“What makes me optimistic about the US’s future is my optimism for the next generation. We’re really seeing a massive shift in how younger people think in terms of being aware that ultimately we are all just one human race with imaginary borders between us. Social media has forced younger people to grow up more quickly, and that has its cons as well, but one of the pros is that you have a generation who is aware of their power and is not afraid to use that power. These kids don’t just lock themselves in a room and blast music when they’re angry — they spring into action and make real, tangible changes.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sebastian Hex, a Wall Street banker turned music producer and songwriter.
Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I was born in a city called Calamba in the northern part of the Philippines. I lived there with my parents and my older brother until the family decided to move to the US when I was twelve years old. My childhood there pretty much consisted of music, computer games, and Saturday cartoons. It was pretty simple.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
I was twelve years old at the time so I didn’t really have a say in the matter, but basically my mother, who works in fashion, had accepted a job offer in New York City. I couldn’t really understand at the time why moving was necessary; I just remember being really bummed about it because I had been looking forward to celebrating my thirteenth birthday with my friends, and then suddenly I couldn’t do that anymore.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
The first few years in the USA were a blur. I knew English but not to the point where I was comfortable enough to use it conversationally, and thus making friends was really hard for me. I had absolutely no social life in my first two years in the country. When I wasn’t in class, I was normally at home either playing computer games or writing songs.
I started my American schooling in eighth grade, which was a new concept for me at the time since in the Philippines we typically went to high school after the sixth grade. A few months into the school year, they asked if I would like to transfer to the “Gifted and Talented” class, which was for those students who excelled academically. I declined the offer, solely because I did not want to be “the new kid” again.
While I was lucky to have amazing teachers, the guidance counselors were far from supportive. When the time for high school applications came, I told them that I had wanted to apply to McNair Academic High School in Jersey City, which was relatively harder to get in to than the other high schools because of the academic requirements they had for admission. Instead of encouraging me — and I remember this very vividly — the two counselors looked at each other and chuckled before asking me, “McNair? You think you’d get in?” in a very condescending tone. That was the very point when I knew how much of a challenge living in America as an immigrant was going to be. People are going to doubt you, despite how much you prove yourself academically or otherwise, solely because you are an immigrant of color. You’re always going to have to prove your worth.
The following year I was walking the halls of McNair Academic as a student. To this day, I still think about that moment in the guidance counselors’ office. While living in the US has been an amazing experience that I would not trade for anything else, it also has been like living through that moment every day, just in different forms, and having to prove people wrong every single time.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Yes, there are a few. Being new to the country and going through a massive culture shock, all while being a new teenager, was extremely hard to take in. It’s great that I had moved here with my family, which means I did not have to go through that alone. But I also have to thank people I met early on in high school, like Vanessa and Andisi, who stuck by me and helped me slowly adjust to life in the US. Eventually my group of friends and network expanded, and each one contributed in some way or form to my assimilation in the country. I had friends who would sit down with me during lunch break and explain basics, like explaining how the US government works, or just helping me navigate the bus system in the city. All of this helped me catch up to my peers who have known these things their whole lives.
So how are things going today?
Really well! I ended up graduating from McNair Academic, and getting a Finance degree from Pace University in Manhattan. College was a bit of a challenge too. For most of my university studies, I was still on a visa that restricted me from participating in internships, both paid and unpaid. I was told that my goal of getting a job on Wall Street after college was going to be close to impossible given how competitive it was, and those without internship experience were rarely even considered.
Again, this reminded me of that day in eighth grade with the guidance counselors, so I did everything in my power to defy the odds. A few months after graduating, I ended up getting a part-time job at Deutsche Bank, and had odd hours, like 3 PM to midnight or midnight to 7 AM. It was supposed to be a sixth-month long project, and just a few weeks before we were all about to be let go, I was able to secure a full-time job for a different role in the company.
I worked there for two more years, where I built a good reputation and earned some awards along the way. I eventually decided I was ready for a new route in life, so after planning and saving up, I resigned from my role to create a brand as a music producer and songwriter. It’s the best decision I’ve made in a while!
