Friday, July 24, 2015

My Speech for FLOTUS' “Beat the Odds” Summit at the White House July 23, 2015

 “World can't hold me, too much ambition always knew it’d be like this when I was in the kitchen…” – Jay Z

It is such an honor for me to be here today. 

I want to thank the First Lady for giving me this opportunity to share my story with you.  The dedication and commitment the First Lady has for education is inspiring. 

The programs she and the President have launched for students, especially for our most vulnerable students, are helping millions of children across the country and the world get the education they need to thrive in the 21st Century.  

Their resoluteness to the entire educational pipeline demonstrates their belief in education as the most important investment we can make in America. 

As the President has said many times, “If we want America to lead in the 21st Century, nothing is more important than giving everyone the best education possible.”

I want to also like to thank Eric Waldo and the Reach Higher Team for inviting me to participate today and for all the work they do to help our students dream big and reach higher.  Their work is critical to our students and their future, a future we know demands more than just a high school diploma.

I am the Chief Education Evangelist at Google.  I work with an amazing group of Googlers (that’s what we call ourselves) focused on using technology and the web as an enabling and supporting capability for educators as they empower students to be lifelong learners.

I believe deeply in education because in my heart I know it has the power to disrupt poverty and to change the destiny of a family in just one generation. 

I am a first generation American.  I was born in New York to a single mother who came to America from Argentina like millions before her escaping unstable governments and dictators.  I was raised on welfare and food stamps in Hell’s Kitchen, New York and when they welcomed me at my first day of school at PS 111, I said “que?”  So technically English is my second language.  

I'm not talking about the Hell’s Kitchen you visit today with the nice restaurants and expensive condos.  I grew up in the Hell’s Kitchen of the 1970s and 80s, an era in which it really lived up to it’s name!  I believe our community was highlighted in the “neighborhoods to stay out of” pamphlets they distributed to tourists who landed at JFK!

Hell’s Kitchen was not a nice place.  I grew up watching friends I knew since elementary school turn into drug addicts, criminals, drug dealers, and watched them cycle through Riker’s Island year after year (Riker’s is New York City’s main jail complex and has been in the news lately).  As many of our students in this room know, growing up like that makes you grow up fast and hard just to survive.

I wanted out of Hell’s Kitchen.  Riker’s Island was certainly not for me and I rejected the narrative that my destiny was to become a drug dealer, criminal, or that I too would be a frequent Riker’s Island visitor. 

However, when you seek a road that leads you out of an environment like Hell’s Kitchen, you realize many of these roads lead to dead ends.  It becomes clear the only legitimate road out is education and so getting my education became my focus. 

I’ll be the first to admit it wasn’t always easy.  There are distractions and enticements all around you.  Those minding the dead end roads will work hard to lure you with assurances of quick power and riches.  You need to have your own distractions.

Fortunately I had basketball and a job to occupy my time.  If I wasn't at school, I was at practice or playing at the Police Athletic League Gym (or what we called P.A.L.)  When I wasn’t in school or playing basketball, I was working.  If you don't keep yourself busy, someone with less than noble intentions will gladly help you find ways to keep busy.

You also need a pair of very thick and solid “reality distortion glasses.”  Everything around you shrieks, “you will not make it!”  All you see, read, and hear will proclaim, “You are not meant to succeed.  You don't belong here.”

I remember taking the “what you will be when you grow up” assessment in elementary school.  The assessment told me I was to become an IRS agent!  I didn’t even know what an IRS Agent was?  The worst part was that I was told by my teacher there was no way I would be an IRS Agent but reassured me if I work hard and stay out of trouble, I could get a good city job.

Those who argue, “just go to school and keep out of trouble” clearly don't understand what it’s like to grow up in our environment.  You don't need to look for trouble.  Trouble finds a way to get to you.  You have to be stronger than most people understand.

Through hard work, the grace of God, and with the help of some amazing teachers, I graduated from high school.

