My biggest dream is to be free.
I grew up on a farm in what used to be a small town in Mexico. It’s grown since I left and they now call it Little New York because a lot of the young people have moved to New York and now send money back to their families.
At the beginning, I didn’t understand why my family wanted to take care of me so much. I wanted them to leave me alone, so that I could do what I wanted. When I was older, my mother told me that I was bitten by a scorpion when I was only a month old. After that, she was always fighting with scorpions. They bit me tens of times, maybe hundreds. It’s dangerous but my mother always took care of me. Back then we used to walk everywhere and she’d walk and run the 50 minutes to town to give me the antidote. Even though I have 10 brothers, the scorpions never seemed to bother them. They’d only bite me, the only daughter of the family.
Ever since that first scorpion bite, my mother became fiercely protective of me. Even though I knew that she was trying to keep me safe, I always felt smothered by her. She’d rarely let me leave her sight or do things on my own. Whenever I pushed back she’d insist that I couldn’t be independent because I’m a woman. I rebelled by joining my father in the fields. My mother gave me so much grief for it. All she wanted was for me to be with her, but it drove me crazy.
To create some sense of space from her, I spent all of my time with my father and he’d teach me about a man’s work. At 12, I stopped going to school and began helping him take care of the cows and the harvest. We would drink milk fresh from the cow, and my mom would always get mad because she needed it to make cheese. My younger brother and I would take our 40 to 50 cows and all of our goats into the forest to graze. We’d spend entire days watching the herd to make sure none of them wandered off. Inevitably, one would get lost and my father would be furious. We would search for them for hours, sometimes searching through the night, hoping that they didn’t get attacked by coyotes. I loved all of it: the adventure, the freedom to simply be and the time in the forest where I’d collect flowers and draw things on trees, like hearts with whoever I was in love with at that age.
We used to grow all kinds of crops. We’d grow corn, white, red and black beans, chiles, tomatoes, green tomatoes, papalo and other vegetables, but we’d never sell them. Instead, my mother would give our harvest to whoever came to the house. She gave freely in a way that I didn’t understand then, but do now. Even when we didn’t have much, my mother always taught me that we had plenty and could spare enough to give to others.
I began working at another household as soon as I had the opportunity. At 15, I began helping another family with their home and loved the increased independence so much that I kept going. I worked 12 hour days, six days a week. I would cook for the families too, even though I heavily depended on the family grandmother’s teaching to prepare something palatable.
While I had my freedoms, I still rebelled against my mother when I was home. I started doing things just because I wanted to. She’d say, “don’t get a boyfriend” and then I’d get a boyfriend. Then she’d say, “don’t come home late”, but I’d come home late anyway just to upset her. I finally woke up and told myself I’d stop, but by then it was too late. I was pregnant.
I was 17 and pregnant and to my mother it felt like the end of the world. I broke her heart. She insisted that I got pregnant just to spite her, but it was really just a consequence of life. While she acknowledged this, I don’t think she ever moved on and we still haven’t apologized to one another.
I returned to the farm with my newborn daughter and went back to taking care of the herd. I was so young that I didn’t understand what to do with her; to me she was just like a doll. I met my soon to be husband when she was only a year old and we were in the forest with the cows. He was 20 years older than me and a widow, but he was good to my daughter. He told me, “your daughter loves me, so we should get married”. I couldn’t believe his audacity, but I found him charming. As a young single mom, my mother insisted that I marry him because she said no one else would want me. I resisted until my father also suggested I do the same.
We wed a month later and moved to New York shortly afterwards. We planned to stay for 4-5 years, so I left my daughter with my mother because I thought that would be best for her. I didn’t know then that I was letting go of her as my daughter at 1 year old and that I would still be here in New York, 20 years later.
I was pregnant with my second daughter when we arrived in New York and couldn’t work for the first year that we lived here. I was so restless that I began working only two months after giving birth. I carried her everywhere with me and worked 12 hour days. Then I had my third daughter a couple of years later, while still working the same amount. I was working so hard that for those 5 years I barely knew them.
