Albuquerque — and around the country — who are much smarter than me. The anomaly isn’t that a Mexican American kid from Albuquerque can do what I do, the anomaly is that I was given the chance to do it.

The author taking the stage at his company's annual summit in New Orleans in 2022.
The author taking the stage at his company’s annual summit in New Orleans in 2022.

The tech industry — which brags about hiring the best and brightest — is foolishly missing out on entire pools of candidates because of cultural norms and self-reinforcing dynamics that only let certain types of people into the room.

One solution? There is an organization called Digital NEST. It takes the kids of migrant laborers in Watsonville and teaches them computer science. I’ve gotten to know some of these kids, and they’re brilliant. A bunch of them now work for me as top-rank software engineers, competing shoulder-to-shoulder with pedigreed engineers from coveted technical universities.

These kids — adults, now — remind me every day of something totally essential: Real success comes not through individual achievements but by fulfilling our shared responsibility to create opportunities, open doors, and empower others to follow.

These days, I tell the young Latinos and others from underprivileged backgrounds that I mentor that they have to do just one thing: Never believe there is a room you have no right to walk into. It’s okay to doubt yourself now and again, but you’ve got to believe in your own power, your own agency, your own ability to make it so. And when you eventually do land in one of those rooms you never thought you’d enter, take a moment to relish that you’ve arrived, but also understand that’s when the most important work begins: It’s when you make sure to leave the door open behind you, so you can usher others following your lead to their own seats at the table.

Tom Chavez is a serial entrepreneur and Founding General Partner at super{set}. Born and raised in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Chavez went on to receive a B.A. in Computer Science and Philosophy from Harvard University, and a Ph.D. in Engineering-Economic Systems and Operations Research from Stanford University. He has spent the last 20 years using data and AI to solve hard, interesting problems, and has founded companies acquired by Salesforce and Microsoft. More recently, he launched the Ethical Tech Project — a think-and-do tank fighting to protect consumer’s fundamental right to privacy and create a blueprint for the ethical use of consumer data across the internet.

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