However, being the stubborn person I am, graduating from high school wasn't enough for me.  I remember looking at the college graduation statistics, which were around 5% for Latinos.  I refused to accept those stats.  It became an “I'll show them” mission.  I needed to prove myself! 

So without any help, I looked at colleges.  I had already missed the fall semester deadlines so I committed to start in the spring.  I figured out how to fill out the applications and the financial aid forms.  I knew we had a great state system so I applied to a few schools outside New York City and ended up at SUNY Brockport, near Rochester, New York.

Talk about a culture shock.  I went from the middle of Manhattan with eight million people to a small town of 8500, where the population was doubled when school was in session.  I was on my own to figure it all out.  I felt more alone than I had ever felt in my life.

There were many times in those days I doubted my ability.  There were many times I felt like I didn’t belong.  There were many times I wanted to pack up my stuff and go home.  The stubbornness kept me going.  I was determined to beat the odds and going back would prove I wasn't capable.  Going back would give the naysayers the opportunity to say, “I told you so.”

I doubled majored at SUNY Brockport in Political Science and Communications and because I wanted to continue to study public policy and my reality distortion glasses were still firmly glued on my face, I went to Arizona State University on a full scholarship to get my Master’s in Public Policy.

As you can imagine, the doubts creped in again.  I didn't belong at ASU.  I didn't deserve the scholarship.  I wasn’t smart enough for a graduate degree.  I realize now these doubts are always there; you have to be strong enough to push them down, to ignore them!

So here I am today working at Google and speaking at the White House, evidence education is the silver bullet.  However, this story does not end with my accomplishments.   

You see I have three kids.  I have a 22 year old, a 14 year old, and a 10 month old.  Yes, it’s clear I can only handle one child at a time!  My 22-year-old daughter graduated from college last month and I never had a conversation with her about college.  It never had to come up.  She just assumed she was going.  I went to college.  Her mother went to college.  Everyone around her went to college.  She assumes she is going to graduate school because I went to graduate school.  She also assumes I’m paying for it but that is a nice problem to have.

My 14 year old wants to skip high school and go to college now to focus on game design and development. 

Their outlook on life is fundamentally different.  They see no obstacles in their way.  They fear no barriers.  In just one generation we’ve been able to change our family’s destiny.  This is the real power of education. 

So I share these stories with you for a number of reasons. 

First, I believe in what the First Lady is trying to accomplish with Reach Higher.  It is absolutely clear that graduating from high school is the minimum requirement for the global economy we are in.  While graduating from high school was all you needed to succeed a generation ago, it is no longer true.  Today's young high school-only graduates earn about 62 percent of what their college-graduate peers earn.

We all recognize students must go beyond a high school graduation – whether that is a four-year college, community college, a technical/certification program depends on a number of factors, but no one is disputing the fact a high school degree, while an accomplishment on it’s own, is no longer enough.

The second reason I share with you is because I believe with all my heart that if I can accomplish what I've accomplished, you certainly can. 

I am no different than you are.  I was in your shoes and I know your struggle.  I know what you must overcome and I am here to tell you with a lot of hard work, a healthy disrespect for the impossible, some luck, and a nice pair of reality distortion glasses, you can accomplish anything! 

I call on you to ignore all the haters and naysayers.  Far too often, people underestimate the capabilities of students who live in poor communities, equaling poverty with low ability.  You will face people with very low expectations of you, usually draped in the cloak of “looking out for your best interest.” 

The First Lady herself shared her story on how counselors warned her about being too ambitious when she told them she wanted to go to Princeton.

Do not, I repeat, do not wait for anyone to believe in you.  Believe in yourself, strap on your glasses, and prove them all wrong!

The third reason is to ask you a question.  Often we ask our students the wrong question, “What do you want to be when you grow up.”  I don't like this question.  First, there is a very good chance your “job” doesn't exist.  Second, I do not expect kids growing up in communities like Hell’s Kitchen to tell me that they want to be a microbiologist or a sustainable materials architect. 

Instead, I want to ask you, “What problem do you want to solve?”  What problem occupies your thoughts?  

I want you to think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need to solve this problem. 