While my husband loved me and I loved him, I realized I needed space to become my own person. Our relationship wasn’t growing closer and I asked for a divorce. When we returned to Mexico to finalize it, I saw my daughter for the first time in 6 years. After all that time away, I expected her to run to me and cling to me, but she didn’t. While I was away, people poisoned her thoughts by telling her, “your mom would rather be married than be with you”. I hated leaving her in Mexico, but I know that it was for the best for both her and my parents. My mother finally had the company she longed for and my father even gave up drinking. She’s married now with two kids and while we have a good relationship, it’s more akin to being sisters than mother-daughter. Even still, I’ve never told her what it felt like to leave her behind and I’m not sure that I ever could.
Once the divorce was complete, I returned to New York with my two youngest daughters. New York symbolizes a better life; it’s a city where they can have access to the best education, better food and a higher quality of living. It was then that I saw a life for myself. I could finally look around and make my own decisions and not just decisions that would please other people. I still had a lot of growing up to do, but I felt supported because my brothers were here. I made three goals: learn English, learn how to drive and learn how to swim. With these three things, you can be free. I don’t know how to swim or drive yet, but I’m doing my best to learn English.
Moving back to New York enabled me to really get to know my daughters because the three of us were on our own. The eldest would tell me, “mom, I love you”, and I would be so surprised because I felt that I hardly spent time with her. I’d think, really you love me? We began talking more, the three of us shared a single bed and spent all of our time together. My youngest would cry for her father and so I began telling her that I love her too, and she was surprised. I had held back so many of my emotions that my daughters didn’t even realize that I loved them. So I started telling them every day that I love them and now they do the same.
They say that daughters need their mothers, but mothers need their daughters too. I live a better life because of my daughters. They’ve helped me learn to drink responsibly, which is incredibly hard, especially since my father died from drinking. I don’t know if my mother felt she needed me as much as I need my daughters, because she never expressed herself in that way. She held her feelings closely, just as I do, and as a result we’ve never communicated just what we mean to one another. My mother lives in New York now, too and became a resident two years ago. She’s so proud to be a resident and she loves the city and its people. She lives in the Bronx near my brothers and she’ll go to the streets just to talk to people. She sells food; all of the dishes that people don’t cook anymore like pepian, which is green salsa with pumpkin seeds, and tamales with beans. She’ll make fresh cheese, too, even though the milk isn’t as good as what was on the farm.
I still haven’t apologized to my mom or told her that I love her, even though in my heart I do. She tells me that she loves me whenever we speak, but part of me still holds onto what it was like to live with her when I was younger and the arguments we had. She will always be my mom, and I love her for that, but I still feel like she never accepted me for who I am and who I wanted to be. All I ever wanted was for her to support me in my strength and independence, but it’s not something that I can expect her to do now.
So instead, I focus on my three goals of learning English, learning how to drive and how to swim. I hold them closely, but I’ve also expanded on them. Above all else, I want to go to Paris. My daughters laugh at me and say that Paris is boring, but I know in my heart that I must go. I saw a newscaster doing a segment on lovelocks, the locks that people attached to walls and bridges, and thought I want to do that! They say it’s the wall of love, but I want to do it for the love of myself. I’ve loved many, but most importantly I have found a way to be happy on my own, to not need others’ approval and live the life that I want to live. The lock represents my commitment to myself and the life that I’ve created for myself and my daughters, regardless of what others wanted for me.
I was born and raised in the Silicon Valley of China, Shenzhen. Despite being surrounded by tech companies, I didn’t view tech as a viable career path because I didn’t see lots of girls in tech growing up but my views were changed later in my life.
Curiosity was deeply rooted in who I am. As a child I’d often approach strangers and strike up a conversation with them. My curiosity was also paired with a love of creative problem solving, which would manifest in Lego masterpieces and sudoku triumphs when I was younger. As I grew older, I began trying different activities ranging from drama and improv, to ballroom dancing, to track and field. My parents would get frustrated with me and ask why I couldn’t focus on just one thing and do it really well. Their criticism made me feel that my curiosity was a flaw. It didn’t help that there was a lack of diversity in the definition of success in China, and everyone had an immense desire to be the best. The only thing students cared about was getting high marks to get into the best universities and land the best jobs. I found myself wondering, what does it mean to be the best? It seemed like there was only one standard for success and I couldn’t accept that. At age 17, I decided to live in a more open-minded place where people had different versions of success while figuring out what I wanted to be my success story, so I told my parents that I would go abroad to study in Canada by myself.