I’ve also learned a few other languages these past few years, with varying levels of fluency. I’ve studied Spanish, Italian, Brazilian Portuguese, German, and Russian. I’m admittedly rusty in a few of them, but I think feeling alienated as a kid for not speaking English fluently made me realize how lonely it can be to not be able to express yourself because of language barriers. Whenever I chat with a tourist or an immigrant and I say a few things in their native language, their face just lights up. It helps them to not feel alone even for just that moment.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am an advocate for financial literacy, since unfortunately some of the most basic yet crucial financial knowledge like investing or handling personal finances are not taught in the American education system. I created a blog that aimed to break down these seemingly-intimidating financial concepts into quick, easy-to-understand posts. The platform I chose to do it on was Instagram, because my target audience was mostly millennials and Gen Z’s who were just about to go out into the “real world.” I wanted them to be prepared. I did that for a while, until I decided to take a break and focus on something else.
Right now, I am focused on creating music and supporting artistry. As someone with a finance background, I can say that we as a society unfairly favor those fields that have been depicted as the ideal, like mathematics, business, and engineering. I supported that idea for a while, but when we see all the unfortunate events unfolding in the world in the past decade — recessions, political upsets, basic human rights violations — you can’t help but wonder how all of these things are happening when the world is run by so-called highly-educated individuals. The answer is because the other people in our society, like the artists, historians, teachers, and social workers, have been pushed to the side and deemed unimportant. If we keep going like this, we are in danger of repeating some of the biggest monstrosities in human history. I agree that STEM and similar fields are very important, but we need to find a balance.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
I think there’s really only one thing I would change. My family and I have always had the documents and visas required to have what was considered a legal stay in the country, yet it was still very much a painful and costly process. I can only imagine what it must be like for undocumented immigrants, especially those who arrived here as infants, to constantly have to prove that they belong here when this country is all they have ever known. There used to be a potential path to citizenship for these groups, but that path has recently been at risk of being taken away. I would like the system to do a better job at recognizing these valuable individuals — we are targeting young teachers, doctors, activists, and future leaders of this country.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
1. Figure out what the “American Dream” means to you. I believe the textbook definition of this is basically owning a house, a car, having a spouse, and two kids. To me, that’s not at all what it is about. My version of the American Dream is being able to work to live, and not the other way around.
2. Work smart. There is a huge misconception that working hard is all you need in order to succeed in life, but I disagree. For example, you can either put in 60 hours a week at a low paying job to get some extra money in your paycheck, or you can work 40 hours a week, and use the other 20 hours a week to study for a year and learn a new skill. This could then lead to a raise or a better-paying job altogether. I understand that some people have certain privileges that others don’t have, and that situations will vary, but the point is to be strategic with how you are spending your time and energy. Don’t just work blindly. You also need to plan for a way out.
3. Build relationships, and not contacts — but be strategic about them. Some people view networking as getting as many names and e-mail addresses as possible, only to contact them if they need something. You should instead focus on quality relationships with people because those will have more weight than a dozen, random LinkedIn connections. Don’t just build relationships with anyone, though. You need to be adding value to each other’s lives, whether personal or professional.
4. Give back. You don’t have to donate massive amounts of money in order to give back to your community. There are a lot of ways, including but not limited to supporting small businesses, and volunteering. The community plays a big role in the American dream, especially to immigrants who often come to the United States without any friends or family.
5. Stay true to yourself. There is no one path to the American dream; you can pave your own. Don’t lose yourself and what you stand for in pursuit of it.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I could say three but I think they can all be summarized by my optimism for the next generation. We’re really seeing a massive shift in how younger people think in terms of being aware that ultimately we are all just one human race with imaginary borders between us. Social media has forced younger people to grow up more quickly, and that has its cons as well, but one of the pros is that you have a generation who is aware of their power and is not afraid to use that power. These kids don’t just lock themselves in a room and blast music when they’re angry — they spring into action and make real, tangible changes.
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. 🙂
From business, it would be Robert Herjavec, because he seems like a genuinely likeable person with a humble background. From entertainment, it would be Taylor Swift. I’m very enamored with her ability to put such complex stories into a few words through her songwriting. Plus, I’ve met her parents so it would be cool to finally meet her as well!
What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?
Spotify: Sebastian Hex
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
It was my pleasure. Thanks for having me!
Originally published at medium.com