Where can you start building the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need? 

  •       What research do you need to do? 
  •       What publications and websites should you subscribe to? 
  •       What classes can you take?  Online?  In school? 
  •       What books should you read? 
  •       What videos and documentaries should you watch? 
  •       Who else is interested in solving this problem?  Who are the people you can collaborate with? 
  •       Who should you follow on LinkedIn or Twitter? 
  •       What blogs should you be reading?

When I ask you to think about what problem you want to solve, I am asking you to take ownership of your learning.  I am asking you to begin to create mastery for the most critical skills you will need.  I want to give you the opportunity to think about purpose.

The fourth and final thought I’d like to share with you is a thought I wish someone shared with me when I was your age.  You see I was ashamed of who I was.  I was ashamed of my family.  I was ashamed of where I came from.  I did not share my experiences with folks.  I felt if they knew I was poor, they would assume negative stereotypes about me. 

I am here to tell you that who you are, where you are from, and your perspective and experiences will be enormous competitive advantage when you make it out and find your way in the world! 

In my 20 years of working, I know my point of view and perspective comes from my background and experiences and I have found they are often unique.  There aren’t many who have my point of view.  I work with some smart folks who went to Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton and I bet they would say I do a decent job not just keeping up with them, but also keeping them on their toes. 

Be proud of who you are and your experiences!  The experiences define you and you should walk proudly because you have overcome the odds stacked against you.

So I want you to leave here today thinking about the problem you want to solve.  I want you to think about the knowledge, skills, and abilities you need to solve that problem.  I want you to find your reality distortion glasses, put them on, and dream as big as you can. 

I bet no matter how big you dream; you’re nowhere close to your actual potential!  I want you to think beyond high school and set extremely ambitious and ridiculous goals for yourself and to ignore anyone who doubts you or tries to get in your way. 

When you succeed, I want you to pay it forward and share your story with the next group of students who need your guidance.

There is an ethos in this country that is fundamentally and uniquely American. 

It is the belief that if you get your education and work hard, you can succeed regardless of where you come from and how you grow up. 

This is the American dream and some people believe this dream is no longer reachable.  I am here to tell you it is possible.  I want you to believe it is possible!

So with God’s speed, go out and prove all the haters wrong!  Accept their premise and just work harder and reach higher and I bet, no I know you to will beat the odds!

Thank you.


Monday, May 18, 2015

It's Not Really a Small World

(Editor's note: the following post appeared as a guest post on Education Week)

"There is just one moon and one golden sun,
And a smile means friendship to everyone,
Though the mountains divide,And the oceans are wide,
It's a small world after all..."    