I came to Canada as a high school student and began living with my aunt’s family. I didn’t know much about them before and they were almost strangers to me, so it took some time for me to adapt. Soon enough though, they began suggesting what they considered traditional values and career paths for women, such as nursing or accounting. While they were very supportive of me, they only viewed my potential through the lens of what they expected a woman should do.
Before moving to Canada, I lived in 10 different homes. Between my parents’ divorce and ongoing family drama, I bounced from living with my dad and stepmom, to living with my grandma and eventually boarding school. I felt like I wasn’t enough to deserve being loved and thought maybe my parents didn’t want me. When I arrived at my aunt’s house, all I wanted to do was to please them. So when they suggested that I should pursue these “girly” career paths, I did.
I decided to major in accounting and financial management because of their encouragement. I excelled in school and eventually went on to have a career in finance, switching between venture capital, private equity, capital markets, and consulting. All of these opportunities were incredibly sought after, but I was utterly unsatisfied. Every day, I went to work and felt like I wasn’t reaching my full potential, since I was just making rich people richer. I wasn’t solving challenging problems and it certainly didn’t pique my curiosity. I kept trying different career paths in finance and no matter what I chose I felt like I didn’t have an impact.
I began participating in hackathons around that time and it was through this community that I learned about product management. I had never heard of it and was curious to learn more. The speaker told us that “the product manager is the person that gets all of the blame when something goes wrong and doesn’t receive the credit when things go well”. Initially, I was shocked that anyone would want this type of job, but as the speaker went on to explain that product managers are also in charge of identifying user problems and solving them creatively, something clicked. From then on, I decided that I would be a product manager. Instead of waiting for someone to hire me, I figured that I could hire myself by starting a venture, so I began brainstorming potential projects and testing my ideas with others.
In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, I participated in a hackathon called Pandemic Hack. We were prompted to look into our own lives to identify emerging problems that were blowing up during COVID. Two stats caught our attention. First, the 7% record high unemployment rate had led to significant food insecurity for children and families. Second, 50% of restaurants closed down and their staff lost their jobs, especially minority-owned businesses. Personally, both problems were very close to my heart because food is the love language in the Asian culture, and xenophobia has led to detrimental effects on Asian restaurants. My team pitched the idea of a three-sided marketplace that brought together donors, restaurants and individuals facing food insecurity, ultimately enabling family-owned restaurants to stay in business and helping families put food on the table. We won the competition and went on to fundraise over $25,000 to provide 3,300 free meals to people in need. It was the first time for me to create a product from zero to one that had a real impact on people’s lives. From then on, I knew that product management was what I’d want to do my entire life.
I’ve since gone on to launch a second startup in climate change called Neutrify to educate users about the sustainability impact of their food, worked at Blackberry in enterprise security, Google X in robotics and now at Microsoft in accessibility and AI. Other people would probably see me as workaholic because the only resting time I have is reserved for sleeping, eating and spending time with my boyfriend. From my perspective, I don’t feel tired because I’m working on something that I’m passionate about. For me, working is like playing. I recharge myself when I’m talking to my team and working towards the same goal, which makes me so excited. I can’t really explain why I work so much, but when you love what you’re doing, you just don’t feel tired. This is so different from working in finance where I often had to stay until midnight to work on acquisition deals. There was so much external pressure to be present and perform in front of your manager. Now my working hours are all internally motivated and a choice that I won’t change.
Looking back, I’ve realized that all of my seemingly random interests when I was younger are what shaped me into who I am today. I used to think that it was a flaw that I didn’t have the ability to be a competitive athlete in track and field, but after exploring 10+ different interests and learning distinct skills from each one of them, I’ve realized that my curiosity is a gift. My inquisitive nature made me a generalist and that means I’m not suited to pursue a PhD because I won’t be as interested in researching one area. However, generalists still have a lot of benefits. I can have smooth conversations with anyone, and have the ability to connect seemingly different topics. All my explorations have also helped me develop a resilient reaction to stress. Between improv, dance performances and track and field, I had to resist my flight impulse in high stress situations and instead do my best and fight for myself. While I unintentionally built this up, all of these experiences have empowered me to speak up for myself and to be fearless when trying something new.
