Latinas Excelling in STEM
By Gloria Romano-Barrera
Jobs in areas of STEM are growing, and companies are actively working to create a better diversity balance in the workforce. But many Latinas, especially girls, with the potential to be the next Ellen Ochoa, computer scientist or engineer, look around and don’t see themselves reflected in the STEM world. Girls who see women in STEM careers are more likely to go into those fields. Meet two Latinas, Rabecca Rocha at Google and Marisela Cerda, who are working to break that cycle.
Test Analyst, VR Google
“For me, it’s the privilege to be able to show other people that If I can be here, so can you,” shares RabeccaRocha, Test Analyst for VR 180 at Google and 3D Freelance Artist. “My favorite part is being transparent about my dreams and goals of moving into 3D Art as an Environment Artist and being able to do so on my time while also having a sustainable life.”
A first-born generation Latina of Guatemalan, Mexican and Colombian descent, Rocha recalls the day her dad brought home a Compaq family computer. At nine years old, she played and learned animation through a Spiderman game. Today, she has become an artist who uses technology to create art as well.
“I speak Spanglish, this is kind of a lingering reminder that we had an uphill battle to climb even just getting a job let alone in tech,” she states. “This made me grateful for the things that began to come along whether easily or not. I understood the immense amount of sacrifices that led to me being able to go to good schools, have food on my plate and having an education. My grandmother had to leave school in order to help her mother with the bakery shop, this memory and lesson never left her and she wanted a change for her children and grandchildren, she’s the smartest woman I know.”
As a Test Analyst at Google she can’t go into detail about her projects but what she can say is that it is moving onto Cloud, which is a massive storage for movies, games, etc. “This allows the users to pull whatever they want to play or listen to from that storage,” she says.
For Rocha, her greatest accomplishment so far is feeling comfortable enough to lead meetings, strategize her plans and set expectations for the developers when it comes to QA testing. But this wasn’t as easy as it sounds. Barriers and challenges arose for Rocha and she remained determined to succeed.
“There were obstacles every step of the way,” she shares. “Being smart enough, being right for the role. Being myself versus being the person I thought the interviewers or developers wanted to see. I was always so nervous to speak up in meetings, always so scared to be seen as the loud brown woman, but now I have no problem. No one is going to give you permission to pivot or move onto something different unless you do.”
Passionate about her work and community work, Rocha proactively engages the community to network and build a community at Washington State. “There are less than 1 percent of Latinos in tech, especially on my campus it shows,” she shares. “The only people I saw in Fremont, WA or in Mountain View California that look like me are the staff and janitors.”
Rocha also launched “Latinos in Tech” podcast on SoundCloud (www.soundcloud.com/latinosintechpodcast). This avenue serves to tell stories of Latinos in tech, how to get in, stay in and bring other like-minded individuals in. Rocha also planned a Hackathon and was part of Latino legislative day in ‘2018.
Rocha’s advice is to not give up. “No one will give you permission to succeed,” she states. “So many people love the idea of Latinos in tech but only hire us as interns and bring in the same folks. Yes, you can do this too and YES, even if you are the only one of your type. Last but not least, the Latino community is alive in Seattle and thriving! We are doing it better together and your ancestors are with you.”
Principal Engineering Manager
Mexican-American Marisela Cerda is a mom of three kids, a mentor, and coach to many women in engineering and is the Principal Engineering Manager at Microsoft Corporation. For the last 17 years, Microsoft has provided Cerda with a wealth of resources and opportunities, and she has made the best of it. She has worked in many roles while at Microsoft, including Product Marketing, Program Management, Business Management and Service Operations. Over the last year, Cerda stepped away from engineering to spend 12 to 18 months in developing Microsoft’s pipeline of diverse talent and helping to evolve the culture of their division. She has been working on engineering several solutions including an internal Rewards and Recognition program, and executing Employee Hiring and Recruiting processes. Cerda’s next role will be working to improve new employee onboarding for new engineers and program managers, an opportunity she is very excited to work on.
“It has the potential of touching lots of people and helping our employees to feel more empowered in their first 90 days at the company,” she states. “In my spare time at work, I have been co-leading our organizations’ Women’s community this year. This work involves providing opportunities for women in engineering and friends of women engineering to connect, network and learn new skills together.”
Raised in a northern California farming town to a Mexican immigrant father and first-generation Mexican-American mother, Cerda developed an interest in math in 4th grade. She grew to love mathematics, challenging herself to learn more and more advanced topics and tutoring her friends and family.
“I remember watching 3-2-1 Contact, a PBS show about science, during the summers and being inspired by the stories of astronauts and captured by the logic of science and technology,” she shares.
At 14-years-old her parents purchased a Windows 3.1 PC for her studies which ignited her curiosity and eventually lead her to choose Computer Science as her area of study at California State University, Chico. She graduated with a Bachelor of Science, Computer Science in 2001 and began her professional career at Microsoft Corporation. In 2008, Cerda received a Master of Business Administration from Seattle University.
Other events and individuals also drove her to pursue a career in STEM, specifically her mother. “I grew up hearing the following words from my mother every day as I left the house, “you can do anything you want, never let anyone tell you, you can’t.” Those words stuck with me and helped me overcome any embedded stereotypes in our society about women, math, and science,” she shares as she recounted a few events while growing up.
“There was a family in our small town who had a son that had majored in Computer Science and my mom talked very highly of him and his job at Hewlett Packard. It made me think that if he could do this, so could I,” she shares. “Finally, I noticed throughout my childhood and into my teenage years that girls and women were not as present in my advanced math and science classes. They opted out of physics for example. The teachers were also mostly men. I wanted to change that and I also saw an opportunity. An opportunity to be different from the rest of the engineers, because I am a woman and I am Latina and I can offer a unique perspective.”
Today, Cerda is most proud of the partnerships built with Microsoft’s diverse recruiting programs and the impact that hiring from those programs has made in their teams.
“At Microsoft we have access to many channels of diverse candidates, coordinating the programs with managers that have opportunities is more challenging than one would think. It’s been hard work, but the reward is seeing more diversity in our teams, on our campus and hearing feedback from employees on how much value the increased diversity is adding to their teams.”
With three children under the age of nine, you can find Cerda volunteering at local public schools or at her son’s 3rd-grade class providing coding lessons using Code.org’s learning platforms.
“I think it’s important that girls and Latinos in the younger age groups see me talking about computer science,” she shares. “I was raised by very traditional 1st generation and Immigrant parents who lived the values of hard work, humility, generosity and getting an education every day. Even though my dad did not have a formal education, he was always learning and testing things and building. My mom, an elementary teacher, was always making an extra effort to help the families and kids at her school that were most in need. I carry these important values with me every day in the work that I do at Microsoft. As a peer and manager, I am generous with my time and make an effort to lift others up even if it means putting some of my own work aside temporarily. While not perfect, I do the best that I can every day; working hard and doing your best is still a highly valued trait of any employee, manager or peer.”
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