- Walt Disney

With all due respect to the dancing dolls in Anaheim, it really isn't a small world.  It is a complex, multifaceted, diverse, and complicated world. Most of us hardly understand it yet the growing availability of the Internet and low-cost devices to connect to all the world's information brings the complexity of this world to your fingertips.  In 1995, just 1% of the world was online. Today, more than 40% of the world is. It took just 20 years to get three billion people online. This global achievement calls for all of us to understand what is happening around the world, why it is happening, and how it impacts us more than ever.
Local Companies, Global Competition
From a commerce perspective, gone are most organizations that do not compete on a global scale. In fact, there is a good chance our students will work for a global organization at some point in their careers. Even Paul Bond Boots, a small rural cowboy boot store in Nogales, Arizona, has a global customer base! With companies like Google, Facebook, Netflix, and others, most companies who are U.S.-based operate 24 hours a day on a global scale. In education, we often talk about how it's critical it is to teach our students the "Four C's": communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity. While I agree these are critical competencies our students should master, what we miss in this discussion is an emphasis on another very important C, global competency.
Even if a graduate never works abroad or in a global organization, we still need to make sure our students are exposed to learning global competency skills. Since its inception, the United States has been comprised of people from all over the world. Whether you just arrived in the U.S. or are fifteenth generation, all of us have one common characteristic: we all have a First Generation story. And it doesn't look like this trend is slowing. The U.S. continues to become more linguistically and culturally diverse. For example, in the next few years, one in four students in our public school system will be Latino. By the year 2045, the U.S. will be a "minority majority" country, meaning there will be more Americans who identify as minorities as a group than whites.
Organizations who will thrive in this global, diverse economy will understand how not only having a diverse workforce will be a competitive advantage, but having a workforce that understands and appreciates people from other cultures and one that can identify and acknowledge different points of view will stay relevant. Companies who focus on awareness and understanding of cultural issues at home and around the world will continue to expand and remain competitive. Having this awareness and understanding will help organizations to design products and services that appeal to a culturally diverse, global audience. 
The Imperative of Global Competency 
So what does a globally competent student look like? Globally competent students can see and understand the interconnectivity and interdependence between what we do here in the United States and the rest of the world.  This means they will understand how problems facing the rest of the world impact us here at home and vice versa. Students who are globally competent have in-depth knowledge and understanding of international issues, an appreciation of people from culturally diverse backgrounds, and the knowledge, skills, and experiences to call themselves global citizens. Most American students, and especially low-income minority students, are behind their peers in other countries in their knowledge and understanding of world issues, world geography, and cultural understanding and experiences. 
We often ask our students, "What do you want to be when you grow up?" I do not believe that is the right question. First, all the labor forecasts predict that most jobs of the future haven't been defined yet. Second, we already have jobs most students wouldn't recognize, like "Bio-Medical Engineer" or "Sustainable Materials Architect." Instead of asking our students what they want to be when they grow up, we should ask them what problem they want to solve. We should ask them to think about what knowledge, skills, and abilities they need to solve that problem. We should ask them to think about where they can get the knowledge, skills, and abilities they will need. We should ask them to think about how the problem they want to solve fits into the context of the world.
We need to create a generation of critically-thinking, collaborative problem solvers. Students who know and understand world issues. Students who understand political and socioeconomic systems on a global scale. Students who recognize and appreciate cultural diversity. If we really want to face and solve the problems of this complex, multifaceted, diverse, and complicated world, we need a generation of students who are strong in all the C's: communication, collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and global competency.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Think Different

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers.  The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules. And they have no respect for the status quo.  You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can’t do is ignore them. Because they change things. They invent. They imagine. They heal. They explore. They create. They inspire. They push the human race forward…while some see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

It was my first year at Accenture and I was in one of our typical all day all night war room tech/org design sessions. One of the senior managers in the room looked my way and asked, “Why do you wear a purple shirt like that? You know we’re not in Mexico right? Is it because you are going clubbing tonight?” I heard comments like this at Accenture throughout my six years there. As a Latino, the blue button-down, khaki pants, penny loafers look wasn’t for me. Don’t get me wrong, I really wished it were! I bought the corporate uniform and tried it for a while.  I wanted to fit in. As the only Latino in the room 99% of the time, I wanted to blend in with the people I was working with. I just wasn’t very comfortable in my own skin when I dressed like they did. I decided I would just do me and hope for the best. This led to many comments about how I dressed or what I looked like. I had nicknames like “Jose” and “Pedro.” Almost every request from a manager ended with, “Mucha gracias,” when clearly this was their entire Spanish language library. It’s been like this for 20 years. Just a couple of months ago I was presenting at an event in Chicago answering a question about the future of schools. When I was done with my answer, the panelist next to me said, “wow, you are so articulate and well spoken.” I know he meant it as a compliment but what was he expecting? I am the Global Education Evangelist for Google. I am the face and voice for Google education. What could have been the level of expectation he had for me?

Although I don’t code, I've been involved in the tech space since 1995. At Accenture I was part of the organizational development team in the electronics and high tech industry group. I worked for organizations like American Express, Motorola, Seagate, Sun Microsystems, and so on. I spent two years at Charles Schwab, helping the leadership team reengineer their human resources operation. I believe over the last 20 years, I have spent more time in Silicon Valley/San Francisco than I’ve spent at home in Phoenix! Almost everyone in my professional network is in the tech space. I’m used to always being the only Latino in the room. I've spent the last nine years at Google, so it didn’t surprise me when I saw our diversity numbers – 3% Latino, 2% Black. I was proud of the team for releasing the information. Laszlo Bock and his team stood up and said, we have an issue and need to do many many things to solve it.  