My most important realization is that I don’t need external validation to define my success. My parents likely still don’t understand what I’m doing, which is ok. I don’t expect them to fully comprehend it since it’s so different from what they consider a traditional career path. 5 years ago, I would have felt insecure about my family’s expectations of me, but now I know that they’re proud of me, even if what I’m doing is different than what they expected. The personal learning and growth that I get from pursuing this career path is all I need to know that I’m doing what’s best for me.
Even today, we are still primary caretakers, regardless of how much progress was made towards more equal parenting prior to the pandemic. We're still the ones who are working late at night after our kids go to sleep. Our partners try to help, but little kids still need their mothers biologically and emotionally - especially in the early days.
It is a difficult balance, however, and as a result I don't have time to feel right now. I have a young child, an initiative that I'm really passionate about and an impact driven job from nine to five. My day starts at let's say nine o'clock. During my lunch I’m taking calls or doing something that I need to complete. Starting at 6 to 8:30 I spend time with my family. And that's when I try to factor in some amount of self-care by running, walking or doing something. Once my son's down, I go back to work until 12 or 1 and then the whole cycle starts over the next morning. It's not healthy to some degree, but honestly, I just try to stay focused on what I'm doing and keep going with it. Over time, I have demonstrated that I can be a high performer in these roles, but I overcompensate because I am a mother. I end up working until two o'clock or three o'clock in the morning, just to prove a point that being a mother is not a shortcoming.
I also think being an immigrant makes me more really resilient and adaptable. I'd also take it back to my roots. My father was a doctor in the army in India and every 3 years we would move to a new city. So, from a very young age I was exposed to different cultures within India and different languages (there’s more than 22 languages in the country). I think that was what acquainted me with being very adaptable in any country that I go to and learn how to navigate and build my career.
As a first-generation immigrant, I think this is quite common in some sense. We've left our homes, our friends, family and everybody we know. One thing that will stays with me in particular is my educational experience. I studied in a school that was immensely diverse. We were mixed with kids whose parents ranged from commanders all the way to the Javan, who are the frontline heroes of the country. It didn’t matter what language you spoke, what the color of your skin was, where you came from or what level your parents were in the army. In school we were all equal. And I think that was the real foundation of who I am today. And I want that equity not just for myself but also for my child and for anyone else who comes to this country after me.
Growing up, I was never made to feel that I was any lesser than my peers. As a result, I came to expect that I would do everything equally alongside my peers, that opportunities would be equal. But now as I grow older, I see that’s not true. Inequities exist everywhere. Whether we're talking about fem tech or in health tech with contraception or any sort of fertility treatments, there’s been little that’s changed in over a hundred years. Why? Or how women of color entrepreneurs do not have access to equal funding. Some of my other goals besides re-engaging women back in to the workforce though my work at Products by Women for this year is to support women led ventures and reduce gender inequality and pay parity that exists in tech today. In a recent conversation with a friend, I expressed how much disbelief I had that Apple took so freaking long to get a period tracker. Are you telling me that it took them so long to serve 50% of their population? It illustrates why diversity of leadership matters. It's important for everybody to be able to come to the table to ideate and innovate, because those solutions ultimately should serve everyone.
I hope when my son grows up that he’s not dealing with the same exact issues that we are facing today, but I'm afraid that they will probably still be there. I try my best to give him perspective by making sure that the books he’s reading or anything that we are exposing him to has a lot of diversity. Creating an atmosphere for him to understand diversity is very important at such a young age. There has been a big shift in representation and we see more people like ourselves, which is great. Many years from now, there will be more people who are colored than not. I would like to expose him to schools with a lot of diversity and hopefully all of these efforts that I make will set him up to understand that it is important to think broadly because it’s part of who he is. I try my best to explain these things to him and I hope he is grabbing those little nuggets of wisdom, so that he too can drive change in the world.