How Latinos Can “Fit In” in a Non-Diverse Environment Without Losing Their Identity

The following is a guest post by Kenneth Salas, COO & Co-Founder of Camino Financial.

I’m about as Latino as you can get. I have a big and boisterous Mexican family that loves to sing with mariachi bands. I spent my childhood weekends hanging out behind the salsa bar of my Mom’s taquerias. I love dancing to merengue and salsa, and the list goes on and on.

Ironically, I didn’t self-identify as Latino until I was twenty years old.

Early into my freshman year at UC Berkeley, I started to feel a little insecure about being a minority. I had not felt different before because I attended high school in Mexico and 99% of all my friends and family looked and shared the same cultural norms as I did.

Until then, I was just another member of the “familia.”

I wasn’t going to let these feeling keep me from achieving my two primary goals in college. First, do well in school to earn a competitive job in business. My second goal was to re-immerse myself in American culture. I had been a nerd my entire life so meeting the second goal proved to be more challenging for me.

During my first semester, I became a member of the Latino Business Student Association to meet people and get smart on programs to propel a career in business. The good part of LBSA is I immediately befriended many members and was well positioned to become a leader in the organization.

The flip side is it became a haven from engaging with non-Latinos who were “not open to hanging out with me” (this is what I told myself to stay in my lane). Although I was conscious of my self-imposed limitations, I didn’t make a move until an upperclassman commented that I should get used to spending most of my time with other Latinos at Cal.

Little does she know, that conversation changed my life.

Without doing too much research, I thought joining a fraternity was about the most American thing I could do. I had my share of reservations because I wasn’t keen about “rushing,” the process of visiting fraternity houses until you get invited to join the brotherhood. Also, I felt self-conscious that I wouldn’t fit in because there weren’t many Latinos in the “Greek community.”

Luckily, my twin brother Sean was also a freshman at Berkeley, and I convinced him to embark on this journey with me.

Once a fraternity invited Sean and me to join, our key to fitting in was becoming great pledges. As a pledge, we were required to attend special events and complete assigned chores like cleaning the frat house once a week. You might be thinking: “Oh heck no! I’m not going to get hazed to fit into a social group.” While I didn’t have the most honorable moments during my pledge semester, pledging created a common bond I shared with my all the brothers in the house. Also, pledging allowed me to earn a place in the house without losing my Latino identity.

Using the same principles I applied when joining a fraternity, I’ve been able to work on Wall Street, became a student leader at Harvard Business School, and eventually raised over $15 million in equity and debt to fund a tech startup that, unsurprisingly, provides small business loans to one of the largest underbanked communities in the U.S.: Latinos.

To ensure you don’t think I’m recommending you should get hazed to fit in a group, here’s a breakdown of the key principles:

– Get in the habit of stepping outside of your comfort zone. Many people think I’m an extrovert but in reality, I like to keep to myself. To this day, I still feel a bit uneasy when walking into a room full of people I don’t know well. But, I have gotten in the habit of attending networking events, meeting people and, most importantly, build relationships until they dwindle or feel 100% comfortable.

– Focus your energy on the things you can control. When I started working on Wall Street, I didn’t have control over the projects I was assigned. But, I did have control over the time I arrived at the office every morning and my attitude. It didn’t matter how tedious or significant a task was, I took it on with a positive attitude and embraced it as an opportunity to prove my worth. Eventually, senior team members noted my strong work ethic and the quality of my work and staffed me on projects with them. By my second year, I had direct influence over choosing the people I worked with.

– Perform, perform, perform. The last thing you want to do is set yourself up for failure. When I was a kid, I enjoyed playing basketball but soon realized I was not going to be over six feet tall, a significant limitation to my pro career in the sport. Although there are exceptions to the rule, don’t forget to be practical. Position yourself in a discipline or industry that you’re passionate about and may have an unfair advantage. The world is not fair, especially in business. It’s about delivering results. So invest your time in something where you can excel and over perform.

– Be honest, especially with yourself. You can only pretend for so long until people realize what your true colors are. During your professional career, you’ll have ups and downs. Especially during the down times, your relationships will be tested and will become stronger or break. The ones that become stronger are those founded on mutual values and interests. So set yourself up for long-term success by being honest with others and yourself.

Racial sex and ethnic divisions are still widely apparent in the business community. Our society still has a long way to go when it comes to diversity. But don’t forget segregation is a two-way street. Those who have broken the glass ceiling took the first step to seize an opportunity outside of their comfort zone and pursue it with relentless drive for excellence.

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