#1: We Gotta Break the System
#1: We Gotta Break the System
On the first episode of The American Dream, your host Elias Torres is joined by David Cancel (Drift co-founder and CEO), and Dena Upton (Drift’s Chief People Officer). Elias and DC talk 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.
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Elias Torres: Hey there. This is your host Elias Torres. You're about to hear the first ever episode of my brand new podcast, The American Dream. This episode is an intimate conversation between myself, Drift co- founder and CEO, David Cancel, and Drift's chief people officer Dena Upton. Together, we discuss our backgrounds, what it means to be a Latin American in tech, and how we're addressing systemic racism in the industry, and much more. But before we get to the show, did you know that you can get more insights like the ones we shared here delivered right to your inbox? Sign up for more insights and stories from Latin American founders and entrepreneurs at drift. com/ american- dream. All right, let's go. Vamanos.
Dena Upton: Elias and DC, there's a lot that people know about you, but a lot that they don't. 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. 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, 1975. I was not born yet. She left Nicaragua as probably a 65 year old woman. She took some bus. She just rode from Central America all the way to the Mexican border. She crossed the river with a coyote. 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. 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. 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. That's a separate story. I came to this country as an immigrant, but legally, so I could work, I could attend school, I could apply for scholarship. That's how my journey began. Lived in a apartment in Tampa, Florida that was subsidized by the government, food stamps. That was the beginning. I even cleaned corporate offices at night. 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 til I'm here with you guys. That's the short version of that story.
Dena Upton: Thanks, Elias. DC, your story is a little different. Can you tell us about that?
Elias Torres: He grew up rich in New York, in Queens.
David Cancel: Yeah. I was the son of a sharecropper. No. Definitely not rich. I grew up... I was born in the Bronx, New York. I didn't immigrate here. I was born here. Where I grew up, probably couldn't tell the difference. Everyone only spoke Spanish 100% when I grew up. It was the South Bronx, New York in the 1970s. If you don't know what that means, you can look it up. All the neighboring buildings looked like they were in Beirut. They were bombed out, and they were empty. Anyway, I grew up in the South Bronx. Then I moved to Queens. 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. So I moved to Queens, and then I became the only person who looked like me in Queens, because my neighborhood was 100% Jewish where I lived, and then 50% Irish and 50% Italian in the other half of 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, 100% Spanish. You would even go to buy Chinese food, and all the people who worked there, who were from China, they only spoke Spanish. 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 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. 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. That's why we have so many similarities in 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. Was raised pretty much by my mom. My mom was a seamstress, and she worked from home. So luckily, I had her around all the time. That was the early beginning of my inaudible. I was surrogate father to my brother and to my sisters, and in some ways, to my mom. That's my story.
Dena Upton: 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?
David Cancel: That's a good question. It 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. 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 had never... I'd gone 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. So I never really, in some ways, had a choice. I think, in some ways, if I would have... Maybe I should've. 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. 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. It was really when I got into a place where I felt more comfortable, where I had more resources, 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, so 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.
Dena Upton: I know you both have spoken about systemic racism. Elias, I know you recently wrote an article about how, even though you are a URP yourself, you had to educate yourself on racism and the experience of black men and women. As you mentioned, you experienced obstacles related to race and discrimination. Can you give us some examples? 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 AK- 47s, you get beat up on the street. It's lawless. I did not grow up with the... We're spoiled here that we complain about... I don't know what we... 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 he goes to the other headquarter. I didn't have power every day. I didn't have water or power. The electricity would just kick in, and then we're like," Oh, let's watch TV," or," Let's do something with electricity." When you grow up like that, you come to this country, and you have a different level of resilience. Whatever comes, I don't complain. Somebody may inaudible me, give me a microaggression in the workplace. Just rolls off. I don't... That's why I say to people, I don't easily get offended. Contrary to my reaction and aggressiveness and intensity. 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. Whatever they do is not going to stop me. My gain was I came to this country inaudible less. Whatever I inch forward on that, that was my gain. Never thought about, 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 is a system blocking it. There's no change. 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, we got to break the system. This is not just happened to Latin Americans, but it's even worse for African Americans. That was what I've learned this year. 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. It's exciting that, at least, more and more people are aware, more people want to help bring change into this.
