Wednesday, December 6, 2023

My Pilgrimage to Cuba

First off, I’ve got to share that I understand that for many Cuban Americans like myself they can have a variety of feelings about going back to Cuba. In my family, no one has returned to Cuba since they left for political reasons in 1960. Many in the family have not gone back and discouraged others from returning until there is more political change and freedoms in Cuba. I understand and respect that. The goal of this is not to convince anyone of anything, but to just share my personal experience.

Why did I go?

I have heard about Cuba my whole life from my family. I’ve always been interested in and felt connected to Cuba. After someone would find out I’m Cuban American, the next question would often be “Have you been?”. Over time, the answer “no” to that question has bothered me more and more. It has been on my bucket list my whole life and in recent years I started really thinking about what was preventing me from going. Of course, there is a whole lot about the Cuban government that I don’t support or believe in, but I’ve visited plenty of other countries before where I felt the same about their government. I was born in the US, so I can understand why when I look at Cuba/US relations that it might not feel as personal as someone who was born there and felt forced to leave, experienced oppression, or saw upsetting changes first hand.

Generally as well, when I see disagreements and conflicts big and small, I’m a big believer in getting face to face and truly trying to understand each other better is almost always a good thing. I make new year's resolutions every year and in January, going to Cuba was on my list.

The fact that I’m nearing 40 might have something to do with it, but hey, I can think of a worse mid-life crisis to have...

This would not be an ordinary trip though, going to Cuba is not a trip, or a beach vacation, but I really saw it as a pilgrimage and structured it that way. I wanted the trip to be about getting to know my roots, really understanding Cuba better and trying to help the Cuban people. There are already laws in place for American citizens that try to limit how an American citizen can benefit the Cuban government by traveling there, but we tried to go beyond. I believe that any benefit to the government was negligible, but the benefit to many Cubans and myself was extremely meaningful.

Initially, I hoped to get a big family trip together, but ultimately it ended up being, for a variety of reasons, more of a smaller trip. It was myself, my brother Brian, my cousin Danny and a great friend from college, Alex who is also Cuban American. We all spoke Spanish, were experienced travelers and ok with a trip with a high amount of uncertainty and adventure. We viewed it as a scouting trip that would hopefully make it easier for us to return with more family members in the future.

I read endless blogs, talked to tour guides and friends that have been to Cuba. Ultimately because I was OK with doing a lot of research on my own, we all speak Spanish and we were willing to be flexible, we decided to organize everything ourselves. There are several approved categories for travel for US citizens under the embargo, we traveled under the “support for the Cuban people” category.

A friend that travels to Cuba often HIGHLY recommended booking as much as possible through Airbnb and it was a great decision. We booked our apartment and most of our activities through Airbnb. For the Airbnb hosts, their business lives or dies by the ratings, so they were all EXTREMELY attentive and helpful. Anything we needed, we could ask them for and if they could not do it, they would arrange it and make sure that you paid a fair price and had a high quality experience.

We stayed in the Vedado neighborhood, it’s around 15 minutes from the most popular touristy area, old Havana, but I believe we had a much more authentic experience by not staying in the most touristy areas. It was safe and a short cab ride away from just about everything.

Before we went on our trip, I got in contact with members from my church’s local congregation. The member I was communicating with was a Doctor. I asked her what they needed from the US and she humbly requested lots of over the counter medicine. We learned in some of our tours that something as basic as 6 ibuprofen pills would go for $10 USD on the black market in Cuba. Before the trip, we went to Costco and loaded up. My Dad lives in Miami and is talking to recently immigrated Cubans constantly (usually people he meets at Publix for some reason, I’ve started to suspect he eats lunch there almost every day) and they recommended we bring food, specifically meats, seasoning and coffee. We made sure to pack stuff for kids like crayons, baseballs, hair ties and more.

A few weeks before the trip we got serious about investigating some of our family history in Cuba. My Dad, my brother and I started digging around and figured out our great grandfather was potentially buried in the most famous cemetery in Havana, Cristóbal Colón Cemetery. My brother got in contact with the cemetery before we left and with the information we had, they told us they had a record and location of the grave. We were shocked, no one in the family had ever talked about any family graves. We also tried to track down the house my Dad grew up in. He had a few things like the address and the name of the neighborhood. We did some google map sleuthing until we thought we figured out where it was, then my brother found some Facebook groups for that neighborhood. He posted a google map screenshot of where we thought the house was in those groups and was shocked when he got responses that said “I know that house, I live in it”. We could not believe it. We made plans to try to visit both the grave and the family house, unsure if we’d find the right places or what we’d encounter but excited with a lot of optimism from the clues we had.

If I think about what overall was most special about the trip, it was how we were treated. Everyone treated us nicely from the start, but as we talked to people one of the first questions they always asked was “Where are you from?”. When we answered “from the United States”, they always looked surprised and asked how we spoke Spanish. We then would launch into the explanation that we have Cuban born parents and explain why we wanted to come to Cuba. We always included our legitimate desire to know our roots and shared our plans of trying to visit important family sites. Most Cubans seemed very touched by why we were there and quickly shifted to “you’re family” mode. They would tell us we were part of Cuba and that we belonged there and we’d discuss our shared heritage. I never visited another country and had people make me feel like I really belonged there. It was a special, emotional feeling to feel our common heritage bring us together and bridge differences. I often felt like I was talking to family and would feel the spirit of my relatives especially the ones that have passed, in these Cubans we had just met.

I had read a lot about the scarcity challenges in Cuba for food and other goods. We made sure to bring everything we needed like sunscreen, bug spray and hand sanitizer, so we never went looking for those things, but it seemed like they would have been hard to find. Food wise, we never had issues finding things to eat, especially with American dollars, but also we tried to go into the trip with an open mind and low expectations. That being said, we did eat some incredible food. I’ve been eating Cuban food my whole life and I like it, so I’m not sure how someone without that background would feel, but I immensely enjoyed the food. I do recognize though that finding food is a big problem in Cuba and was only easier for us because we were able to pay much more than a normal Cuban could afford. Our first night we had a truly, incredible and authentic meal at El Edilio. It was an awesome start to our trip and we topped it off by walking the entire Malecon, which is a famous sea wall with a wide walkway that takes you all the way to old Havana. We even got some ice cream, which was fun because they had some very unique Cuban flavors. 

