Guest Blog and Interview by Anuja Singh
Welcome to our July edition of the monthly CEWN segment about role models. We all make resolutions and set goals to improve ourselves– but somewhere along the way, life interrupts our plans, we find ourselves juggling different priorities and invariably things get dropped. What you will find in this segment are experiences of some ordinary people who went on to achieve extraordinary results. Everyone featured in this series has faced challenges and opportunities that the rest of us can identify with. Let’s draw inspiration from the choices they made and aspire to the outcomes they created.
Cisco Empowered Women’s Network (CEWN): Millie – I was fortunate to hear you tell your story, and it gave me goose bumps. Can you please share some of the early influences that shaped your life’s journey?
Millie: I grew up on public assistance in a low income NYC neighborhood. My mother left the Dominican Republic in search of a better life for her children, but in order to come to America and send money home; she had to leave 3 children behind. When I was growing up, my mother was struggling emotionally but she was very militant on education and wanted to make sure we were prepared to be out there in the world. My mother’s struggles may have led me to mirror her life, had it not been for the ‘I had a dream’ foundation. They took me under their wing from the time I was 12 years old through high school. I wasn’t just a charity case to them and they truly cared. They were there for homework, birthdays, and every step of the way from 6th-12th grade to make sure I was doing well. They showed me the possibilities of an American dream, which was different from my mother’s.
CiscoEWN: What were some of your headwinds and tailwinds during this difficult transition?
Millie: As part of the foundation, I interacted with people who spoke differently, dressed differently, used their money to give back and care – and being with them, I had an intuitive feeling that anything I did had to have an impact. They were my safety net from my real life circumstances. Though it was very hard work, I strived to follow the role models I found there.
But, as my association with the foundation ended after high school, I ended up reverting back because it was the easy thing to do. My friends were resenting me because they thought I was doing better than them. Initially I got defensive and wouldn’t care about what they said, but I did care, these were my people. Trying to better my life was hard work and with no one to push me anymore, I decided to take a break and just relax and float for a while in my surroundings.
“At the end of the day, people will forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel”.
CiscoEWN: Did letting go have consequences? And how did you pick yourself up again?
Millie: (Smiles) Oh yes, it had consequences – at 18, I became a teenage mother. Despite trying to take some classes and try to make life better for my son, I couldn’t cope with the pressures of motherhood and school and my mother’s death – and I had to go into the public assistance system. Everyone around me was doing the same thing and I figured again that I could take the easy way out, be with my son and not have to do anything. But a feeling always nagged me, I knew my friends were just trying to survive, but I was trying to get over a bad phase. I knew there was something else I had to do, I just didn’t know what.
When my son started school at 5, I again got exposed to different cultures of people. Just by looking at people who were living a different life, I aspired to dress better, speak better and give my son a better life. I did my homework to figure out what kind of jobs I could get; I took classes in etiquette and vocational training; I picked up clothes from Salvation Army for my interviews and was determined to fulfill the promise of the ‘I had a dream’ foundation.
CiscoEWN: You persevered despite the odds – how did you do it?
Millie: I started applying for jobs that would open up corporate networks for me. I wanted to do well in any job I had, but I had an aspiration for a higher position and I would befriend a person in that role and say ‘I want your job – how do I get your job?’ At one point, I met a person who suggested that a way to get into corporate offices was by taking a cleaning role. That’s how I got into Cisco, 10 years ago. I didn’t think of this as a menial role. Instead of looking the other way when people crossed me in the hallway, I took this as a wonderful opportunity to meet people. I started talking to people and found that they wanted to talk to me for who I was. They would ask me what I wanted to do, what they could help with and I would always say that I want to do something that has an impact. Through this network of well wishers and through the desire to better myself, I went outside my comfort zone and applied for a customer facing position within Cisco.
Today – I run Cisco’s customer experience center in NY. When customers walk in to see Cisco’s technology; I build trust with them and explain to them how our solutions make their lives better in a work or home setting. I am not technical, but I am a user like they are, and I can break down complex terms into simple use cases.
CiscoEWN: What would you write in a letter to your younger self?
Millie: One of the sayings I live by today is, “In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”. When you think you know what the right thing is, and you have no malicious intent towards anyone, then you should go full force ahead and do something. I wish I had the opportunity to tell the young Millie that she should have been stronger on her mother and she should have pushed her to not give up. My mother didn’t have anyone to give her the opportunities I got. I gave up on her when she was struggling to cope with the hardships of life – I should have done something. (Author’s note – this part was very emotional for both of us, but Millie wanted me to share this so that someone somewhere could benefit from her experience).
“In any moment of decision, the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing”. Theodore Roosevelt
CiscoEWN: After this incredible journey, what do you envision for your future?
Millie: I haven’t fleshed out my plan, but I want to start a company or a program that will help other people take the steps I did, but without the struggles I had to go through. I want to give them the tools that can enable them to apply themselves better. When life has been relatively easy for you, you can’t even imagine the kinds of things that would scare people from applying for certain jobs. (Laughs) For example – take the word ‘logistics’. Why can’t people just use the word ‘details’ instead of ‘logistics’? I remember seeing unfamiliar words like that in job descriptions and I felt I was not qualified for the job. I want to take up the challenge to convert people who are in the public assistance system by helping them with basic life skills and encouragement. When I address young girls who come in for shadow/mentor programs, I feel that a lot of them may be in the same situation as I once was and I want to tell them that if I could do it, they can too. That’s why I want you to share my story.
CEWN: Leave us with your favorite Carpe Diem statement.
Millie: “At the end of the day, people will forget what you said and what you did, but they will never forget the way you made them feel”.
My goal and pay it forward is to leave everyone I meet with a positive impact; that alone is my reward!
Thank you Millie!