Dena Upton: 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? How did you overcome those challenges? DC, maybe we'll start with you.
David Cancel: Don't know. 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.
Dena Upton: How did you overcome it?
Elias Torres: crosstalk That's exactly the same way I feel about it.
David Cancel: 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. That's what I suggested at the end. But they were like... I started talking about I had an alcoholic stepfather. inaudible 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 out, and everybody in the neighborhood. I'm like, I don't know how...
David Cancel: That's a visual.
Elias Torres: There's a visual, right? It's crazy stuff. Coming here illegally, coming here legally, food stamps, applying for college when your family tells you your best job you could get is work for the post office because they have a great pension plan. It's like-
David Cancel: Mine was the garbage department, New York City Department of Sanitation.
Elias Torres: Exactly. I live in Boston and I can't afford to buy a house in this place. It's so expensive. I'm just shipping to Florida. I was inaudible I'm just going to... Let's just go to Florida. Everybody there has a nice house. It's just give up on this. Then I'm going to quit IBM, and I'm going to go work with David. There's only 10 people. Then 2008 crashes. I don't know. When a financial advisor told me... He was from college, and he's trying to get me to work with him. 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. He was like," Hey, I saw something in the news. We should talk." 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. Now I had people that have helped me. 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.
Dena Upton: You both have children. How do you talk to your children about their heritage, your heritage?
David Cancel: I don't even know how to answer that. We talk about it all the time. But the reason I say that is that they grew up in an entirely different context. You hear a little bit, a little tiny glimpse into Elias's context and my context. It's just totally different. 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, I'm a lazy sloth. I'm just the laziest, most do nothing sloth. Elias has a similar daughter. They're 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 10 years ago at best. I'm being generous for myself. So we talk about it all the time, but they're in a much more advanced state than I ever was.
Dena Upton: Elias.
Elias Torres: I lose my shit with my kids all the time, because 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 of 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." We spend a whole afternoon doing math, and talking about jobs and salary and expenses. 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?" Those are the kinds of lessons that I try to give them. You can't get a phone unless you build an app. You can do this. You got to do the dishes every night. My daughter, yesterday, the other day, we woke up, and the worst thing to wake up, for my wife, especially, is when the kitchen is just a total disaster. That's their job. Three of them have to clean the entire kitchen every night. You got to do some work. They say... My daughter's like," Oh, I tried it. It was 1: 00 AM. Noah was sleeping." 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. I'm just fighting every day so they go this world and they're rugged. They're hard. They're not spoiled. They're not entitled. Even though they are extremely spoiled and entitled. 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.
Dena Upton: One final question from me. This one's for DC. At Drift, we focus on supporting STEM- related nonprofits, Hack.Diversity, Wallbreakers, BUILD, and others. Our board is very supportive of those organizations as well. Why the focus on STEM and future generations? Why is that, DC?
David Cancel: That'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. We all complain about diversity, 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. Those things are important to speak up, but those things are not going to affect the system that we're in. I think, for us, we say like," Okay. How do we get more people in STEM?" It's not by talking to the same kids who are in college already, who already elected to not be in STEM or to be in STEM. But it is to focus on high school, middle school, 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 next generation of folks. The non- sexy answer is that it's going to be a multi- generational shift. 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. It will continue. It's a long line of progression, which is kind of like my talk today. There's going to be lots of dips. We're, as a country, in a dip right now. It will be painful, and then we'll hit this next stair step of growth, and then we'll have another dip, it will 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 it's going to be a magical new way to do these things. But it's long- term investment over a long period of time. Then you'll see compounded returns over time. There's never been any other way.
Elias Torres: Thanks for listening to The American Dream. Let me know what you thought of this episode by tweeting me at EliasT. Be sure to hit subscribe and leave a five review, por favor. If you're looking for more leadership insights and stories like the ones you just heard, sign up for my series, The American Dream, at drift. com/ american- dream. Every quarter, you'll learn how Drift is progressing towards our mission of remaking the face of corporate America. And you will get insights from amazing Latin American and entrepreneurs of color, and leaders like Manny Medina of Outreach, Maria Martinez of Cisco, and many others, along with curated content, news, events and ideas delivered straight to your inbox. Muchas gracias. Don't forget to sign up.