The second day of the trip we booked a breakfast with an academic with an incredible local professor named Eduardo. We had a great breakfast with fresh Cuban bread and peppered Eduardo with questions for over three hours about the history, politics, economics, he was incredibly thoughtful and it was a great way to kick off our trip. 

From there, we went on a street food tour. This felt super authentic, we saw almost no other tourists and everywhere we ate was filled with Cubans. Our guide was incredible. I got to eat some things I’d always heard about like Guarapo, but never tried. We also ate a lot of items that have become more popular as food has gotten scarce that are used to “matar el hambre” or to take the hunger away. 

Right after that we arrived at the Cementerio de Colon, and a guide immediately spent an hour with us, took us to the grave and explained everything. It was a family grave site, so multiple people can be buried there and we were shocked to find out that someone was buried there recently. We did not know we had any family in Cuba still, but they explained that only someone who could prove family lineage would have been able to be buried and they are going to give us the contact information of whoever arranged the recent burial. We are continuing to investigate, but it looks like we might still have family in Cuba. We feel super grateful that all of our plans to connect with our family history went incredible. 


That night we went to a Cuban cooking class we had booked through Airbnb. We arrived pretty late unintentionally, but luckily our hosts were quick to forgive us. Almost all of us love to cook, so the cooking class was a real highlight. 

The next day we went to explore a little bit of the coast so we booked an excursion that took us to some sites along the coast. I can tell you this, we did not see a lot or see the “best” beaches in Cuba, but what we saw was incredible. A really highlight was the lunch which was at someone’s house in a fishing village. It was a real fishing village and afterwards we went out to talk to fishman cleaning fish on the water's edge. A funny moment from the visit, I went inside to go to the restroom and got chatting with the two ladies that made us lunch and one of them was probably in her 80’s. She looks at me and says, “one of the other guys out there is a Dr, right?” She had not talked to the rest of the group yet, but she said she could tell by looking at him. She was right, my brother is a doctor. We all had a good laugh about that and I thought a lot about how my mom, who is not alive anymore, would have enjoyed that story as she was always very proud of her Doctor son. 

We went home after that, got cleaned up then set out in a taxi to find the family home, which is about 30 minutes outside of Havana. It was surreal to see it and to retrace my father’s steps that he would have taken to school and his Aunt’s house who lived around the corner. We were not 100% sure it was the right house, but as we were looking at some video footage from the 60’s and compared it to the existing features of the house, things like the windows and the tile patterns were identical. We spent some time with the family that lived there. They were very gracious and welcoming and we were able to share gifts that my father had given us to take. 

That night, we had another cooking class and did not realize it was at the same place. Luckily it was a different dish but we had just as good of a time as the first night. We might have made some life long friends after doing two big dinners with the same two ladies. We topped off the night with some more ice cream and hit the hay. 

The next day, Alex and I set off early to go to the University of Havana. He had a picture of his Abuela on the steps from when she went there and he wanted to recreate the picture. Unfortunately, the steps were roped off on Sundays, but after a little convincing the guard let us run up quickly to take a few pics. We then went to the local branch of our church. It happened to be a regional meeting of many congregations across Havana. We could not stay for the whole time, but we were touched by the warmth and welcome we received. Also, the meeting was held on the roof of the building in Havana, so hands down it was the coolest location of the church I have ever attended. It was fascinating to hear about their experiences, I was inspired by their faith and dedication. We got to learn a lot about how our church is operating in Cuba. 

Since it was our last day, we decided we had to see some of the sites in old havana. We asked the professor to join us and he took us around for a few hours and took us shopping for some souvenirs for our kids. It was really awesome and interesting, but that definitely felt like a more tourist experience, compared to the rest of the trip, but I’m glad we got to see a lot of those famous sites. We then rushed back to our apartment, packed up and headed home. We were only there for three and a half days, but had an incredible time. Cuba has always felt a world away, but the reality is it’s only 90 miles off the coast of Florida. 

The trip could really not have gone much better, it exceeded expectations. I think our deep personal reasons for going and our intense planning helped make it a success.

What tips do I have if you want to travel to Cuba?

1. Go with an open mind. Do not compare anything to another country or trip, be ready to experience it for what it is.

2. Be flexible. Cuba has shortages, blackouts and sometimes there were places that seemed closed unpredictably.

3. Do your research. The rules, guidelines are constantly changing. Be OVER prepared. Understanding some about Cuba’s history and current relationship with the US is a good idea to fully absorb Cuba.

4. Try to do some good. We brought lots of supplies and gifts, but you don’t want to just dump them on people in the street, try to be thoughtful about how you do it.

5. Be aware of the difficulties of the Cuban people. Be gracious, flexible and TIP. On our food tour, one of the planned stops was closed, the guide seemed very worried about how we’d react, but we just rolled with the punches and had a great time.

How has this changed my view of US and Cuba relations?

I think for me it confirmed that most of the animosity between Cuba and the US lies in small groups of leaders that are following their own interests. The embargo to me has seemed pretty ridiculous for a long time and a double standard in how we work with a LOT of countries that we disagree with. I don’t believe that something that has not been working for 60 years should continue. That does not mean that I don’t think there should be some things that the US can negotiate that are in its interests if it were to fully lift the embargo, but I think it mostly stays in place because of political inertia and florida’s historical position as a swing state, not because it’s the most effective way for us to nurture democracy in Cuba. It was clear that in Cuba so much of their challenges are blamed on the embargo and it’s an easy out for many other deficiencies in their form of government. The reality is that the Cuban people have suffered much more than the leaders from these policies and they have not been effective.

