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Bismarck Lepe Reflects on His Story for Hispanic Heritage Month

Bismarck Lepe Reflects on His Story for Hispanic Heritage Month

For Hispanic Heritage Month 2021, Wizeline Founder & CEO Bismarck Lepe took to LinkedIn to tell his story through posts on his experiences growing up split between Mexico and California, his family history, his educational journey, and his successful career as a tech entrepreneur and investor. Today on the Wizeline blog, we’re sharing some highlights from Bismarck’s posts to commemorate the end of the event.

On his parents’ immigration story…

My parents immigrated to the US from Mexico. They arrived as migrant field workers — and for the first 6 years of my life, we would follow the fruit harvest from Mexico, through southern California, to Northern Washington State and back to Mexico — every year.

My family was part of the seasonal workforce. In April we would leave Juchitlan and arrive in Oxnard, California where my father picked lemons and strawberries until June. Then we would move to the central valley of California (From Modesto to Gridley — depending on the year), where my parents would pick peaches, nectarines, walnuts and then in September/October we would move to Oroville Washington to pick apples. Sometimes we would move back to the central valley for a few weeks and then back to Oroville for the end of the harvest. But by early December, we were always back in Juchitlan Mexico. 

Bismarck Lepe's father picking apples

Lepe’s father picking apples in Washington.

This was the case except for my first Apple picking season. 9 months after being born, my parents were getting ready to move to Washington, but they were unable to organize childcare — so an aunt flew up from Mexico and took me back to Juchitlan. My mom was visibly distraught by my absence, and the owner of the apple orchard told her that the following year, she should bring me and if needed, she would take care of me while they worked.

Taken from “Foundation: Birria and Tacos are my Comfort Food.”

On being Mexican-American…

At home, we spoke Spanish, ate Mexican food, and lived the Mexican experience — in the US. At school, I tried to assimilate into the American way of life. I wasn’t ashamed of being Mexican-American, but for many years, I did consider it a handicap. Why did I consider it a handicap? Everybody around me who was successful, spoke English and didn’t look like me. 

Bismarck Lepe as a child

Lepe as a child.

It wasn’t until I arrived at Stanford and I met other Mexicans, Chileans, Peruvians… whose parents were successful businessmen, doctors, lawyers… and entrepreneurs that I realized that being multicultural was actually a superpower. Over the years, my ability to speak Spanish has helped me to do business globally. And the cultural experience has allowed me to more easily invest across borders. 

Taken from “Hispanic Heritage Month – My Story.”

On the formative lessons he learned from childhood…

I spent a lot of time with my parents in the early years — before my brother was born — and before we settled down in Oxnard and I learned the following which have been formative lessons: 

  • Family is everything. My parents would do and still do anything and everything for their family.
  • Everything is possible with hard work. A year after my parents decided to settle down, they teamed up with my aunt and they bought a house in a school district with a good school.
  • Success is a team effort. Although there were certain things like changing the oil or fixing the washing machine that my mother never did, my dad shared 100% of the household chores with my mom. He cooked, he cleaned, he swept, he ironed just as much as my mom did.

On the sacrifices of his family so his generation could succeed…

My dad was 14 when his father died in a car accident. He was the eldest of 8 brothers and sisters — 10 actually, but 2 passed away at birth. At the funeral, my grandmother was inconsolable — of course because her husband had died, but primarily because she did not know what would become of her kids. The youngest, my aunt Rosa, was not even a year old. My dad, who only had a sixth grade education — at that point decided to take the reins of the family. He told his mother that he would make sure that his siblings had what they needed to at least complete elementary school.

Bismarck Lepe's parents

Lepe’s parents.

My grandfather had been working in the US as a seasonal worker through the Bracero program. Two weeks prior to his death, he secured a green card for my dad. The plan was for my dad to join him in the US to attend school and work. But with his passing, my grandfather’s brothers did not feel like it was a good idea for my dad to do it alone. He didn’t care, he knew that the only way to make enough money to support his family was by working in the US. So the Green Card became his golden ticket. When he arrived in the US, he lived in work camps alongside men who were 2-4x older. He didn’t care — he felt incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to be able to work. Pretty much every penny he made, he sent back to Mexico.

My dad never asked for anything in return. He used to tell me that “sometimes a generation needs to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations.”

When my parents married, they had the same belief of focusing on the next generation. My parents worked 2-3 jobs at a time to provide us with piano lessons, private academic tutors and even bought me a computer in 1987 when I was 7. They bought me a $3,000 computer the year that they made $13,000. In Mexico, my parents were social and had a network. In the US, they focused on family and work. Any incremental dollar went into books and education for me and my brother. 