Google of course is not alone. Only one in 14 technology folks in Silicon Valley is Black or Latino. In all, less than 5% of the teams at Google, Facebook, and Yahoo are Black or Latino. This extends into the management and future direction of these organizations. For example, I read a NY Times article highlighting that 11 of the 20 companies examined, including Google, Facebook, Yahoo, Twitter, and eBay, had no people of color on their Board of Directors. Out of the 189 board members across those 20 companies, only three were Black and one was Latino. I should say here if any of these companies would like to put me on their Board of Directors, I’m open to discussing it!  It’s also critical to point out that this isn’t just an issue with “old” tech companies (you know, Google is 16 years old and therefore a dinosaur.) Less than 2% of startup founders are Black or Latino.

These figures are a reflection of a larger issue when it comes to STEM fields – only 13% of science, technology, mathematics, and engineering degrees are held by Black or Latino workers (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.) This is a somber statistic impacting us today and in the future. By 2020, the United States will have 1.4 million computer science jobs according to estimates by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, with only 400,000 computer scientists to fill them. That leaves a gaping hole in our economy! At the same time, by the year 2043, the United States will be a majority-minority country. My six-month-old daughter is in the generation that will be that majority-minority. In 2013, there was a higher percentage of Latino high school graduates enrolled in college than non-Latino whites.

We have a perfect storm of concerns heading our way. The need for diversity in technology is not an altruistic matter. We are talking real commerce here.  This is especially true in the Edtech space. Racial and ethnic minorities now make up the majority of students in K12. The need for intellectual and social diversity is critical. Not just in terms of ethnic diversity either. We need to increase the opportunities for those people of color near the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. Their voice is critical in the Edtech space when it comes to solutions for their community.

The companies that will have endurance are the ones who understand how diversity helps them stay relevant. Organizations that ignore diversity, or do not see the business value of it, are in danger of becoming irrelevant and out-of-touch. It also makes very good organizational sense. Many studies show organizations with both gender and ethnic diversity tend to be more creative and profitable. The key element is how multiple perspectives help these organizations design products and services that appeal to a cultural diverse audience.

While there are some very authentic concerns we need to tackle in the tech space, this is not a tech industry issue alone. The problem starts long before the tech job posting goes live. The problem spans the entire pipeline.

As reported in many publications last year (Liana Heitin, No Girls, Blacks, or Hispanics Take AP Computer Science Exam in Some States, Eleanor Barkhorn, Tech's Gender and Race Gap Starts in High School,) there were three states where not a single female student took the Advanced Placement exam in computer science. In eight states, no Latino students took it. And in 11 states, no Black students took the test. In 2013, 30,000 students took the AP exam for computer science and less than 20% of those students were female, about 8% were Latino, and 3% were Black. Even if we had an opportunity to increase the number of minorities in AP computer science classes, I don’t think we would be able to staff those AP classes with qualified CS teachers. I get it. If you are a struggling school, how much are you going to invest in computer science when you are dealing with bringing students up to level in math and reading? When you are using a shot glass to bail out the water from your underfunded school system that is quickly sinking, how much bandwidth do you have for computer science?

Besides, the problem doesn’t even start in high school. We know there is an 18-month academic gap between rich kids and poor kids by the time they get to kindergarten. Most of the poor kids happen to be minorities. These students, who make up 40% of the K12 population, are not only less likely to be prepared for kindergarten, they are less likely to graduate from high school, or attend a great college. They are less likely to graduate from college and when they are in college, they are less likely to study computer science or any STEM field for that matter (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.) The statistic, which I wake up with every morning, is this:

If you are a high potential low-income minority in the US, you have a 9% chance of graduating from college. 45 years ago it was 6%. At this rate we will be at 15% by the year 2105.