Saturday, November 5, 2022

Thoughts on Taking the Leap To Be an Entrepreneur

As with a lot of my blog posts, it’s half diary for me, half wanting to share with anyone who is interested, the why behind career moves, insights into some of my experiences and just generally things I’m learning. As of August of this year, for the first time since college I have taken the entrepreneurial leap and started my own company, Beeloo. If you're interested in what it is and where the inspiration for it came, you can check it out here.

In this blog post, I’d like to share more about how I came to decide to take this leap, which some consider to be drastic since I’ve worked my whole career for tech companies with at the smallest 500 employees, but usually large public companies with several thousand employees.

To fully understand current decisions, we got to go back to my first job ever. In high school, I had a moderately successful lawn mowing business in my town in the suburbs of Austin, Texas. I had a trailer, employees, commercial equipment and even a few commercial contracts. I earned more cash than a teenager should have, a lot of fun and learned many valuable lessons (like don’t take calls from a customer during a nap because you won’t remember what they said or who said it when you wake up). After that positive experience, it was only natural I wanted to continue being an entrepreneur for my career.

Once I got to college I focused my extracurricular activities on the goal of being an entrepreneur. I was the President of the undergraduate Entrepreneur’s club for my junior and senior year. As I got closer to graduation, the economy started to have a complete meltdown. (I graduated in 2009). I think I have a decent tolerance for risk but watching the housing crisis and everything else meltdown around me had me reassessing my plan. I accurately assessed that I had no money, no real skills and barely a professional network. It started to feel too risky to bet everything right after graduation. Ultimately, I decided I’d have to take the leap at a later stage in my career and I got my first entry level marketing job a few months after graduation at Salesforce, moved to San Francisco and started flying down the technology marketing career path. I remember a few friends and mentors being shocked because I had seemed so determined to start my own company. In fact, I remember talking through whether I should take the entrepreneurial leap with one of my professors and he told me “if you don’t become an entrepreneur now, you never will.”

The entrepreneurial itch was always there as my career progressed. I got more experience, built my network and was saving my money. I got an MBA and a few years later I made a riskier career move by joining a late stage high growth company that most people at the time had never heard of, Zoom. After four extremely intense years at Zoom, I felt my time at Zoom was coming to an end and it was time to scratch an itch, but the entrepreneurial itch was not the only career “itch” I had. I’m also interested in the public sector and public service. I had a goal for a long time to apply for a 1 year MPA program, which I explained in more detail in a blog post. After leaving Zoom in 2021 I went back to school full time. I loved my experience during my MPA program but of all the career paths and jobs I explored only one public sector job really stood out to me, which I pursued unsuccessfully. The timing did not feel right to go all in the public sector and public service, though my interest only increased during grad school.

During my year in grad school, I talked to a lot of friends and mentors to get their take on whether I should take the entrepreneurial leap after graduation. I constantly got two very different pieces of advice. One was “go follow your dreams, you're a go getter, I believe in you, if you want to start a company, go do it.” The other advice was “this is a bad idea, you're throwing your career away, go join another late stage company like Zoom, but at a more senior level pre-IPO and make a bunch of money. As an entrepreneur you could throw away the prime years of your career”. I fully acknowledge that if I was optimizing for corporate career growth or money, joining another high growth late stage company for someone like me is a no brainer. Part of me really wished that was something that I was excited about, but I just could not get excited about going down that path again.

My family situation and where we wanted to live also factored heavily into the decision. We have moved 4 times in the last 4 years across 3 states and with my oldest being 7 years old, we were feeling the need to settle down geographically. Before moving to Boston for grad school, we had bought a home in a suburb of Raleigh North Carolina, and really felt like that was a place that we could call home. Part of the appeal of North Carolina too was that our family “burn rate” could be so much lower than if we would have stayed in the Bay Area or settled in another large city. The tech scene in the Research Triangle is vibrant and growing quickly, making me want to be an active contributor to the community. Lastly, you work like a dog as an entrepreneur, but you get to decide where your company is based and you have ultimate flexibility, which is very appealing for my family given the age of our kids.

Years ago, after my MBA I worked at LinkedIn and I remember grabbing lunch with a colleague. Her and her husband sold their company to LinkedIn. I shared with her my entrepreneurial ambitions and she very bluntly said, “if you want to be an entrepreneur, just go do it, you don’t need any more notches in your belt.” That advice really stuck with me.

Overall, whether it be money, career or life decisions I try to think really hard about how much I will regret not taking a certain path and how irreversible the decision is. This all led me to taking the leap at this stage of my career. It might seem riskier, but it feels A LOT less risky than when I graduated from college. I have marketable skills and a deep professional network. This will help me with my current start up but also if I decide to return to a corporate job. I think one thing people worry about the most about taking the leap at this stage of life is money. You have to think about your bills, mortgage, paying for college for kids and healthcare. Since this is something that has been in my career plans for a long time, we’ve prepared financially, we can’t do this forever but given our low family burn rate we can give it a good shot.

Sometimes I envy people who have careers with a singular path, purpose and goal, but I have come to terms I’m not one of those people. I have a lot of things that interest me and if that means my career zigs and zags, that’s ok with me. Most startups fail, but I’m confident that regardless of the outcome of Beeloo this was the right path and decision for me at this time. If there are any aspiring entrepreneurs out there reading this, I hope this gives you the courage to take the leap and be comfortable with some intelligent risks.

Monday, May 9, 2022

What It Was Like To Do a Mid-Career Year MPA Program at Harvard’s Kennedy School

If you're wondering why I did this program to begin with, I explained it in another blog post that you can find here. I’m writing this post as a bit of a journal for me and to help anyone interested in a deeper view of what a program like this is really like. Going into the program I had three main goals that I had written down during orientation that I used to focus my time and energy. Here is what they were.

