#169: Introducing The American Dream with Elias Torres
DC: Before we get to the show. Did you know, you can get more insights, just like the ones you're listening to right here on Seeking Wisdom, delivered right to your inbox. Sign up to get my weekly newsletter. It's called The One Thing at drift. com/ dc. Hey there, this is your host DC. You're about to hear something a little different on Seeking Wisdom, because today I'm sharing a conversation I had with my co- founder and Drift's CTO Elias Torres, about what it's like to work in tech as a member of the Latinx community. If you didn't know, Drift is part of the just 2% of VC backed startups led by Latinx founders. And we're on a mission to change that. This episode dives into our backgrounds, our journey to tech and what it's like to build a company when not many people around you look like you. This episode is the first in a brand new podcast from Elias called the American Dream. Once a month, he'll share inspiring stories from other underrepresented leaders as we work to build our own American dream. If you liked what you hear, be sure to subscribe to Elias' new show by searching for the American Dream. We'll link it up in the show notes too. And as always, let me know what you think by texting me at 12123801036. And make sure you leave some six star only ratings for Elias' new podcast, the American Dream. All right, let's go.
Speaker 2: Elias and DC, there's a lot that people know about you, but a lot that they don't. And I wanted us to use this opportunity to share a little bit about your background and journey and what it has all meant to you. So let's start with a little bit of background. Elias, I know you presented at the last quarterly all hands. Can you remind us about how you came to the US?
Elias Torres: How I came to the US. The story goes back to my grandmother I would say in 1975. I was not born yet. And she left Nicaragua as probably like a 65 year old woman. And she took some bus and she just rode from Central America all the way to the Mexican border. And she crossed the river with a coyote. And she told me once I saw her in San Francisco, I first visited San Francisco to go visit my grandmother. She was a nanny there, but she told me about coyotes, helicopters and a lot of stress, a lot of danger, very, very crazy story of how she crossed the border. And then 30 something years later, 35 years later, because she became a citizen, barely speaking English, she was able to get us a green card. If it wasn't for her, I could have not come to this country when I was 17 years old in 1993. So I came as an immigrant, had a green card, could come on a plane. Didn't have to be worried, I had this card that I felt comfortable. I came before on a trip where I had to have stories prepped so I didn't get kicked out. This time I felt confident. And so that's a separate story. And so I came to this country as an immigrant, but legally. So I could work, I could attend school, I could apply for scholarship and that's how my journey began. Lived in an apartment in Tampa, Florida that was subsidized by the Government, food stamps. And that was the beginning. And I even cleaned corporate offices at night. And so I think that's the beginning of the journey, how I came to this country. Very little, not a lot, just my mother and my two other brothers. And began to that point till I'm I'm here with you guys. So that's kind of the short version of that story.
Speaker 2: Thanks Elias. And DC, your story is a little different. Can you tell us about that?
Elias Torres: He grew up rich in New York, in Queens.
DC: I was the son of a sharecropper. No, definitely not rich. So I grew up, I was born in the Bronx, New York, so I didn't immigrate here I was born here. Where I grew up, probably couldn't tell the difference. Everyone only spoke Spanish a hundred percent when I grew up, it was the South Bronx, New York in the 1970s. If you don't know what that means, so you can look it up. All the neighboring buildings looked like they were in Beirut. So they were bombed out and they were empty. And so anyway, I grew up in the South Bronx and then I moved to Queens and I moved to a nice neighborhood in Queens, but I only was able to do that because my dad took a job where they gave free housing. And so I moved to Queens and then I became the only person who looked like me in Queens because my neighborhood was a hundred percent Jewish where I lived. And then 50% Irish and 50% Italian in the other half the neighborhood. Anyway, when I moved there, I only spoke Spanish because I didn't need to. Because that neighborhood I grew up in, in the Bronx was like I said, a hundred percent Spanish. You would even go to buy Chinese food. And all the people who worked there, who from China, they only spoke Spanish. And they spoke so well, if you talked to them on the phone, you would think that they were native, that they were Puerto Rican. Which is what most of the people there were. Anyway, so I moved, I learned how to speak English watching TV and movies. Gilligan's Island, Brady Bunch, Facts of Life, many other things. Bugs Bunny cartoons, Woody Woodpecker, that's how I learned English. Because I always say, when I grew up, if there was ESL, I never heard of ESL. ESL didn't exist where I was. We were just thrown in and basically expected to learn. And so that's why we have so many similarities. And our lack of being able to tell a proper metaphor or analogy when it comes to Elias and I. Because we learned English pretty much the same way. And then was raised pretty much by my mom. My mom was a seamstress and she worked from home. And so luckily I had her around all the time. And then that was the early beginning of my story. And I was surrogate father to my brother and to my sisters, and then in some ways to my mom. So that's my story.
Speaker 2: DC, you said that your heritage isn't something that you thought about until the last few years. Why is that? What changed and what does Latinx mean to you now?
DC: That's a good question. I mean, I started when I met Elias over 10 years ago. But I really didn't think about it until this company I think, until Drift. So little over five years ago. Frankly, now that I can look back it makes sense on why. I didn't know why I'd never really placed an emphasis on it. It was just because I was always the other. I had never had a choice to think that way. I had never, until I worked with Elias, I always said I'd never met another person who was Latin, who was in the industry that I was in, zero. I mean, obviously they existed somewhere, but I didn't know them. Even though my first company was in New York City, my first two companies were in New York City and then the rest in Boston. I'd gone like 10 or 12 years into my career without ever even knowing another person like me. Remember these are times before Instagram and LinkedIn. So I couldn't go search and find them or Twitter or any of these things. And so I never really, in some ways had a choice. And so I think in some ways, if I would have... Maybe I should have, but if I would have spent more time thinking of it, I think I might've just been crippled from not having role models and not being able to see myself doing certain things. So I ignored it and just focused on getting things done and being able to do the things that I did despite everything. And so obviously there was racism all around me every single day. But I didn't have the luxury in my mind to think about it and to let it cripple me. And so it was really when I got into a place where I felt more comfortable and where I had more resource, I didn't have to worry. And that I had a role model. And then I had lots of role models and I had a partner like Elias that I could actually spend time really thinking about how do I give back? How do I give other people role models? But I definitely didn't have any growing up.
Speaker 2: I know you both have spoken about systemic racism and Elias, I know you recently wrote an article about how, even though are URP yourself, you had to educate yourself on racism and the experienced of black men and women. As you've mentioned, you experienced obstacles related to race and discrimination. Can you give us some examples? And how did you deal with that?
Elias Torres: The thing I would say is that, remember I grew up in Nicaragua where I show you a picture of communist revolutions, people with AK47s, you get beat up on the street. It's lawless. I did not grow up with... We're spoiled here, we complain about... I don't know what we complain, I didn't have power all the time we have here. Like," Oh my God, I don't have power." And Jimmy K goes to the south end. I'm not trying to pick on Jimmy, but it's like, he goes to the other headquarter. I didn't have power like every day. I didn't have water or power, the electricity would just kick in and they were like," Oh, let's watch TV or let's do something with electricity." And so when you grew up like that, you come to this country and you have a different level of resilience and whatever comes, I don't complain. It's like somebody mistreated me, give me a microaggression in the workplace. Just rolls off. That's why I say to people, I don't easily get offended. Contrary to my reaction and aggressiveness and intensity. And so that was the big awakening for me. I've gone all my life, 40 years in this country and I never care when anybody discriminated against me. I don't give a shit. It's like, whatever they do, it's not going to stop me. My gain was, I came to this country, I was less and whatever I inch forward on that, that was my gain. So I never thought about it, but it is until now that I realize how bad it is and how unfair it is and how, no matter how hard we will work, people of color, we can't overcome this because there's a system blocking it. And there no change. And so that is the realization I got this year. Before, as a person individually, I didn't care. I was going to overcome it myself. But now it's like, we got to break the system. And this has not just happened to Latin Americans, but it's even worse for African Americans. And so that was what I've learned this year. And it's just been a journey of educating myself and understanding the journey that we're in as a country. But I think it's coming to light and it's exciting, that at least more, more and more people are aware. More people want to help bring change into this.
