When I think about my University of Michigan experience, the topic of diversity typically comes to the forefront. What is interesting is that it wasn’t intentional; I came to U-M with a focus on the academic challenge and how it would give me the foundation to build a technology-based company after graduation.
However, the social side of its impact and benefits shaped me, and I often feel, especially during these times of seeing so much racial division, how my experience opened up a whole new world to me.
I believe my upbringing created this curiosity to always be open-minded and someone who takes interests in others. Growing up Latino in metro Detroit, I was often one of the only people of my ethnicity in places I would go. I found myself very comfortable over time in being able to connect to people of any background.
As a freshman, when you don’t know many people, you often find a connection point in sports. I played basketball on a regular basis after class in the field house, sometimes for hours before heading back to study.
Many games were played with students of many ethnicities. But I noticed a particular group of Asian students always played, and one day they invited me as they needed another player. Afterward, they said, “You should play with us again,” and that invite led to a specific schedule to play weekly. When an intramural basketball league began that fall, the group asked if I would like to play on their team. I guess from the outside it might have looked different; here was a Latino point guard with a Chinese team taking on fellow students.
The team told me about their Asian student organization and said, “If you ever want to come to one of our events, you are always welcome.” I took them up on their offer, and next thing you know I started to attend events in the Asian Student Association.
Later, I went on to join the Indian Association, the Black Student Union, and many other diverse organizations on campus. I was so inspired by some of the speakers and events I attended that I became a stronger individual and looked even deeper into my own family culture and history.
When I did go on to create my company, VisionIT, in 1997, I immediately attracted people from many diverse backgrounds. People would say, “You make it so welcoming here” or “How do you know so much about the country I am from or the area I grew up?” I feel proud that we created a company that welcomed everyone, and we grew exponentially, leveraging each person’s talent and effort they brought to the business. We operated as a team — “the team, the team, the team!” to quote the famous line by Coach Bo Schembechler. 22 years later, the company was acquired, and one of the things that stood out to the buyer was our great company culture.
My hope is that more U-M students see the value in building strong, diverse networks and engage in environments where they might be the only person who looks like them in the room. For us to truly be Leaders and at our Best, we need to experience and value the cultures, ideas, and strengths of all.