1. Make sure this is a positive experience for my family
2. Build relationships
3. Focus my time/energy in exploring new areas

For the first goal, this one happened way more organically than I ever thought. My wife and I have three kids under 7 and this would be our third move in three years, so we were pretty worried about what this experience would be like for the whole family. Luckily, I had got connected with some Harvard Business School students that also had kids and they gave us the best advice, which was to live at Soldier Field Park (SFP). SFP is Harvard campus family housing that is basically part of the business school, but only a 9 minute walk across the Charles river to my campus too. This ended up being an incredible decision. Graduate housing is done through lottery, but we were lucky enough to get a 3 bed, 2 bath apartment. It’s pricey, but it was worth it. We had instant community because our building was full of 2 and 3 bedroom apartments so there were kids everywhere. Not only that, but there was a playground basically right outside our door. When half of your neighbors also moved in at once too, it’s easy to make friends. It also meant we had access to all the amenities on campus and could walk into Harvard square to hang out or to eat. There was almost always something fun going on close by. After a pandemic year of being recluses, we made up for lost time with a vengeance. I’ll share more about Boston/Cambridge later in the post, but my Bay Area born wife, who is a tough judge of cities, absolutely fell in love with Boston. 

Our oldest was going into first grade and ultimately decided to put him in a private catholic school in Cambridge. We had never considered private school, but we home schooled him for kindergarten because of COVID and the lottery system for the Boston public schools created a lot of uncertainty, so we decided to do it. It turns out, most of the school aged kids that lived on campus went to private schools. He had a positive experience and we were even able to carpool with other kids in the neighborhood. Overall, we were really quickly able to make friends and build community through our church, classmates and neighbors. The business school in particular has an incredibly well organized and fun parents club called Crimson Parents that we participated in.

I had gotten the advice to really prioritize relationships with my classmates to maximize my experience. As soon as I met my classmates, I was in awe. It was such an incredibly talented, kind and diverse group of individuals. My program was geared towards “Mid-careers” so the average age of my classmates was probably ~40. About half of the 200 students in my program came from outside the US. In my class we had a Nobel Prize winner, a winner of multiple Emmy's, a professional dancer, musicians, doctors, diplomats, soldiers, lawyers, and the list could go on and on. The most inspiring thing to me though was that everyone was committed and wanted to be an active participant in the world around them, for good. No one talked about salaries, few talked about reaching career milestones, it was all about the issues or causes they cared about. Coming from a pretty capitalistic Silicon Valley career so far, it was a breath of fresh air and very inspiring to be so surrounded by those kinds of people. Being around those kinds of people made me want to do more for the public good, which is exactly what I had hoped for. I must admit that at times it was easy to get down as we studied some of the world’s most challenging problems. There were issues that I became much more acutely aware of, like climate change or I’d found out about a group of people that have been systematically oppressed that I had never even heard of like the Rohingya people. That part was so different from my MBA. An MBA is all about the potential of businesses and growth, but in the end, this is the world we live in and seeing such passionate people tackle some of these problems gave me hope that we’ll figure much of it out.

I’m a pretty social guy, but trying to balance the incredible social opportunities and home life is always challenging. I tackled this by setting some boundaries (things like, almost no evening classes) and being proactive about organizing social events that worked on my terms. I did a lot of “coffee” chats and lunches during the week and had to pass on a lot of week night 6pm dinners/happy hours. I also organized two class trips with classmates that were a mix of fun and meeting with alumni and organizations of interest. One trip was to DC in the Fall and another to NYC in the Spring. All and all, I feel like I was able to make many lifelong friends. One of the things I appreciated the most was how quickly our class became cheerleaders for each other. In our class Whatsapp group, almost every day someone is highlighting a classmate's work, or achievement and the whole group is full of positive encouragement for one another. 

A big part of coming back to grad school was to explore the public sector, public service and a variety of other interests. In a one year program you really don’t get to take that many classes, so it was a struggle to decide which ones to take each semester. There were only three required classes in three different buckets, but each bucket had like 20 classes in it, so in reality you could take just about any classes you wanted and still meet the graduation requirements for my program. There were almost twice as many classes as I was interested in, than actually fit in my schedule. There were a lot of interesting classes particularly around leadership that I did not take because they were similar to classes I took during my MBA. I wanted to focus on new topics that I was not exposed to during business school. Below you can find the classes I took, which ones were my favorites (highlighted in yellow) and a little bit about each one. Some of these were half semester classes, which is why I have so many classes in only two semesters.

API 205Politics and Policies: What Can Data Tell Us?Hughes HallettI had to choose one required quant course and this is what I choose. It was a great refresher on stats and analysis all in the context of really interesting policy or political case studies.
IGA 505Solving Tech's Public DilemmasCarterSecretary Carter is a former US Secretary of Defense, it was nothing short of incredible to sit in his class each week and look at the tech industry through his eyes and experience.
IGA 355MMigration and Human RightsBhabhaI've also been interested in the refugee crisis for a long time, it has been my issue and charitable cause of choice, but I did not know much about it. I really enjoyed just being in a class I did not know a lot about and soaking everything in. Learned a ton and more committed than before to doing what I can to help refugees of all kinds around the world.
DPI 640Technology and the Public Interest: From Democracy to Technocracy and BackSweeneyThis class studies technology and society clashes, it was very interesting to look at technology development in terms of its impact on society, especially after spending most of my career in Silicon Valley.

MLD 342Persuasion: The Science and Art of Effective InfluenceOrrenIn between fall and spring you can take a two week accelerated class where you meet every day for two weeks. I took this class and enjoyed it a lot, it was a great refresher on the soft skills of leadership.

IGA 236Cybersecurity: Technology, Policy, and LawSchneierOne of my favorite classes, Bruce Schneier is world renowned and just a knowledgeable and funny professor. I had always wanted to dive deeper into cyber and this was a great class to do it.
MLD 831Entrepreneurship and InnovationCavanaghIn this class we work-shopped social innovation business ideas, it was a small class. Really enjoyed seeing all the different types of businesses you can create for the social good. There are so many ways to use entrepreneurship to do good and we got to study a lot of different models in this class. I built out a business plan for a specific idea that I had during this class.
DPI 896MCrisis CommunicationsHaberReally enjoyed this class, got a bit of PTSD as I relived my time at Zoom during the pandemic, but really good still to have if you're ever going to be in a leadership position.
DPI 831MOp-Ed WritingGreenThis was a half semester small class writing workshop where we learned how to write op-eds, the structure, pitching and refined several op-eds we all wrote in the process. Only writing class I had every taken like that and LOVED IT!
HBSMBA7475CS50 for MBAs
In any graduate school at Harvard you can cross register. This was the only class I did not take at the Kennedy School. This was a entry level computer science class geared towards managers. I had always wanted to take a computer science class. Really enjoyed it and learned a lot.

