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“I love math.”

When is the last time you heard a child say this?

Now, when is the last time you heard a ten-year-old immigrant girl say this?

I grew up in Colombia, and when I was ten, my family and I moved to the United States to a town called Weston, outside of Miami. I’d grown up speaking Spanish and I adopted English, but my favorite language was math.

From an early age, my Dad, a civil engineer, inspired my interest in learning how things work. As I dug into the mechanical foundation of building things, I saw the importance of math.

BELIEVING IN SOMETHING

When you grow up in Colombia and observe your parents working hard to move their family to the United States, you begin to believe in something. That something is possibility.

As a result, I found myself attracted to the math fields that pulled in the best engineers: aeronautics and space. I was far from your regular teenage girl, as I spent many hours tutoring, studying, and working hard to get into the best engineering schools.

I didn’t know much about which colleges held prestige, but I did know that I wanted to get into one of the best programs, so I applied to the top 14 engineering schools, including M.I.T. and Stanford. Only later did I realize how distinguished these schools are.

Many of my top choices rejected me, but Stanford accepted me

I wish I could say my career took off from here, but like most young college kids, I would experience some obstacles. I couldn’t identify any particular engineering track that I could obsess over for the next four years, so I majored in a broader segment: mechanical engineering. I was confused, but still felt somewhat on the right path. After all, I wanted to build, and what better way than becoming an engineer?

When my first college summer break arrived, I found myself back at my tutoring roots. I worked for a company that helped turn SAT pros into entrepreneurs by giving them the resources and accreditation to freelance. I loved every minute of that summer and wished it would never end.

As I followed my more prescriptive engineering path, the next summer I worked in what I’d imagined as my dream job since being a young girl: aviation engineering. I started at GE Aviation with the official title of “Design Engineering Intern.” In reality, the job was far from what I had dreamed of.

The company was huge, and I felt like a small ant in a slow-moving colony. I would love to say that I was excited the first time I saw a plane land, however, I could barely muster a grin. I didn’t feel that special moment I’d been waiting for since childhood.

Still not dissuaded, I figured it must be the company. So, the next summer I worked as a manufacturing engineering intern at Boeing. At the time, Boeing’s new plane, Dreamliner, was making headlines, and I was more than excited to start. 

For the first couple of weeks, the company moved too slowly to even provide me a with work computer. It seemed like all my hopes and dreams were crashing fast. Every time I chased better work, life left me with the opposite — corporate bureaucracy.

AN UNEXPECTED DETOUR

During my last two college years, I had finished my required engineering courses and could explore classes outside my major. This was my chance to take advantage of Stanford’s focus on encouraging its student body to be creative and different. I needed this opportunity. I was tired of the clock-in, clock-out mentality. I was far from the examples of lifestyles I wanted to emulate. So, like many college students, I went through an identity crisis.

I began to look into other fields such as consulting and banking but found similar — if not even less suitable — jobs there. With many failed searches, I turned to Stanford’s resources and discovered the Mayfield Fellows Program (MFP), which offered an incredible opportunity to spread my entrepreneurial wings. Each year, only twelve students get selected into the program out of hundreds who apply. It’s one of the most desirable entrepreneurial programs in the country.

Those selected are placed in a paid internship at a Silicon Valley startup and get exclusive access to the best mentoring and networking activities. Without many options, I hoped entrepreneurship would hold the elusive something I was looking for.

The program selected me as one of the twelve.

THE PURSUIT OF SELF-KNOWLEDGE

Soon, I was learning an abundant amount about technology and startups. And this learning accelerated when I officially started my internship at a fast-growing startup called ChargePoint, which operates the world’s largest electric vehicle (EV) charging network. This time, I was far from in-depth engineering tasks as they gave me the title of “Marketing Associate,” and rather than waiting two weeks for a computer, I got one on the first day.

I felt excited as I was working directly with high-level talent, such as the former director of marketing at Virgin who was now the VP of marketing at ChargePoint. I immediately sensed the entrepreneurial hustle that comes from learning something new with great mentors around you.

Much of my work comprised of creating strategic prototypes that dealt specifically with UX and UI design for the hardware and software. Still, electric cars were not mainstream yet, and only a few friends had even heard of Tesla. Even though it was exciting to learn cutting-edge technology, I still felt like my growth was stunted. I realized my role was too small for my dreams.

After the Mayfield Fellowship, I decided to continue with school and pursue my masters with a broad focus on product management and design. It was almost as if I needed to buy myself time to figure out what to do with my career.

In my last quarter, it hit me that I was graduating soon without a job.

