Author Amy Chua famously asked, “Do you know what a foreign accent is?” Her answer: it’s a sign of bravery.
Many of the most successful immigrants in America have vastly different backgrounds, no two stories are the same, no two aspirations identical. But still, an invisible thread ties them together. It’s the fiery hunger to build a better life, and the weight of social obstacles they overcome to prove their value.
Mexico is the top origin country of the U.S. immigrant population. In 2018, roughly 11.2 million immigrants living in America were from there, accounting for 25% of all U.S. immigrants according to Pew Research.
One of those immigrants who works to pave the way for other first generation Americans is Norma Torres Mendoza. “My life mission is to always leave people, places, and organizations better than I found them,” she says. “This has motivated me to always support first generation college students and underrepresented minorities in their personal and professional journeys.”
Born in Queretaro, she was just nine years old when she traveled in the back of an eighteen-wheeler with her mother to Houston in search of the American Dream. From a young age, she was told that education would be her ticket out of poverty, thus beginning a lifelong love affair with learning.
Her tenacity and drive paid off, ultimately culminating in a degree from Rice University in Political Science and Hispanic studies, a degree from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, and an MBA at Rice University.
Her MBA at Rice University was made possible through a prestigious fellowship she was awarded in 2018 that has helped to shape the futures of close to a thousand immigrants since it was established 24 years ago. The Paul & Daisy Soros Fellowships for New Americans selects 30 fellows each year to receive up to $90,000 in financial support for over two years, and join a lifelong community representing heritages in 90 different countries. Haven’t heard of it? If not, chances are you’re familiar with some of the famous fellows who have made their mark. To name just a few illustrious alumni, Soros Fellowship recipients include former U.S. Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, California Surgeon General Nadine Burke-Harris, gymnast and Olympic Gold Medalist Amy Chow, artificial intelligence scientist Fei-Fei Li, and computational biologist and former TIME Magazine Person of the Year Pardis Sabeti. The recipients are as dynamic as their backgrounds, pursuing careers spanning an exhaustive list of sectors and making waves in every field from policy change to poetry. Learn more about it here, as well as eligibility requirements and the approaching October 27 application deadline (find this and other scholarships inside MBAchic).
MBAchic talks to Norma about how her roots have fueled her desire to give back, the nonprofit she co-founded when she was just 19, her experience as a P.D. Soros fellow, and how she’s still finding time to serve as a bridge of resources through her work.
MBAchic: You co-founded the Young Owls Leadership Program as a teenager. Since it was established it has raised over $250,000 and helped over 400 students in the Houston area become the first ones in their families to attend college. Can you update us on this non-profit and how it is still supporting students?
Norma Torres Mendoza: I started the Young Owls program because I wanted to provide more opportunities for first generation college students. I knew that the journey to obtain a college degree is complicated and convoluted, and we wanted high school students to know that it was possible and there were many of us facing and overcoming the same obstacles. Since co-founding this program, it has metamorphosed into Connectrix, and they are expanding their impact and continuing to transform students’ lives.
Additionally, I have now co-founded a podcast for first generation college students called How to College: First Gen, a 501c3 podcast whose mission is to democratize education by providing opportunities, resources, and support to navigate the college journey through first gen narratives highlighting the experiences of current high school and college students, college graduates, and parents.
MBAchic: How did being named a P.D. Soros fellow help you achieve your MBA goals, and what’s your advice to those interested in applying?
Norma Torres Mendoza: PDSoros was an amazing opportunity that allowed me to obtain my second Masters (MBA at Rice University). I knew that I was lacking some core financial skills to create the change that I wanted to see. This fellowship was more than a way to finance my education, it opened so many doors and allowed me to make amazing connections with people that are changing the status quo. My life has been transformed because of this fellowship; the community has the best leaders in all fields and this motivates me to try to be the best version of myself every day.
My advice to people that are applying is to reflect on their immigrant stories and how this has influenced their career choices and ultimately the mark they want to leave in the world. The other piece is to simply APPLY, I know that the list of past fellows can seem intimidating, I know it was to me. However, each immigrant in this country has a unique story to tell and it is crucial that we highlight all our contributions small and big in this country. Don’t tell yourself you are not good enough, apply and enjoy the application, which is a journey of self-discovery.
MBAchic: You’ve said the happiest you’ve ever seen your mother was on the day you graduated from Harvard, and that no one you know loves the U.S. more than her. Does your family ever struggle with fluctuating political rhetoric, and what inspires you to stay resilient?