Between my classes, classmates, attending random lectures and events across campus I got to dive into so many topics I have been interested in, but had not had the time to go deeper. A few favorite moments, hearing from US Cyber Command, a discussion about the Israeli-Palistenian conflict, hearing from elected officials and listening to lectures on current event topics like the war in Ukraine.

A few words about the Harvard community in general. The first day we moved in, I met a next door neighbor. We got talking and I asked him all the standard questions, what were you doing before and what are you hoping to do after school. In that short intro conversation, I found that he was a former Navy Seal hoping to one day build a hotel in space. In a lot of ways, that sums up what it is like to be in this environment. Surrounded by incredibly accomplished people with some big goals.

In terms of academics, there is some truth to what they say about places like Harvard that “the hardest part is getting in”. I was a pretty average student in high school, better in college and even better during my MBA, but I was never the stereotypical straight A student that aced standardized tests. For me, believing that I could attend a school like Harvard only started to creep into my mind once I moved to the Bay Area after my undergrad and worked with a lot of folks from Ivy league institutions. Working with them took away a lot of the mystique around what it takes to succeed at those schools. I thought my colleagues were smart, but I realized I could keep up. As I did well professionally I think I just generally had more confidence in my capabilities, even if I totally sucked at taking standardized tests. In fact, my GMAT score was so low that BYU grilled me about it during my MBA admission interview. I found that my time at BYU prepared me well academically to do well in my classes at Harvard. There were classes where it took a lot of effort and work and some classes where it did not take that much effort. I also selected the classes I was most excited about and interested in, which were rarely subjects that I would not have excelled in. I think as an older student you are able to focus better and not stress out as much, so the academic side of it was not a stressful experience for me. I’m sure I would have completely drowned in an advanced econ class at Harvard. I felt like my best Professors at BYU were just as good as my best Professors at Harvard teaching wise, but I think the biggest differences comes from the professional renown and experience of the Professor. At Harvard it’s just often at a different level, same with my classmates.

Harvard was pretty serious about their COVID restrictions. Luckily we had an in person class for just about the entire year. We did not ditch the masks until the end of Spring semester. There was a pretty formal testing program where you usually had to do a COVID test twice a week. There were some limits to different kinds of gatherings and canceled programs, but overall I’m guessing I got 85-90% of the pre-COVID experience. I’m glad that I decided to go this year.

There are some funny quirks about Harvard. One of them is that once you're in, it’s really easy to complain about Harvard. I think people have such high expectations going into it that a lot of folks are shocked to find out that not everything is perfect, but no organization is good at everything so sometimes we all had to remind ourselves of that.

Politically, I’m pretty moderate. I did my undergrad and MBA at BYU, which is generally pretty conservative leaning so I was bracing myself for whiplash going to a place like Harvard which I expected to be pretty liberal. It is in general, but not as much as I would have thought. I was pleasantly surprised, especially in the Kennedy School to hear some diversity in thought. Don’t get me wrong, there is a strong liberal under current and there were some discussion topics that seemed to be avoided because any disagreement with the general current would unfortunately not result in a productive dialogue, but the majority of my classmates I personally found to be very open minded, diplomatic and thoughtful. As a 2nd generation Cuban immigrant, who’s Dad fled communism, I tend to be in the “Pro-US, with all of its imperfections camp” and there was much more of that than I thought there would be, especially on the national security side of things. Many of my classmates were from different branches of the military which I think helped to create that feeling. Also, as a person of faith and this being my first experience in higher education that was not faith based, I was pleasantly surprised how all faiths were embraced. I felt like I could be my true self and appreciated so many of my classmates being open about their beliefs. I did not expect faith based motivations or experiences to be as welcome and celebrated as they were in a place like Harvard.

A few words about Boston/Cambridge. This area had a lot of the same characteristics that we loved about Silicon Valley, the people are similar in a lot of ways. I have always loved meeting interesting people doing interesting things and boy this town is full of them. Especially coming from the Bay Area we were shocked at how clean and safe much of the city was. Having the Charles river run out into the ocean, passing Boston’s beautiful skyline just really makes it one of the most beautiful cities in America. We loved the history, architecture and quirks about Boston. I never had class on Fridays during my whole program and we went on so many weekend trips to Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island and NYC. As New England newbies we loved our crash course in the culture, food and all this area had to offer. Even with our aggressive weekender schedule, it feels like we only scratched the surface. 

The cold is no joke and we are not cold weather people. I think the best thing we did was have covered parking and geared up. We spent a small fortune at the local Patagonia store, but it was worth it. We had never experienced a winter like that, but between the gear and a few well planned vacations to warmer destinations it really was not that bad. In some ways this past year felt like a gap year for the whole family. We are not staying in Boston, but I think Boston will probably forever be a very special city for our family because of this experience.

I’ve always highly valued new experiences, travel, adventures and learning. In that way, this program was tailor made for me. I think the value of graduate school often comes down to what you were expecting, which can vary widely between folks, but for me, this program met and exceeded my expectations. I felt like I was able to meet all of the goals that I had outlined at the beginning of the year. Going back to school was not only a career based decision for me, it was a mix of career, personal interests, my belief in life long learning and for fun.

If you're reading this and thinking of going back to school, I have a bit of advice. The first is to really think about what you would want to get out of graduate school. Especially later in your career, the opportunity cost can be very high but your ability to focus and make the most of the experience is in some ways more optimal a bit further down the career road. I also think you should shoot for the stars. I’m grateful for some friends and mentors that always encouraged me to shoot higher than maybe I thought was possible. If there is no one in your life like that, give me a call and I’ll be happy to pay it forward and give you a pep talk.