- White House Report, Increasing College Opportunity for Low-Income Students 

With these baffling facts, how would we ever manage to get high potential minorities into Google, Twitter, Yahoo, or any of the hundreds of tech start-ups?

We need to think differently about the whole pipeline, from what we do to make sure students of all ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds start their education on the right foot, to recruiting strategies at tech companies, to ensuring we create bias free cultures in all our organizations. Just increasing the number of Black and Latinos who get interviews at tech companies and startups isn’t enough, especially if nothing has been done to change organizational culture and bias.

Tech companies must demand an unbiased and inclusive workplace.  This can be done with professional development for individuals and teams. At the same time, tech companies can increase the diversity of the hiring pool by searching for real talent in various places and not just sticking to the same patterns they currently use. Tech companies can also make sure they are hiring more diverse workers in non-tech positions as well. In the long run, all of us in technology must invest in fixing the pipeline by getting involved early in the education effort.

In the Edtech space, start-ups can prioritize the recruitment of culturally and socioeconomically diverse folks to join the team. At the same time, these teams must be engaged with teachers and students, especially low-income minority students, to get their perspective and point of view on the problem they are trying to solve with their products or services (Cameron White, "Equity, Diversity & Edtech," July 21, 2014.)

At the education level, much needs to be done!

First, we need to teach our students real tech skills, building digital and technology leaders, not just consumers of technology. I’m not even talking about coding classes. I’m talking about teaching students to search, to vet, to make sense of information. You can start here with some great material from us!

Second, we need to build programing concepts (i.e., programing, design thinking, conceptual modeling) into our curriculum and in our options for after school activities. There are a growing group of organizations that are trying to address these issues through community based, technology enabled education programs (Cameron White, "Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Education," July 21, 2014.)

  • CS First provides free, easy-to-use computer science (CS) enrichment materials that target and engage a diverse student population.
  • Black Girls Code teaches young girls and pre-teens of color in-demand skills in technology and computer programming.
  • Science Genius leverages hip hop pedagogy to engage urban youth and educators in STEM exploration.
  • Hack the Hood connects youth to real-world consulting projects building websites for local businesses and nonprofits.
  • Qeyno Labs harnesses the interests of high potential youth from low-opportunity settings through radically inclusive hackathons.
  • Made with Code is an initiative designed to inspire millions of girls to experience the power of code.

Third, we need to provide as many opportunities as possible to students of all socioeconomic backgrounds to engage with computer science and other STEM fields. This area will require some outside the class thinking.

Finally, we cannot forget the most important stakeholder group - parents.  Parents play a critical role in creating the demands and expectations for our students. During the industrial revolution, it was easy for workers to move from the farm to the factory. This is not the case with the knowledge-based economy. A displaced manufacturing worker cannot move from that role to a system architect at a tech company. The knowledge, skills, and abilities required for this economy require a lifelong learning mentality. Parents need to understand this and demand that their children are learning what they need to learn to thrive in their future (and in my case, make sure my kids have a house I can move into when I am older.) Parents must drive the demand for building computer science/STEM skills and capabilities for their children. This is especially true in our poor communities. I think my mother still believes the only way I will ever be successful when I grow up is to be a lawyer. I want to see parents in these communities talk about how their kid is going to grow up and be a biomedical engineer, an architectural engineering manager, an information research scientist, or a information security analyst. When someone asks me if I want my kids to speak a second language (because you know, I speak Spanish,) I respond with, “yes, Python.” Now, I just need to figure out how to get every Latino parent in the country to answer the same way!

I am working on a project I'm really excited about. I am part of a team that is designing and building a new district high school in Phoenix focused on inquiry based learning, where students use coding as the language they speak and use in the pursuit of learning. I will talk more about this project when we get to the next stage! We are really trying to think different.

My kid William showing me his lines of code...

Post Note

I published a public draft outline of this blog post before I ran a session on the need for diversity in technology at SXSWedu. I got some great information, statistics, and feedback that I included in this post.

If you want to learn more about this topic there are some great resources out there, including these well thought out posts: