The Gulf of Mexico at night is not a particularly fun place to be, especially when you’re only ten years old and crowded into a boat way too small for all its passengers. Still, that’s how I came from my birthplace in Havana, Cuba to the USA in 1980, and I still feel today that I was guided on that journey by something bigger than life.
Enrolling in school in West New York, NJ for the first time, I faced the challenge of connecting with native-born students and proving that I was friendly, likeable and honest. I came from a different culture, spoke a different language and had very different economic means than most of my fellow students, but I passed this test, and after my first year of school I started to feel at home in my new country.
The language barrier was definitely the biggest hurdle in my new life as an immigrant, but I found a simple beauty in the many other ways I found to communicate my positive energy to my fellow students. When I look back at my life, I have to say that this ability to connect – even without the right words – has perhaps become my most valuable skill. My personality carried me all through high school and on to college and beyond, and now in my career as a business coach and consultant, I’m always giving advice to other entrepreneurs about the importance of communicating in a genuine, likeable way.
After graduating from college, I attended school to become an eye care professional. The demanding technical training required to succeed in this industry keeps many people away from other, ‘softer’ skills that are necessary to provide patients with the best possible care – and once again, my ability to communicate easily, this time with my patients, gave me a long career in eye care because my patients liked me and my “bedside manner” and I always had repeat customers.
My ability to connect with a diverse range of people like sales reps, other practitioners, patients and mentors helped me to become recognized among my fellow eye care professionals and the people in my local community. Even before I finished graduate school with the qualifications to teach, all this experience with communicating had taught me that I had something unique and valuable to offer as a mentor to others.
Today I still find it valuable to reflect. I have a passion for teaching business skills; that means I can “teach from the textbook” or from my current and previous experiences. As an experienced entrepreneur, I go with the second option, and I don’t worry one bit about what label other people might put on me. I do many different things in my work and personal life, but on reflection, they all point back to leadership, sacrifice and the embrace of new technology. The boy from the boat is now the man from the boat; I carry my early experiences as an immigrant with me always, but now I see only the positives.
For me, that means that every hello, smile, handshake and conversation is not only a potential career opportunity, it’s a chance to really connect and make people feel. I have all kinds of clients in different businesses, but the beauty in the language of entrepreneurship is that it calls first and foremost for people to see the light and be inspired to try something new. I like to talk about going beyond the SEA – Start, Expand, Adapt. It’s a reflection I carry from that perilous journey in 1980, and I continue to go beyond the SEA all the time as a mentor and business owner today. Once, I worked on building relationships trying only to blend in; now I work to build them confident that I will stand out. 35 years after that fateful voyage to the USA, I know the sea (and the SEA) goes beyond anything I could have imagined back then. I know I can Start, Expand, Adapt, and Truly Live… and so do my many happy clients!