If you're thinking about this program, the best advice that I’d have for you is to tell a strong and compelling story about why you, why now and what this program will enable you to do. If you look at each class you can see the admission’s committee’s methodical approach to make a diverse (in many dimensions) class. Almost no one is that similar, so be your authentic self and tell your story clearly.

If you actually read this whole blog post, at this point you might be very disappointed to realize that I’m not going to talk about what is next for me career wise. At the time of writing this post, some things are still in process, but once they are finalized I’m definitely going to share in another way too long of a blog post about how the past year has evolved my career thinking and why I’m doing what I’m doing next, so stay tuned!

Sunday, December 19, 2021

The Christian Case for Supporting Immigration in the US

I wrote this paper in a class I took in the Fall of 2021 called Migration and Human Rights. If you feel so compelled, please donate to the International Rescue Committee.

At the age of 19, I paused my university experience and went on a two-year, full-time volunteer mission for my church, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Members of my church are often referred to by the unofficial nickname of “Mormons''. Missions for young people are a customary aspect of my religion and at any given time there are more than 50,000 (1) men and women serving as missionaries around the globe. You do not get to pick where you are assigned for your missionary service or the language you might have to learn. I was assigned to serve my mission in Orange County California attached to Spanish speaking congregations. 

Most people I met and interacted with during my time as a missionary were immigrants from Mexico and Central America, most of them came into the US illegally. Prior to being a missionary, my views on immigration were generally a reflection growing up in Republican dominated Texas and being the son of a Cuban refugee. My father came to the US with his siblings and parents at the age of six in the 1960’s. Cubans have enjoyed preferred immigration status in the US and tend to be less aligned with other Spanish speaking immigrants based in the US in terms of their views on immigration. (2) Simply put, they are often not as pro-immigration politically as you might expect from an immigrant community in the US. I don’t remember giving a lot of thought to immigration as a teenager, but likely would have disapproved of people crossing the border illegally.

Spending two years inside the homes of these immigrants, developing friendships with them and hearing about their hopes and dreams significantly changed how I viewed immigration in the US. I found that most of the time these immigrants were seeking safety, freedom and economic opportunity. Some of the strongest motivations they expressed for coming to the US focused on the quality of life for their children or future children. Overtime I came to realize that I would have potentially made similar decisions as they did if I had been in similar circumstances. I also realized how their stories were not that different to the story of my own family. As the second generation of an immigrant family, I’m seeing all those hopes, and dreams of my Cuban grandparents play out as they imagined. Their grandkids are living productive, free, and safe lives in the United States. Most of the difference in experience between my family's experience and those of the Mexican and Central American immigrants today are because of differences in the US immigration policies.

Religious study was daily and significant part of my experience as a missionary. As I studied my church’s doctrine and reflected on the people and experiences, I was having every day, I personally and naturally saw clear alignment between the principles Christianity and a pro-immigration political view. The principles that were most impactful in driving my change of view were not unique to my religion but were basic and widely accepted principles of Christianity

For me, it was not just my experience getting to know so many immigrants, but a deeper understanding of the tenants of my faith and Christianity overall that drove me to have a more compassionate view of immigration politically.

In the many years since being a missionary, it has been clear that there are many who do not see the same alignment between tenets of Christianity and pro-immigration political views. This contrast became even more clear during the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and subsequent presidency. Though this paper focuses on Christianity, Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha pointed out in her book “Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?” that “all the major religions also evidence a dramatic disjunction between scriptural text and quotidian practice”(3) when it comes to immigration.

Republicans tend to be much more religious than Democrats in the US(4). The Republican party is dominated by Christian denominations with about 82% of Republicans identifying as Christian(5). Mormons, Evangelical Protestants, Mainline Protestants are the most Republican dominated Christian denominations(6). This religious (mostly Christian) base helped Trump get elected and on the platform of instituting some of the harshest immigration policies in recent years.

As the 2016 election unfolded in the United States, I could not help but be surprised by the level of anti-immigration rhetoric from Trump and his campaign, especially knowing how many of his supporters were of the Christian faith. The way he discussed and framed immigrants was shocking. The most memorable was in his formal announcement of running for president, he referred to those coming from Mexico into the US as “not their best” and went so far to generalize many of them as “rapists”(7). It was extremely unsettling for me personally to see so many Christians align with Trump’s policies and rhetoric, especially when my faith pushed me in the opposite direction in terms of my views on immigration.

Shortly after being elected, he started to make good on his campaign promises and began to roll out his immigration agenda, which included ending The Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program(8) and eventually led to 400 executive(9) orders on immigration. The most visible of these policies was separating children at the border(10), which received a lot a massive amount of criticism and was eventually reversed to some degree. While President Trump took a much harder stance on immigration, tougher immigration has been a part of the Republican platform for a while. There is no doubt that after four years of the Trump presidency legal and illegal immigration is much more restrictive than it has been in a long time.

I do not expect the members of any faith to be completely aligned to a political party or any specific policy among the many a political party will push forward. How different Christian groups prioritize and view immigration as an issue varies widely. In a 2019 PRRI survey(11), immigration was a top issue in the 9 different religious groups surveyed, but it was not the number one issue for any of the groups. It did not even make the top 3 for more than half of the groups. This leads me to believe that while immigration is an important issue for many Christian faiths, it seems unlikely to be the most critical issue driving voter behavior.