Speaker 2: So I'll ask both of you this question. Elias, this question came up in a video shoot with you the other day. But I'd like to pose the question to both of you. What is one of the most significant challenges you've faced in your life and how did you overcome those challenges? DC maybe we'll start with you.
DC: I don't know I have so many. I don't know, not growing up with a father. I don't know, that's a pretty big one. But they're endless, I could go on forever. But that's probably the one that's probably impacted me the most.
Speaker 2: How did you overcome it? crosstalk
Elias Torres: That's exactly the same way I feel about it.
DC: I'm still overcoming it.
Elias Torres: I'm still overcoming it. I was being recorded for this video to inspire Latin youth to take risks. And that's what I suggested at the end. But I started talking about, I had an alcoholic stepfather. I didn't say it was fucking chaos at home. We had no money. My house burned down. I remember running out in my underwear one day and the whole house burning down and everybody in the neighborhood. And I'm like, I don't know how old-
DC: That's a visual.
Elias Torres: So there's a visual, right? It's crazy stuff. It's like coming here illegally, coming here legally, food stamps. Applying for college when your family tells you your best job you could get us work for the post office because they have great pension plans. It's like-
DC: Mine was the garbage department, New York City Department of Sanitation.
Elias Torres: Exactly. I live in Boston and I'm like," I can't afford to buy a house in this place, its so expensive. I'm just shipping to Florida." I was stuck in inaudible and I'm like," Let's just go to Florida. Everybody there has a nice house. Just gave up on this." And then I'm going to quit IBM. And I'm going to go work with David. And there's only like 10 people. And then 2008 crashes. I don't know, it's like, when a financial advisor who told me he was from college, and he's like trying to get me to work with him. And he goes through my budget and he says," You have no money. You spend more than you make." And he hung up on me. He called me later on. And he was like," Hey, I saw something in the news. We should talk." And I'm like," Fuck you." That's just like, every single thing is a hardship, I don't know. It doesn't get any better, working and running Drift is hard. It's hard. It's hard. Everything is hard. But I am thankful that I have had the health and the energy and the team and the support to take on these hardships. And I have had people that I've helped. I can't complain. It hasn't been all just getting kicked on the ground, but it's been a lot of people that have made a huge difference in my life.
Speaker 2: You both have children. How do you talk to your children about their heritage, your heritage?
DC: I don't even know how to answer that. I think we talk about it all the time. But the reason I say that is that they grew up in an entirely different context. Like you hear a little bit, a little tiny glimpse into Elias' context and my context is just totally different. Like it's a totally different time and place. My daughter is the boss of all bosses. She is more driven. I always say next to my daughter, who's 15 now, I'm like a lazy sloth. I'm just like the laziest, do nothing sloth. And Elias has a similar daughter. They're like way, way, way ahead of any of our thinking. I didn't have the luxury of my daughter's thinking or the context until probably like 10 years ago at best. I'm being generous for myself. And so, we talk about it all the time, but they're in a much more advanced state than I ever was.
Speaker 2: Elias?
