december coverThis Way to San Jose

As the technological gold rush continues in Silicon Valley, one young Latino made history when he became the first Latino mayor of Palo Alto.Home to companies like Hewlett-Packard as well as Stanford University, Palo Alto is a technological fortress of the American high-tech sector but it didn’t have a Latino mayor until Sid Espinosa was elected in 2011. Just 38, Espinosa was also the first Latino to ever hold public office in this town. At the end of his term earlier this year, Espinosa left office with the highest approval ratings ever recorded, an achievement made all the more extraordinary considering the whole time he continued in his position as Director of Corporate Citizenship at Microsoft, where he’s responsible for millions of dollars in philanthropic programs.

“It was a good term,” Espinosa said in a conference room at the Microsoft campus in Mountain View. “We set a very aggressive agenda for what we wanted to get done and accomplished that.”

One of his most memorable moments in office came during a visit to a local elementary school when a young Latino student reminded him that he represented more than just the office of the mayor. “As we’re leaving he told me ‘you know we have a lot of speakers who come to the school but you’re the first person who has ever looked like me,’” Espinosa recounts. “It’s easy to think we’ve moved beyond that era of firsts.”

Espinosa’s journey began in nearby Gilroy, where he admits he wasn’t the best student in his early years. Underperforming in the 2nd and 3rd grades, Espinosa credits his mother for getting him on track by convincing the principal that he should be placed in the gifted and talented program.

“I then had teachers who were telling me constantly that I was one of the smartest kids in the district,” said Espinosa. “I look at so many of my friends who were on that different track like I was and they dropped out by high school…that could have been me.”

After graduating from Wesleyan University, Espinosa went on to Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government to earn a graduate degree in public policy. In 2000, after a stint at the Justice Department during the Clinton administration, Espinosa joined Hewlett Packard where he rose to the position of Director of Global Philanthropy. He traveled extensively around the globe in that position and then found himself back home in Silicon Valley in 2008. Now overseeing Microsoft’s investments in workforce development and training programs, Espinosa says Latinos can benefit if given opportunities and the right tools, as he was early on.

But many Latinos in the region don’t have those opportunities. In 2011, the Hispanic Foundation of Silicon Valley released the first ever Silicon Valley Latino Report Card. It found that the quality of life for Latinos, who make up almost a third of the population, is improving, but not nearly enough. The grades in the report card are as follows in five areas: education-C, health-B, financial stability-D, housing-D and environmental sustainability-C. Among the key findings for education were that Latino children enter kindergarten with a high capacity to learn, but fall back by the 3rd grade, recalling Espinosa’s experience. Also, only one third of Latino students are on par with other groups when it comes to reading in the 3rd grade and math in 8th grade.

Ron Gonzales, the President and CEO of the Hispanic Foundation, says that just as the region has undergone several transformations, changing from “prune capital of the world” to hi-tech hub, Latinos can change their fortunes in the region. Gonzales served as mayor of San Jose from 1999-2006 and is credited with improving public education and ensuring the economic vitality of America’s 10th largest city, the “Capital of Silicon Valley.” Before his election as mayor, Gonzales was also with Hewlett-Packard and served for eight years on the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

“The Hispanic Foundation is committed to helping Latinos here achieve their educational goals and improve their lives overall in this community,” Gonzales said. “There’s a lot of ground to cover but we’re making progress every day.”

On the upside, the report also found that Latino adults and children in Silicon Valley have better health insurance coverage than Latinos statewide, but they’re still less likely to be insured than non-Latinos. Fewer Latina teens in the area are becoming mothers as well even though the teen birth rate for Latinas is higher compared to other groups. And Latinos are eager to work—they have a higher labor force participation rate than non-Latinos.

Long-time resident of Silicon Valley Ray Ruiz says the tremendous growth in the hi-tech sector presents an opportunity for Latinos to enter an industry they haven’t traditionally been a part of, since just 3% of Latinos work in hi-tech. Ruiz is a sitting board member of the National Hispanic University (NHU) in San Jose, which was established in 1981 with the mission of offering Hispanics a multicultural educational experience.

“When I was first approached with the idea for a college that would cater to Hispanic students I didn’t know if it would work,” Ruiz says. “Now, all these years later I know that it’s working and that the hard work has paid off with every graduate that comes out of NHU ready to tackle our most pressing technological needs—which seem to grow more every day.”

But it’s equally clear that the future success and growth of the hi-tech companies located here will depend on the quality of the talent coming out of the local pipeline, a pool of candidates of which Latino students are a vital component. Priscilla Reza is the director of the Latino College Preparatory Academy (LCPA), a charter school for high school students focused on English language learners. LCPA was the inspiration of the late Dr. Roberto Cruz, a visionary educator who also founded NHU. She says the school is trying to prepare students to enter college and ultimately dive into the highly-competitive pool of candidates for jobs at the likes of new companies such as Google and Facebook.

“A big part of the problem with our students is that they cannot imagine themselves in those environments, working for these big tech companies,” Reza said. “These students live just a few miles away from these companies and they’ve never even driven past them or met anyone that works there, especially not anyone that looks like them.”

But it’s working, since the school recently celebrated placing 92% of its students at a college of their choice. Many LCPA graduates go on to attend NHU, fulfilling Dr. Cruz’ dream of an eight-year educational pipeline for Latino students.

Another unique challenge facing Silicon Valley is increasing the participation of Latinas. Women have historically been underrepresented here and for Latina employees, the number dwindles down even more. However, corporations in the area are rising to the challenge by creating partnership programs with government agencies, schools and professional associations to address this issue.

Sandy Hoffman, Senior Director of Global Inclusion and Diversity Operations, Processes and Systems at Cisco, says the company has a vested interest in the success of Latinas in the STEM fields. “It’s imperative that we help encourage Latinas to enter STEM,” she says. “The problem with stereotyping is tremendous, especially for little girls, but they are the skilled workers we need now and in the future for the success and growth of the industry.”

Hoffman’s point is proved by Ileana Rivera, Cisco’s Director of IT for Latin America. She graduated with an engineering degree from the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez and went on to get a master’s degree in information systems from the University of San Francisco. Rivera says she has first-hand knowledge of the challenge of recruiting Latinas to STEM with her 12-year-old daughter, who is far less enthusiastic about math class than she is about art.

“Latinas and their parents don’t know what STEM is and we need to change that,” Rivera said. “We have to rebrand it and find a way to show them that this is what we are and what we do, very early on.”

Rivera also serves as a board member for Conexion, Cisco’s Latino Employee Resource Group, where she leads the Talent Pipeline strategic pillar. For the past two years, Cisco has run a career fair for 300 at-risk high school juniors. Working with partner schools, the company also holds a contest where students get to design a “city of the future.” The winners get to visit Cisco headquarters and meet with engineers for mentoring sessions.

“We’re hoping these programs inspire them and convince them to go to college before it’s too late,” Rivera said. “If you leave an experience that person will remember that for a lifetime.”

Back at Microsoft, Espinosa says there is no easy answer to closing the achievement gap for Latinos in Silicon Valley. “You have to really decide in an affirmative way where you can make a specific impact and improvement,” he said. “For us, we’ve decided to focus on workforce development and training especially with Latinos and women’s initiatives. I love my job. I could do this every day.”

By Evelyn Castillo