Stop Comparing yourself to others — I wasted a lot of tears and energy because I used to compare myself to others and wonder why others were more successful than me. I learned to focus on my journey and count my blessings. I knew the power of mindfulness and not to believe every thought that crossed my mind. The solution is to become a conscious being and learn to dance with life. In this dance, I learned to plan and to surrender when the situation called for it.
Is the American Dream still alive? If you speak to many of the immigrants we spoke to, who came to this country with nothing but grit, resilience, and a dream, they will tell you that it certainly is still alive.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Montilla, founder of 5xminority, a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President and CIO for IT at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Elaine serves as a Forbes technology Council member and contributor. One of her main goals is to highlight the need for diversity in the field of Technology and expand STEM learning opportunities to all equally.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, a half-island in the Caribbean where temperatures never go below 20 degrees Celsius. La Bandera (the flag) was the food platter that connected our family at the table each day. Growing up in DR allowed me to always bring with me certain qualities we all share, such as a love for music, a strong coffee, and a relentless need to be loud and heard by others. My Dominican upbringing also gave me an immense value for a family. My father passed away when I was only seven and I consider myself extremely fortunate to grow up within a family of tightly knit first cousins, aunts, family friends, and vecinos (neighbors) who were around to support us.
I grew up in a loving and caring family with two siblings. My mother is a devoted catholic, and it was important for her to do whatever it took to ensure we all attended a private Catholic school, which was very expensive. Maintaining such standards became even more difficult when my dad passed away, and our lives slowly changed when my mom became a single mother. Looking back, I can see all the sacrifices she made. Watching her determination is what gave me the courage and drive to make sure I succeeded. Years later, and after running an entire IT department as a CIO, I decide to found 5xMinority because I know that other women and underrepresented minorities need all the help they can get. I am on a mission to demonstrate how businesses can be powerful platforms for social change.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
In my family, education is essential, mainly because none of my parents graduated from college. During that time, and perhaps even now, it was evident that the political climate and corruptive issues were significant problems in my country. I was a minor and had no choice in the matter, but I remember hearing references about the American Dream and all of the opportunities one could find in the United States. My mother realized that if we were to have a better future with growth opportunities, we needed to leave the country and start a new life in the US.
I recall always being fascinated by languages and the stories that people usually shared about abundance in the US. I had friends and family members who traveled to New York and Miami and always had nicer clothes and toys. I honestly did not imagine a life away from my beautiful island, but I am grateful for the opportunities this country has provided and continues to offer me today.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to the US (New York City) the day after I graduated High School. After moving to the United States, I faced a language and cultural barrier that took a substantial amount of time to overcome. I missed my friends, culture, the warm weather, the friendly faces on the street, and the rest of my family. I have a great love for my country, which will never change, no matter where I go.
Most of the time, I felt like I did not belong; I felt othered and dismissed by those around me. I was scared to speak because my accent was so strong, and learning a new language was challenging and took some time. Soon after starting college, I learned that I was fortunate to have my family with me. As I started making new friends, I realized how many of them were alone, trying to survive and working full-time to send money to their parents back home.
I studied hard and practiced English daily to get ahead. I obtained my Associate, Bachelor, and Master degrees, all while working full-time. Some of my courses took place in the evenings, on weekends, or in the middle of the day. I also focused on obtaining technical certifications because I knew that my work in Tech required it. Being dedicated, flexible, and social helped me thrive in the tech world, which is mostly dominated by man. I had to work harder and longer than all my counterparts to be recognized. In the end, it all paid off, and my education catapulted my career and helped me be the successful senior leader I am today.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
There are so many people I am grateful for, starting with my mother for having the courage to move to a new country to provide us with a better and brighter future. I am also grateful for the amazing mentors I have encountered during this time, starting with my first English teacher Ms. Dorothy S, Pam. Professor Pam helped me believe in myself and always encouraged me to try again.
More recently, I am grateful for my latest mentor, Mr. Robert Campbell. He always inspired me to have a stellar work ethic and dream big. I remember sharing a dream with him and hearing, “Elaine, go higher, dream bigger and stop waiting until you are ready to take the next step.” I am invested in mentoring young women in STEM and face similar barriers to the one I faced early on in my career.
