Hometown: Havana, Cuba
Fun Fact About Yourself: I pushed Fidel Castro as a kid and by mistake
Undergraduate School and Major: The New School (Mannes Conservatory), Music Performance
Most Recent Employer and Job Title: Greater New York Academy, Music Program Director and Business Teacher
What did your parents do for a living? My father died when I was a baby. My mother worked in all kinds of jobs to sustain my brother and me in the absence of my dad. Growing up in Cuba in the 90s wasn’t easy. The economy was in shambles after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Like many other Cubans, all we could find to eat was rice and split peas. I saw my mom sell peanuts on the streets and make newborn clothing at home in order to pay our bills. She now works as a lobby greeter at a medical center in Miami.
What was the highest level of education achieved by your mother and your father?Both my mom and my dad dropped out of school in seventh grade. As a poor child in a small town, my dad began to work at a young age. My mom dropped out of school because of religious persecution. In the early years of the Cuban revolution, the government repressed and targeted Christian people, and my grandparents didn’t feel it was safe to send my mother to school.
Which family member or mentor is your biggest inspiration or role model? Why? My mother has always been my biggest inspiration. Although she didn’t have the opportunity to pursue an education or professional career, she has demonstrated integrity, resilience, and other values that serve as the foundation of everything I am and do. I owe all my accomplishments to her sacrifices.
What was the moment that led you to decide to pursue higher education? I have never been afraid of change and have always worked hard to create opportunities for myself. I studied music at Cuba’s National School of Arts from age four until I graduated from high school. I remember leaving my house on the outskirts of the city at 5 a.m. every morning and trekking across Havana with my trumpet to make it on time for class. When my family immigrated to the US in 2007, I had to work in construction for months while taking ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) classes at night. Two years later I felt comfortable enough communicating in English and decided it was time for me to continue pursuing my dreams. I auditioned and was fortunately admitted to top conservatories in New York City and decided to enroll at the Mannes School of Music.
What was your biggest worry before going for your undergraduate degree? I was mostly concerned about how to finance my years in college. I moved to New York City with $500 in my pocket. I stayed at a cheap hotel for a few days until I could find a room rental I could afford. On my first week of classes, it became evident that most of my classmates came from well-off families and that affording my new life in New York would be a challenge.
What was the most challenging part of getting your undergraduate degree? I quickly adjusted to life in New York and made many friends. Nevertheless, I missed my family a lot and felt a huge disconnect between the life before me and the life ahead of me. Additionally, I had to take loans, play at late night gigs, and teach music lessons on the weekends to pay for rent, food, and other living expenses (fortunately Mannes gave me a scholarship that covered tuition).
What didn’t your family understand about the higher experience that you wish they would understand better? My mom was always very supportive of my studies and professional ambitions, although she never understood what I was doing. I remember that when I proudly shared with her that I had had my first performance at Carnegie Hall, she gave me a blank stare and said “y eso que es?…felicidadez mijito” (“and what’s that? Congratulations, son”).
What led you to pursue an MBA degree? After college I worked as a professional musician in New York. I had lots of fun playing with jazz groups and symphony orchestras and conducting ensembles every once in a while. I also became the music and business program director for a private school in the city and began to enjoy the leadership opportunities the role gave me. I soon realized that as a business leader I could have more impact and could drive more change in the areas I’m passionate about. I also understood that minorities are greatly underrepresented in positions of leadership – most of my students of color didn’t even know what a career in business could look like – and that any of my accomplishments could serve to pave the way for them and others.
How did you choose your MBA program? I was very fortunate to find Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a minority focused organization that provided me with coaching, support, and a big family of friends as I prepared to apply to business school. It was through one of their programs that I connected with NYU Stern, and I immediately felt in love with its community. Stern gave me access to amazing professors, a broad number of experiential classes (which as a career-switcher was very important to me), and a community that truly looks out for one another. When I got that “congratulations, you are admitted” call, it was a no-brainer, I knew I belonged there.
What was your biggest worry before starting your MBA? I was worried about leaving my job and paying for a degree. I was also concerned about making the leap into a field I didn’t know much about and competing for positions with peers that had much more experience, resources and connections that I had. I was worried, but not afraid.
How were you able to finance your MBA as a first generation student? I am forever indebted to Stern and the Consortium for granting me with the consortium fellowship and allowing me to continue to pursue my dreams. Now more than ever, organizations should commit their words and resources to increase diversity and inclusion across all levels of leadership. It’s good for business, and it’s the right thing to do.
What advice would you have for other first-generation college students? Your fears are your only limitations. Many times, it will feel like the cards are stacked against you (and they probably are) but persevere instead of doubting yourself. Find the people who want to help you – there are many out here. Inform yourself; others had parents to help, we didn’t – so make sure you know what they know. Work hard and do it with a positive attitude. You deserve success. You owe it to the parents that didn’t have the opportunities that you now have. You owe it to others that will look at you and will believe that success is possible.
What do you plan to pursue after graduation? I will be joining McKinsey & Company as a consultant upon graduation.