By Scott Williams
October 2000 - It’s not hard to find examples of Hispanic influence in the United States. Our architecture, music, food, literature, and language bear the marks of a culture that long predates the arrival of Anglo colonists from Europe.
Hispanic influence in the business community is similarly far-reaching and has come to encompass the high-tech sector. For proof, look no further than this year’s HISPANIC BUSINESS 100 Most Influential Hispanics, a list that includes representatives from a diverse cross section of the nation’s most vibrant technology firms.
But will Hispanic influence in the high-tech sector continue to grow? Or will the demands placed on students planning to enter this field steer many Hispanics into less demanding – and, perhaps, less rewarding – careers?
Hispanic graduates with technical degrees are hot commodities who have no trouble finding jobs, says Leticia Araceli Vidal, executive director of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. And experienced professionals will find plenty of room for advancement as competing companies offer financial incentives to lure Hispanics to their fold.
“People really want them and need them,” she says, “but it’s getting them to that level that’s the biggest challenge. There’s declining enrollment in engineering for all cultures, and when you look at Hispanics and the number who are graduating, it’s pretty serious.”
Even more discouraging than the number of Hispanic graduates is the number of Hispanics with higher degrees. The Society for the Advancement of Chicanos and Native Americans in Science is dedicated to helping minority students earn advanced degrees in math, science, and engineering. Ronaldo Ramirez, executive director of SACNAS, says obstacles preventing Hispanics from earning advanced degrees begin in high school.
“If the school does not offer advanced placement courses, then it’s hard to get admitted into, for example, UC Berkeley, where they give extra credit for [advanced placement] courses,” he says.
As Mr. Ramirez points out, it’s actually not so much a Hispanic problem as it is a problem among poorer school districts generally. “If they come from those school districts, it will be harder for them to get into college,” he says. “If you’re majoring in physics, for example, and you don’t have access to a rich course curriculum, then it’s going to be an unlevel playing field.”
Another obstacle to getting an advanced degree is the fact that many Hispanics are the first in their families to go to college, and many students find it difficult to postpone economic security any longer.
“If you get a [bachelor’s degree] in computer engineering, why would you continue on to a Ph.D. when you’re being offered a nice salary and you can pay off your school loans?” asks Mr. Ramirez.
Gabriel Rincon-Mora, 28, is an exception to that pattern – a Hispanic who went on to earn advanced degrees. Mr. Rincon-Mora, now a senior integrated circuit designer for Texas Instruments, earned master’s and doctoral degrees from Georgia Tech University.
“There was never any doubt in my mind I would go through college,” he says. “There was never a doubt I would get my master’s degree. My parents gave me the impression that I could do anything, and I was able to do quite a bit just because of that.”
Mr. Rincon-Mora believes the high-tech industry offers many opportunities for Hispanics. He says the good-old-boy network is less prevalent, performance is more important than ethnicity, and talent is so scarce that many companies import workers from throughout the world.
“If we find talent outside the United States, we bring them here and Texas Instruments helps them with the paperwork,” Mr. Rincon-Mora says.
Others in the industry agree that performance is what counts most.
“I think the computer industry does not care what race or what color anyone is,” says Brian Matas, vice-president of market research for IC Insights Inc. in Scottsdale, Arizona. “If you have the skills, you can rise to the top. I’ve seen people of all races, all nationalities run different companies.”
Nathan Brookwood, principal analyst for Insight 64, a market research and consulting firm in Saratoga, California, agrees. “I think the computer and technical industry in general have been pretty enlightened – or oblivious to racial and ethnic origins,” he says. “Clearly the ability to handle a job is much more important than what country one’s parents came from.”
Sara Martinez Tucker, president and CEO of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, says there’s more to increasing Hispanic participation in the high-tech industry than education. Hispanic students also must be exposed to the corporate and high-tech cultures that are foreign to people from working-class backgrounds.
Ms. Martinez Tucker cites her own experience as an example. The Laredo native grew up with no exposure to corporate culture, and when she went to work for AT&T she discovered she understood little about corporate structure.
“How could I have been a straight-A student, valedictorian, a magna cum laude graduate from the University of Texas, and then in here I’m the slowest in the group?” she says.
One way to familiarize Hispanic students with corporate and high-tech cultures is to expose them to technological tools such as computers and software, she says, and the other is through mentoring. “I have a lot of alums who have graduated and are working, and if I can get them to start mentoring my current scholars, then they can talk about their experiences,” Ms. Martinez Tucker says.
Ms. Vidal points out that many Hispanic students who are interested in high-tech careers are not well prepared because they don’t get the support they need. “I think it starts with a child in elementary school,” she says. “Something happens along the way in the educational system and they begin to think that math is not fun, that it’s hard or it’s too challenging.
“Even though they think it might be fun to be an astronaut or a pilot or a scientist, it doesn’t seem very real to them. When they think about being an engineer, they don’t know what it takes and they don’t get appropriate preparation.”
And that prompts many who initially pursue an engineering degree to drop out in the first year or switch majors. “They’ll head into other fields such as business or economics or something that involves math but is not as challenging as math or science, so our numbers start decreasing,” she says.
Ms. Martinez Tucker says efforts must be made not only to convince Hispanics to pursue high-tech degrees, but also to encourage such students once they’ve made the decision. “We’ve got good kids,” she says. “We just have to support them so they don’t drop out of school.”
She says talented students are not receiving much-needed scholarship support because there isn’t enough money to go around. Over the past two years, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund has awarded 378 scholarships to students entering computer-related fields – but another 412 eligible applicants with an average grade point average of 3.33 have gone without.
“So even when I doubled the amount of scholarship support available, I still had great students with high GPAs that I couldn’t get scholarships to,” she says.
Still, Ms. Martinez Tucker observes that everywhere she turns she sees signs of Hispanic influence increasing in a positive way. But she’s more concerned with areas in which it is not increasing. “I heard Colin Powell speak last night, and I sat back and thought, ‘Where is the Latino who can do just that?’
“So while our influence has grown in a positive way, with more and more people liking things that are Latino, I’m worried that we still need stronger efforts in key areas where Latino influence has to be a lot stronger – the business community, the not-for-profit world,” she says. “We need leaders in those positions so that the Latino kids see role models in those fields.”
Hispanic influence also can be felt in the consumer world, both in the high-tech sector and more traditional outlets, she adds. “I think as the demographics change, no industry is immune. Every industry is going to have to change the way they spend their money to be able reach us and to be able to lock us in as satisfied customers.”
Loui Olivas, assistant vice-president of academic affairs and professor of business at Arizona State University, says the effort to reach Hispanic consumers will lead to more competition and more choices, which means all consumers will have more-efficient, better-quality products at a better price.
“I will venture to guess that the eventual loyalty to any company will be how they’re able to capture the cultural and family perspective of that consumer, whether Latino or non-Latino,” he says.
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