Norma Torres Mendoza: My family has struggled with the political rhetoric of this country since we immigrated here 22 years ago. My mother always believed that coming here was the only way out of poverty as this country is the land of opportunity. I will forever be thankful for everything she has sacrificed, for her resiliency, and strong faith.
Growing up undocumented, it was hard for me not to doubt her incredible positive attitude and believe that it would all somehow work out. I put my head down, studied, gave so much to the community, and worked hard all without knowing if I could one day go to college or even work in this country. When my mother saw me cross the stage at my Harvard graduation, she said that this moment made it all worth it since she knew that we had now changed the trajectory of our family and our future generations.
Recently, I became a U.S. citizen and perhaps this was the second happiest I have ever seen her. She said she can now breathe since her only daughter has a Harvard degree and a blue passport, this is everything and more that she had ever dreamed of as a single mother with a third-grade education.
MBAchic: Often, undocumented parents are the powerhouses that inspire their kids to dream big and achieve what may not have been possible for previous generations. What do you want the business world to know about these unseen, often overlooked advocates who are helping to shape future generations of CEOs and leaders?
Norma Torres Mendoza: My mother is the original Dreamer, she has been my most fierce advocate but let us be clear that it was her dreams, ambition, and resiliency that has allowed me to make the positive impact that I’ve made thus far. It is a bit ironic that this country is more willing to forgive the younger generation that came to this country by “no fault of our own,” without acknowledging that we are who we are, and we are able to do what we do because of our parents who have sacrificed everything for us. It is even more ironic that the demand for their work is there, but that our politics don’t want to acknowledge that they pay so much in taxes and contribute so much to this country. I stand on the shoulders of giants, and I can fly only because my mother gave me the vision and gave me my wings.
MBAchic: You have consulted for numerous non-profits, businesses, and governmental agencies on their vision, expansion strategy, fundraising tactics, and technology integrations. What are you up to these days and how has your MBA prepared you to make a difference?
Norma Torres Mendoza: Before my MBA, I was a Director of Financial Literacy and Alumni Funding for a school district. As I was progressing through my career, I realized that I missed the private sector and that I needed additional skills to create more impactful change for my clients. Rice Business School provided me with the platform to not only gain those core skills, but also provided me a window to the world with key lessons as I spent in four continents. Peru taught me why understanding culture is critical to the bottom line, in Germany I learned to get out of my comfort zone, in Spain I learned to take risks and to create my own MBA experience abroad, and finally in China I continued to strengthen my critical thinking skills. Because of all these experiences, I am a better consultant, and I can add more value to my clients.
MBAchic: You’re currently gearing up for your company’s biggest Latinx recruiting conference of the year for undergrad and MBA students. Can you describe how your role is helping shape and mentor the next generation, and how the PDSoros network continues to inspire you in your ongoing work to pay it forward?
Norma Torres Mendoza: I am currently a Strategy and Transactions Director at E&Y-Parthenon. My main role continues to be client-facing, but additionally I serve as the Latinx Recruiting Pillar Lead, this means that I set the strategy, vision, direction, and execution of how we recruit Latino students to our firm. For me this role is about giving access and opportunities to students to be able to work in a top strategy and transitions firm. For many of the students that I recruit, this lucrative opportunity will transform their career trajectory and although I hope they all stay to make Partners, I know that their careers will be on a different path because of the time they spent with us learning how to be great consultants.
The Paul and Daisy Soros fellowship continues to inspire the work that I do every day; at the core I am an immigrant, I am a Latina, I am a leader in my field and I hope to continue to honor the sacrifices of my mother and other undocumented immigrants while I leave people, places, and organization better than I found them.
Photos from Norma Torres Mendoza
About the author
Torri is a mom, creative writer, communications specialist, and professional journalist. She has nearly a decade of experience working in print and TV newsrooms as an on-air reporter and anchor independently researching, writing, interviewing, filming, and editing her own content. Whether she is interviewing the Speaker of the House about hot button issues, or a small student group about a local grassroots campaign, her commitment and focus remain the same: to bring the story she is telling to life. As an amateur watercolorist, she is passionate about the arts, promoting women's empowerment through writing, and investing time in her family.
She lives outside of Manhattan with her husband, baby boy, and rescue dog, Jax.