Who you vote for is very complex and few candidates perfectly reflect the views of the individuals they represent. Individuals must make tradeoffs and prioritize the different policies to be able to support specific candidates. The number of Christian voters was clearly influential in getting Trump elected but I think it would be short sighted to blame a religion for specific policies of a political party. Though, the commonality of faith creates opportunities for faith-based influence to impact policy. A closer look at some well-known biblical examples of immigration can serve to help those who look to the Bible as a source of faith to be motivated to support not just a more empathetic view of immigration, but candidates and policies that will reflect that view. My goal in writing this paper is that an understanding of Biblical and modern-day migration within existing frameworks of how to approach immigration challenges could be a cause for reflection among Christian readers of this paper. The biblical examples throughout this paper could be used in many religious settings to teach, inspire, and advocate for immigrants. It is also my goal that these parallels could be used by advocates, refugee supporting NGOs, experts, and policy makers to more effectively appeal to people of the Christian faith to drive more support and an empathetic view for migrants of all kinds. The high percentage of Christians in the Republican party creates a group of voters that believe many of the same things, speak a common language, have often heard the same scriptural stories, and potentially have some of the same faith-based motivations. In this paper I’m primarily focused on the US, but it’s worth noting that Christians are the largest religious group in the world. Christians make up 31.2% of the world’s population at around 2.3B people(12). Christians are an influential group in many democracies around the world, just as they are in the US. The arguments in this paper could be extrapolated to Christians in other nations as well.

In the book, Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System by Alexander Betts and Paul Collier, leading thinkers in the study of migrants, highlight two core guiding principles in the world’s response to immigration. The principles are rescue and autonomy, which are also core principles of Christianity. The book goes on to say that “The duty of rescue entails ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their most fundamental needs.”(13)

Few biblical verses capture the Christian principles of rescue as clearly as the book of Matthew in the New Testament. In the book of Matthew, the Apostle Matthew is recounting the parables Jesus taught and captured the following words of Jesus in Chapter 25:35-40 of the King James Version of the Bible.

35 For I was an hungered, and ye gave me meat: I was thirsty, and ye gave me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took me in: 36 Naked, and ye clothed me: I was sick, and ye visited me: I was in prison, and ye came unto me. 37 Then shall the righteous answer him, saying, Lord, when saw we thee an hungered, and fed thee? or thirsty, and gave thee drink? 38 When saw we thee a stranger, and took thee in? or naked, and clothed thee? 39 Or when saw we thee sick, or in prison, and came unto thee? 40 And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.

These verses make clear what is the duty of a follower of Christ, which is aligned with the immigration principle of rescue “ensuring that people in distress have rapid access to their fundamental needs.”13 It is worth noting that there are no “qualifications” in these verses on who should be helped or deserves it, but rather focuses on if there is a need, the Christian duty is to act. One might argue that your duty to help others is more focused on those around you in your immediate sphere of influence, but this scripture explicitly mentions “strangers”. “Strangers” comes from the world “extraneous” which means “exterior” or “from the outside.”(14) This could mean Jesus was referring to someone that was an outsider in several ways. Just as modern-day immigrants can have different countries of origin, religion, and culture.

Later in the New Testament the Apostle John in the book of 1 John was addressing a fragile new church trying to stay aligned with the teachings of Jesus.(15) In that environment, you can imagine how important it would have been for him to focus the attention of his readers on the most basic and fundamental aspects of Christ’s teachings. He was more explicit and direct about the responsibility of Christians to help those in need, even going so far as to say that if you don’t, the love of God is not within you. 1 John Chapter 3:17, “But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?”

The Bible extols true believers to rescue those in need and is full of examples of the principle of rescue in action. One of the most important was Jesus himself as a refugee in need of rescue. In the Book of Matthew in Chapter 2 we learn that King Herod, feeling threatened by the birth of Jesus, intended to kill the Child. Shortly after the birth, Jesus’s father Joseph was warned in a dream by God and was commanded to “and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word” (verse 13). Jesus’s father took drastic action to protect the physical safety of his child, which involved fleeing to another country. The same rationale for fleeing to another country, often illegally, is used by many modern-day migrants with children.

The story of Exodus is one of the most well-known stories in the Bible. The dramatic story of the Israelites fleeing persecution in Egypt is repeated often in the Christian and the Jewish traditions. In this story we have a group of people being oppressed that flee looking for freedom and better opportunities. One aspect of the story that is often overlooked is why the Israelites were in Egypt. Earlier in the Bible in Genesis Chapter 47, we find out that Joseph and his family were driven by famine to settle in Egypt.(16) The parallels to modern day reasons driving immigration are clear. Searching for economic opportunities and escaping conflicts are still major drivers of immigration today.(17)

In these well-known Biblical stories, you explicitly see the principles of rescue, but throughout the Bible you also see autonomy. On the topic of autonomy Alexander Betts and Paul Collier go on to say “But as soon as this is achieved - the child is pulled out of the pond - our purpose becomes to restore autonomy. A satisfactory refugee regime should enable people to help themselves and their communities, particularly through jobs and education.”13

Returning to the story of Jesus fleeing to Egypt, eventually after the danger had passed, they returned. Not much is said about Jesus’s formative years in Nazareth, but in Luke 2:40 it says “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him.” Many Christian faiths assume he became a carpenter like his father. The story shows the need for rescue, but also implies a return to autonomy once the danger has passed.

In the New Testament you see the virtues of autonomy espoused in the epistle that the Apostle Paul wrote to Timothy(18), who at the time was a young church leader in Ephesus. Paul wrote in 1Timothy 5:8 “But if any provide not for his own, and specially for those of his own house, he hath denied the faith, and is worse than an infidel.” The Apostle Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians espousing the importance of work and providing for yourself in 1 Thessalonians 4:11–12 “And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.” He did again in 2 Thessalonians Chapter 3:12 “Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.”

The message is clear, working and providing for yourself is a good thing and a virtue of Christianity. Enabling others to obtain those virtues, such as immigrants who are unable during a time of difficulty, would be an honorable thing to do as a Christian.

Two of the most important guiding principles for addressing the challenges of migration are clearly supported throughout the Bible with many powerful stories of those principles in action.