So how are things going today?
Things are going great for me, pandemic and all. I continue to serve as the CIO for IT at a University in NYC and managed to migrate our services overnight and completely reinvent ourselves to support the new remote workforce and teaching practices. Additionally, in the past years, I had the privilege of delivering a TEDx Talk on the value of mentoring women and minorities in Tech. I also became a Forbes Technology council member and contributor, where I use my writing as another conduct to help those who do not have a voice and feel unseen in Tech.
This past year, I officially founded my first company, 5xMinority, Inc. I spend any free time delivering keynote presentations, workshops, or talks on the importance of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Most definitely. As an immigrant, I am incredibly grateful for the opportunities available to me, and I am committed to giving back as much as I can. Giving back is one of the reasons I started 5xMinority. I believe that all companies must create workplaces that reflect the communities they are serving, and the voices of each employee need to be supported and celebrated daily. I am passionate about promoting inclusive workplaces’ value and promoting the importance of inclusion across age, religion, gender, identity, and race. I also make time each month to mentor young Latinos and volunteer my time with the LALA Foundation to develop the next generation. I also deliver workshops free of charge to women who want to thrive in a male-dominated workspace.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
Because I came to the US as a minor, I do not have personal stories to share regarding the US immigration system. As a citizen, I can share that we need permanent protections for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, most of whom were brought into the country by their parents when they were children. We most find a way to create a pathway for them to citizenship. I also know that we face a humanitarian crisis at the southern border as asylum seekers attempt to enter the US. The numbers increase and exceed capacity, which has created deplorable conditions in which people go for weeks without access to showers or clothes changes. We need regulations to improve facility conditions, increase overall transparency, and protect those who speak up.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- Education is vital — Education provides the surest path to opportunity and social mobility for immigrants. I knew early on that education was my passport, and I decided that I would add as many stamps as I could to ensure I could develop my talents and have skills to help my growth. I always heard that knowledge was power, but I fully understood it when I got my first Tech job. I knew that knowledge would make people look beyond my accent and beyond my skin color or curly hair. I know that my degrees helped me succeed and get promoted over and over again. People can never take away my knowledge, and I learned to use it to my advantage.
- Take action — I watched many of my peers stay behind because they spent too much talking about their goals instead of taking action. Each year, I had plans and a vision board. I knew which skills I was going to work on, and I made it my mission to check-in frequently to assess my progress. One year it was public speaking, another was project management and the next leadership. Learn to set goals and don’t talk about them; work on them daily.
- Understand the value of money — When I first came to the US and started to earn money, I used to waste it buying material things. It took me a while to understand the value of investing, and I wished I had a mentor to teach me these skills when I was young.
- Stop Comparing yourself to others — I wasted a lot of tears and energy because I used to compare myself to others and wonder why others were more successful than me. I learned to focus on my journey and count my blessings. I knew the power of mindfulness and not to believe every thought that crossed my mind. The solution is to become a conscious being and learn to dance with life. In this dance, I learned to plan and to surrender when the situation called for it.
- Practice gratitude — My gratitude practice is the one habit that changed everything for me. When I open my eyes each morning, the first thing I do is think of three things/people/situations I am grateful for. Gratitude leads to contentment, which helps me be in a state of joy regardless of the circumstances. I learned to create space between what happens to me and how I react to such events.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
The younger generation that I listen to and mentor make me incredibly hopeful about the US’s future. They are kind, generous, loving, innovative, and inspire me to give more of myself. I am also optimistic about the many technological advancements we will continue to make. Last, our democracy is alive, and our voices are heard. I hope we can continue to bridge our differences and understand what is affecting those who politically have different beliefs than ours.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
Gary Vaynerchuk and Brene Brown
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
You can visit www.5xminority.com or connect with me on social media:
LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/emontilla/
Instagram — https://www.instagram.com/5xminority/
Twitter — https://twitter.com/5xminority
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!