By the time I was 10, my mother had started working at the Gap’s western distribution center in Ventura, CA and my dad was working in maintenance at an apartment complex. This brought stability, steady income and healthcare. And as my parents’ financial position improved, they did not deviate from their focus on investing in our education.

Taken from “Philosophy: ‘Sometimes a generation needs to sacrifice for the benefit of future generations.’”

On his educational journey as a Hispanic and those who helped him along the way…

In Oxnard, we were very lucky to have the G.A.T.E (Gifted and Talented Education) program. In other districts, the GATE program is only an elective class that meets a couple times during the week. In our school district it was a separate school that acted as a Magnet program. I joined the program in third grade and continued until junior high. In High School I took honors and AP courses which were extensive and comprehensive. Although I would later attend Stanford, I am proud to say that I am a product of the public school system.

Although my dad only completed sixth grade, he knew that education was the key to economic mobility. He dedicated 15 years to give his siblings a path to an education, and he and my mom placed the same emphasis on education when my brother and I were growing up. At home, there was an appreciation for knowledge and intellectualism. The same focus and attention was placed on school. In second grade, I needed to come home with an owl sticker that signified 10 out of 10 in my spelling bee. I would be rewarded with a puzzle from Toys R Us if I achieved it. And if I received a B, my parents would not be happy. Even though a work week was never less than 80 hours, my parents never missed a back to school night.

Bismarck Lepe's support structure

Members of Lepe’s support structure.

My track coach told me that one can get a great education anywhere, but the real value of college is in the people you end up meeting. He told me that I should aspire to go to the schools where politicians, heads of industry, royalty… send their kids. He continued, “The access those kids have because of the zip codes and families that they were born into will become your access.” So when it was time to enroll in college, I applied to Harvard, West Point, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and most of the UCs. 

By the time I was a Sophomore in High School, I was confident that I would go to college, but I had little clue of where I would go. California’s public university system is incredible, so I figured that I would apply to UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Barbara. My track coach, like many of the people who have helped me at different points in my life, did not look like me: Ms. O’Brien who ran an after school program; Mr. Evans who was my best friend’s dad who helped schlep our basketball team; Mr. and Mrs. Pasienski who schlepped me and my brother to track practice when my parents were working; and countless others played an important role in my upbringing.

I was lucky enough to get into Stanford. And just as my coach predicted, the friendships I made changed the course of my life.

Taken from “Building Blocks: Education is the great equalizer” and “Support Structure: Getting by with a little help from my friends.”

On dealing with bias and giving people the benefit of the doubt…

In 2004, I had just delivered a presentation to the Google sales organization. In the room, there were a couple hundred people and on the phone, another 500+ Googlers – I did a good job and was proud of myself. Later in the day I visited a colleague and her new assistant asked me, “are you the phone guy?” I assumed she was asking about the conference call. I said, “Yes,” with a big grin on my face. She immediately pushed herself away from her desk, and said, “it just stopped working.” She assumed I was the maintenance man. I played along and unplugged her phone and walked away. My friend/colleague was embarrassed as she observed the exchange. I came back and apologized for taking her phone and she apologized for assuming I was the Mexican maintenance man – I told her that she didn’t need to apologize. 

At Ooyala, in 2010, when we decided to open an engineering office in Mexico, a board member asked if there were engineers in Mexico. I responded with, “yes, and electricity and Internet!” 

Growing up I was called “Spanish” by “polite” company because they were raised to treat “Mexican” as a bad word. 

There are some who are offended by these types of interactions. And given the subtle undertones of discrimination, it’s easy to understand why, but I’ve always tried to give people the benefit of the doubt. Everybody is a product of their experience and their biases have been shaped by years of training by their family, the media or just lack of exposure. In some ways, growing up, I too had a negative bias when I felt it was a handicap to be Mexican American. 

My solution is to be present. Today, I live with my family in an enclave of California that is 85% Caucasian. I make it a point to speak Spanish to the cashiers at the local grocery store, write posts like this one on LinkedIn, and more importantly help my kids to see the beauty in their culture. Whenever there is an opportunity to speak at a school or mentor a Hispanic high school student I jump at the chance. 

Biases don’t change overnight. And there are some people who will never change their prejudices. But because of the sacrifices of thousands – people who have marched and fought for civil rights, we have made incredible progress in recent decades. I try to be constructive and hopefully a positive example and influence to broaden the view of the Hispanic community. At least in tech, we are seeing a lot more investments going into Latin America – and to founders of color. There is still a lot of road to cover, but the optimist in me feels like we’re headed in the right direction.

Taken from “Dealing with bias: Meeting people where they are at.”

Bismarck Lepe, CEO & Founder, Wizeline
Bismarck Lepe, CEO & Founder, Wizeline

Scott Rayburn

Posted by Scott Rayburn on October 14, 2021