Pizza to Programmer (Be Brave With What You’ve Got)
Elizabeth Escobar was born in Cali, Columbia, where her father was a pizza delivery man. Elizabeth remembers the day he made the delivery to a computer programming company. Curious, he asked about the business. They said computer programming was lucrative, and he should come back—they could teach him.
While her father practiced programming on rented equipment a few days at a time, Elizabeth grew familiar with computers. In 1999, her father left Colombia for more opportunity. Elizabeth talked to her father on the phone and over email. Ten years would pass before she saw him again.
In those ten years, Elizabeth became something of a computer wiz. She participated in after school programs and was lucky enough to have a high school mentor who saw her leadership potential. Before Elizabeth’s final year of college courses at the Universidad del Valle School of Electronic Engineering in Colombia, she was able to reunite with her father in the U.S. Elizabeth put her graduation on hold, traveled to North Carolina and (per her father’s advice to work with English speakers) learned English while waitressing at a Marriott.
It’s important to know that Elizabeth came to America at a personal cost. She was only months from finishing her college degree. She didn’t speak any English. An opportunity came, she felt a conviction, and took a step toward what she felt was right. That bravery was a decision.
Meanwhile, Elizabeth recognized what she had going for her. She was educated. The challenge would be to show an American university what her Colombian education meant. She had patience. She did syllabus-to-syllabus comparisons. She talked to an admissions officer at UNC Charlotte. When they learned Elizabeth had taught herself English, she received her acceptance letter—and a scholarship.
What follows is nothing short of an American dream story, finishing what Elizabeth’s father started.
Despite the higher-level English in her engineering classes, Elizabeth more than managed to graduate. She finished summa cum laude, then landed a full-time IT engineer job at Duke Energy in Charlotte, where she learned to make mobile apps. Despite the typical 5-year path to ‘IT Architect’, Elizabeth was promoted to her dream job in 3 years. She had again found a great mentor, who continues to advocate for her good work and advancement. Elizabeth has a successful career and a home near her father. And, she’s recently married.
But that’s not the end of the story.
Elizabeth has gotten what she worked for. She’s reaped the fruits of her bravery. She’s done what the majority of immigrants are never able to do: find work, find home, find belonging.
But “I’ve arrived” is not Elizabeth’s philosophy. At a moment when Elizabeth has more than she dreamed of, she keeps her eyes open. The tech world is ever-changing, and so is life.
An App Bridges The Gap (Step Into the Solution)
The same year Elizabeth got the promotion at Duke Energy, her mother got a green card and came to the U.S. Elizabeth assured her mother that it would be easy to find work—cleaning, nannying, etc. She was more than qualified.
But it wasn’t easy at all.
The only job postings in Spanish ran in the local newspaper—bare-bones postings, without any way to know if the employer had a good reputation. Elizabeth could never be certain these strangers wouldn’t take advantage of her mother, who spoke no English. The posts that did run in English seemed to expect a fluent English-speaking candidate.
It became clear, very quickly, that Elizabeth’s mother wasn’t the only Spanish-speaking immigrant struggling with the job search.
At church, Elizabeth found herself in conversation with other immigrants who couldn’t find promising postings. Just a few pews over were American employers, who told Elizabeth they wanted and needed blue collar workers but weren’t sure how to find and communicate with the Hispanic population.
The gap was obvious, but Elizabeth couldn’t do all the translating and matchmaking herself. So she did what she knew how to do: She built a web app.
This app would function as a database for both sides: For Hispanic workers, a database of hiring employer profiles and MWBE (Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprises) businesses serving the Hispanic community. For employers, a database of certified Hispanic workers, with resumes that translated (fully conveying) their work experience.
“There has to be someone doing this already,” Elizabeth kept thinking. The more she looked, the more she was shocked: There wasn’t.
Then again, not many Hispanic immigrants are able to get an education like Elizabeth’s. What if she really was the one with the skills, the personal experience, and the heart to step in? What if no one was solving the problem?
Today, Elizabeth’s app, Hay Trabajo (“There is work”) is up and running.
Early on, Elizabeth reached over 208 subscribers. She felt completely overwhelmed. She had a full-time job already, and Hay Trabajo didn’t yet have the infrastructure to make a profit. But if she was giving others a way to find a livelihood, she figured that was worth it.
Today, Hay Trabjo is a full-on company with corporate partners. Elizabeth was accepted into the most recent New Ventures cohort. After our interview, she was headed off to pitch the app to potential investors.
We asked her what’s next—what’s the big dream for Hay Trabajo?
Her answer was big, the kind of big we call a ‘counter-story.’
A New American Dream (Think Like a Startup)
As is the startup way, Elizabeth has her mind on scalability.
More specifically: scalability via block chain. Through Hay Trabajo, employers could eventually pay employees in digital money. That way, if an employee in America needed to return to Colombia, they wouldn’t have to start from scratch. They wouldn’t have to open a new bank account. They wouldn’t have to go back to square one to find a job. Hay Trabajo, available internationally, would help them find work in their new home—again.
After describing this future (with infectious enthusiasm), Elizabeth brought up the border. Her heart, like many, is broken for the Hispanic children who are being detained at this very moment.
She disclosed her ‘wild’ dream:
What about the idea of building an American dream somewhere else?
Elizabeth described a new society where block chain builds a path to freedom. Less restrictions, more opportunity to meet your basic needs. More opportunity, more freedom for everyone to dream. You don’t need to be here. You can be anywhere.
Maybe you have a dream for your business. Maybe you’ve started to think about the impact you can have on your community. Maybe you have the desire to build a bigger, better dream.
If so, we ask of you the question that investors, at this very moment, are asking of Elizabeth Escobar:
How big do you think this can this get?
To learn more about Hay Trabajo, visit https://www.haytrabajoya.com. (Note: As of September 6, the website will also be available in English. In the meantime, the English version can be accessed through Google Chrome.)
Feel free to reach out to Elizabeth at: email@example.com.
Counterstories is a blog collaboration between conflict resolution specialist Steve Beck and writer/editor Rachael Schmid. If you have a powerful story of forgiveness or peacemaking (or just want to share your thoughts on this post), we’d love to hear from you. Reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.