I was scared I wouldn’t find a path. I didn’t know where to look.

I cried.

During this time I was taking a class at the d.school (a Stanford program known for “restless experts” — talented individuals who want more from life) about solving big problems through design thinking. I felt like I was waiting for superman to save me — and he did. I stumbled upon the documentary “Waiting for Superman,” and was reminded of something I’ve always loved: education.

Hoping to get an in-depth view of the education market, I met with a fellow at the d.school who was working on a small education company. We talked about the technological transition the education industry was going through, and although it was still facing many obstacles, how technology would be the key to unlocking every student’s potential.

Noticing my enthusiasm, he told me to see what the teachers were saying on Twitter about his company, Nearpod, and its impact on the everyday classroom experience. Nearpod was a mobile learning platform designed to enable teachers to create content, engage students digitally, and access students in real time through the use of mobile devices in education. I took a look at the Tweets, and it was clear that teachers loved the product.

I didn’t realize the fit immediately, but I had a deep affection towards the product and my new friend’s passion. A week later, he sent me an email in search of a possible intern who ideally would be in their last year of an MBA. Even though I didn’t meet that requirement, I saw it as an incredible opportunity, and I convinced him to give me the job.

THE PERFECT HUSTLE

As soon as I started, I felt the energy, creative space, and hustle mentality I was looking for. I had always loved tutoring because I could see the change I was making for people while directly helping them. I simply never thought it would it turn into a career.

The passion and ambition were there, I just needed experience. I’d worked tirelessly to find what I love, so now that I was here, I decided I would work even harder to prove myself. I knew that the only way to establish a strong position in the company was to take ownership of projects. So I looked for gaps and found a few.

I worked on so many projects, small and big, that proved to the team I could own and deliver quality work. This need to show I was capable of getting shit done would continue over the next couple of years as I eventually became the head of growth and strategic partnerships.

Another big win was when we launched our virtual field trip feature, which later became a trademark quality of our product. The goal was to build something that brought to classrooms real-world experiences that inspired students to learn and think more.

We hit the mark. Our community loved it, and we could see the wonderful difference we were creating.

Tweet example:

LESSONS LEARNED

I still continue to stay on the frontlines for new feature launches. During the last two years at Nearpod, I’ve learned to be more resourceful, motivating, and empathetic. I still work to improve these qualities in myself every day.

While working at the intersection of product and marketing for a fast-growing startup, I’ve learned many valuable lessons including that data doesn’t rule every decision. There’s not always time to conduct an in-depth data analysis, and the best solution may come down to just looking at a couple of KPIs and trusting your gut instinct.

To ensure your gut instinct is right, you need to stay up-to-date in this fast-moving field. I have a beautiful Yorkie I take to work who helps keep me and my coworkers happy to continue learning. I also ensure I attend one industry-related event every two weeks and bring the great ideas back to my team.

See how inspiring this little one is?

I don’t focus too much on articles because they tend to be strategy oriented and less tactical. Finding great information on the internet is hard; sometimes it’s easier to find by asking the right people.

EXPONENTIAL (PERSONAL) GROWTH

As Nearpod continues to expand with some of the best talent, I’ve taken on more responsibilities. To keep my momentum, I’ve had to adjust my routines and habits. In growth, you have to be adaptable because technology moves forward with or without you.

With significant growth, Nearpod made the Inc. 5000 list at No. 297. To keep up, I’ve learned to find more balance in my life to ensure every day I wake up excited to face new challenges in growth — from user acquisition to onboarding new customers. It’s incredible to know each day we’re changing the life of a teacher, and sometimes I think that teacher could have easily been me.

It’s wonderful to work in a purpose-driven culture that’s so far from the corporate world. The people here are nothing short of amazing. With that said, the journey into growth marketing was no way easy. For most of college, I felt confused and on the wrong track. When you invest so much time and energy into a career that you thought would pan out, and then it doesn’t, it’s easy to look down on yourself.

I was fortunate to discover one of the best parts of life in the Mayfield Fellows Program: entrepreneurship. As I take my growth mindset and hustle into the next projects I work on, I know many others are struggling to find a job they love. Not everyone is fortunate enough to attend Stanford and then to work for a Silicon Valley startup.

For those who still think they’re wandering aimlessly, know that there’s something beautiful out there waiting for you. It may be a career in growth marketing, or even sales. And you may not see it now, but that’s okay. It takes time and patience.

Just remember, as long as you keep moving forward, your dreams will too.

Maria Barrera is the head of growth at Nearpod, where she focuses on product, marketing and external partners in user acquisition, retention, and monetization efforts. 


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