Elias Torres: I lose my shit at my kids all the time, because it's like, there's just no context. It's just impossible to pass down the context of my experiences to them. My son somehow, my wife is partly included in this, ends up buying this very expensive hat, it's a big brand. I won't even go into the specifics or prices. I just totally lost my shit. I was like," Come over here, let's talk about this hat. And what is it going to take? You have no sense whatsoever of what things cost." And we spent a whole afternoon doing math and talking about jobs and salary and expenses. And at what point in his life was he going to go and spend this much money on a hat? It's just like, where is the extra income? How do you even add this thing up? And so those are the kinds of lessons that I try to give them. It's like, you can't get a phone unless you build an app, you can't do this. You've got to do the dishes every night. My daughter the other day, we woke up and the worst thing to wake up, for my wife especially, it's like when the kitchen is just a total disaster. And that's their job. The three of them have to clean the entire kitchen every night. You got to do some work. And they say, my daughter's like," Oh, I tried it. It was 1: 00 AM. And Noah was sleeping." And I'm like," No excuses. Practice extreme ownership. I just don't care. You get up, wake him up, wake me up. This is your job. It doesn't matter that you're not getting it done." So just like you guys get it from me here, my kids get it. And it's like, I'm just fighting every day so they go into this world and have... They're rugged, they're hard, they're not spoiled, they're not entitled. Even though they are extremely spoiled inside. And so we're just trying to expose them to as much as we can. Because I just want them to be humble, to be hardworking, to have great ethics and great discipline. That's what as parents we want. So I give them a lot of shit.
Speaker 2: One final question from me, this one's for DC. So at Drift, we focus on supporting stem related nonprofits, Hack Diversity, Wall Breakers, Gold, and others. Our board is very supportive of those organizations as well. Why the focus on stem and future generations? Why is that DC?
DC: It's a super important one for me at Drift, but also personally. Because I think when you want to invert the problem and try to figure out, how do we solve this systemic problem that we have. To me, the real answer is that we have to go not to the current generation, but we have to go to the future generations and start working there. So we all complain about diversity and specifically within stem, but just in general as well. We don't go back to, how do we solve this problem? We all want an initiative, we want a hashtag. We want a lovely little avatar icon that we can put on. And those things are important to speak up, but those things are not going to affect the system that we're in. So I think, for us, we say," Okay, how do we get more people in stem?" It's not by talking to the same kids who are in college already, who have already elected to not be in stem or to be in stem. But it is to focus on high school, middle school, where at the youngest that we can and try to change those people and try to get more of those people to come into stem and for us to be closer to those new next generation of folks. The non- sexy answer is that it's going to be a multi- generational shift. And for some of us who have lived long enough, we've seen massive changes, which is very easy to discount. Because they're never good enough and it's never fast enough. But the world is completely unrecognizable to me from when I was coming up to where it is now. And it will be for our kids and their kids. And it will continue. It's a long line of progression, which is like my talk today. There's going to be lots of dips, we're as a country, in a dip right now. And it will be painful and then we'll hit this next stair step up, grow up, and then we'll have another dip. It we'll be painful again. History has taught us this over and over again. It's amazing that most of us want to ignore those lessons of history and think that there's going to be a magical new way to do these things. But it's long- term investment over a long period of time. And then you see compounded returns over time. And there's never been any other way. Let me know what you thought of this episode by texting me at 12123801036. Again, 12123801036. Now, if you're looking for more leadership insights, sign up for my weekly newsletter, The One Thing at drift. com/ dc. Every week I'll share a habit, tool or mental model that's helping me reach my goals. Hope to see you there. Text me, hit me up.
To kick off the first episode of Drift's newest podcast, DC sits down for a special episode with Elias Torres – Drift co-founder, CTO, and now the host of The American Dream. In an unfiltered chat with Dena Upton (Drift's Chief People Officer) Elias and DC open up about their backgrounds and upbringing (Elias in Nicaragua and DC in Queens, NY), what it means to be Latin American in tech, how Drift is addressing systemic racism in the industry, and more.
The American Dream is available wherever you get your podcasts. Subscribe:
- Apple: https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/the-american-dream/id1561784909
- Spotify: https://open.spotify.com/show/5bIW15aPVT1JFNyhCLLdab?si=q0vYqyvjSBe_PzyHkN9ZLg&nd=1
In the meantime, be sure to leave a ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️ review and share the pod with your friends. You can connect with DC, Elias, and Dena on Twitter @dcancel @eliast @heydenaupton@DriftPodcasts.
For more learnings from Elias, check out his quarterly newsletter, The American Dream. You can subscribe at https://www.drift.com/insider/learn/newsletters/american-dream/