In Joseph Carens, book The Ethics of Immigration. He drew a powerful framing for how we should think about immigration ethically. He wrote “Whatever principles or approaches we propose, we should always ask ourselves at some point, "What would this have meant if we had applied it to Jews fleeing Hitler?" And no answer will be acceptable if, when applied to the past, it would lead to the conclusion that it was justifiable to deny safe haven to Jews trying to escape the Nazis. This approach will not settle every question about refugees that we have to consider, but it will give us a minimum standard, one fixed point on our moral compass.”(19)

The same comparison can be made to some of the most famous refugees in Christianity, Jesus himself and the Israelites fleeing Egypt. While I personally believe Joseph Carens’ analogy to be sufficiently persuasive as is, his framework could also be used to focus specifically on Christianity. As modern-day Christians, we should also ask ourselves when looking at immigration policies “What would this have meant if we had applied it to Christ fleeing Herod, or Moses fleeing Egypt?" The current plight of immigrants today is no less dramatic than those faced in the time of the Bible. In our modern day we have more than one million(20) Rohingya people that are stateless, abused and persecuted looking to flee their situation, not unlike Moses and the Israelites. In Venezuela we have parents that fear for the physical safety of their children because of not only an oppressive government but a dangerous lack of food, medicine and other necessities needed to sustain life. The dire situation has led to over four million Venezuelans leaving which is an 8,000% increase since 2014.(21)

Harvard Professor Jacqueline Bhabha was right when she wrote “despite the prominence of hospitality toward strangers as a core obligation in all major schools of religious thought, clear religious edicts collide with the practical operations of state sovereignty and personal and national self-interest.”3. I’m not naive enough to think that a simple understanding of Christian principles related to rescue would be enough to convince voters, but I do fundamentally believe that the Christian experience can be a greater force for good in supporting the 84 million people forcibly displaced throughout the world.(22)

The reality is that the Christian faith already drives many people to participate in helping immigrants around the world. There are many faith-based organizations that embody the principles of rescue and autonomy towards migrants like the Church World Service, Episcopal Migration Ministries, Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services (LIRS), the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) and many others.

There are bright spots out there that many Christians are even willing to break away from their political party for this issue, driven by religious beliefs. When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the reduction of the maximum number of refugees to 30,000, many religious organizations came out in opposition, including the Evangelical Immigration Table (EIT).(23) I saw this in my own faith, which is headquartered in Utah and the state that has the highest concentration of members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. In December of 2019 President Trump gave states the authority to veto refugee settlements.(24) Gov. Gary R. Herbert of Utah, a deeply conservative and religious state, wrote an open letter to President Trump asking for more refugees based on the religious history of the state. He said “Our state was founded by religious refugees fleeing persecution in the Eastern United States. Those experiences and hardships of our pioneer ancestors 170 years ago are still fresh in the minds of many Utahns. As a result, we empathize deeply with individuals and groups who have been forced from their homes and we love giving them a new home and a new life.”(25) In coverage from The Washington Post of the unusual announcement from a conservative state in the height of Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric, they speculated the reasons Utah was taking such a dramatically different stance than other red states. One of the journalist's conclusions was that “The high percentage of young Mormons who perform missionary work abroad plays a role, as well. Utah may be landlocked, far from any international border. But its population has a comfort and familiarity with foreign cultures.”(24)

It seems as if my experience as a missionary and how it has shaped my views of immigration might not be unique, which leads me to believe that experiences, education, and messages rooted in Christian principles can convert more of the believers to believe in a United States that is more welcoming to immigrants.




  1. “Latter-Day Saint Missionary Program - Missionaries Serve Two Year Missions.”, August 24, 2021.
  2. “Cubans in the United States.” Pew Research Center's Hispanic Trends Project. Pew Research Center, May 30, 2020.
  3. Bhabha, Jacqueline. “Chapter 2.” Essay. In Can We Solve the Migration Crisis?, 7. Newark, NJ: Polity Press, 2018.
  4. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020.
  5. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020.
  6. “Religion in America: U.S. Religious Data, Demographics and Statistics.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project, September 9, 2020.
  7. Collins , Michael, and Christal Hayes. “Timeline: 10 Controversial Things Trump Has Said about the Border, Immigrants.” El Paso Times, January 1, 2019.
  8. Soto, Isabel, and Whitney Appel. “Comparing Trump and Biden on Immigration.” AAF, September 9, 2020.
  9. Pierce, Sarah and Jessica Bolter. 2020. Dismantling and Reconstructing the U.S. Immigration System: A Catalog of Changes under the Trump Presidency. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute
  10. “Family Separation under the Trump Administration – a Timeline.” Southern Poverty Law Center, June 17, 2020.
  11. PRRI Staff. “Fractured Nation: Widening Partisan Polarization and Key Issues in 2020 Presidential Elections.” PRRI, November 10, 2020.
  12. Hackett, Conrad, and David McClendon. “World's Largest Religion by Population Is Still Christianity.” Pew Research Center. Pew Research Center, May 31, 2020.
  13. Betts, Alexander, and Paul Collier. “Ch. 8.” Essay. In Refuge: Transforming a Broken Refugee System. PENGUIN Books, 2018.
  14. Caussé, Gérald. “Ye Are No More Strangers.” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Accessed October 21, 2021.
  15. Introduction to 1 John. Accessed October 21, 2021.
  16. Knohl, Israel. “Pinpointing the Exodus from Egypt.” Harvard Divinity Bulletin, 2018.
  17. Francesco Castelli, Drivers of migration: why do people move?, Journal of Travel Medicine, Volume 25, Issue 1, 2018, tay040,
  18. Introduction to 1 Timothy. Accessed October 21, 2021.
  19. Carens, Joseph H. “10.” Essay. In The Ethics of Immigration. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2015.
  20. Chickera, Amal de. “Stateless and Persecuted: What next for the Rohingya?”, March 18, 2021.
  21. United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. “Venezuela Situation.” UNHCR. Accessed October 21, 2021.
  22. Fleming, Sean. “This Is the Global Refugee Situation, in Numbers.” World Economic Forum, June 18, 2021.
  23. Jackson, Griffin Paul. “Evangelicals Argue against US Reducing Refugees to 30,000.” News & Reporting. Christianity Today, September 20, 2018.
  24. Witte, Griff. “Trump Gave States the Power to Ban Refugees. Conservative Utah Wants More of Them.” The Washington Post. WP Company, December 4, 2019.
  25. Arent, Patrice. “Thank You @Govherbert” Twitter. Twitter, October 31, 2019.