Mi Historia Interviews - Zahira Perez

Zahira Perez is a senior at Babson College and a Posse Scholar. She was born and raised in Pueblo Viejo, La Vega, in the Dominican Republic and moved to NYC at the age of twelve. There she became involved with the Latin American community through the arts and later started to attend Babson College where she was in leadership positions in ONE (Origins of Necessary Equality) and LASO (Latin American Student Organization). She is a first-generation college student, an SEO and MLT fellow, and the recipient of Babson's 2020 Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award. Zahira will be joining Accenture as a Consulting Analyst this fall.

/ What is your name? Do you know the story behind your name?

My name is Zahira Perez. I am named after my mom. My mom’s name is Zahira, but her name doesn’t have the H. They really thought I was going to die. My mom’s brother's wife misspelled it on the birth certificate, so I became Zahira instead of Zaira 🤭. It is an Arabic name in reality, even though we thought the name was super original.

/ How do you self-identify your race and ethnicity?

I have a lot of trouble with that question. It puts me in a box 📦. I define myself as Latina. I am not white passing, so it is hard to answer what my race is.

/ Do you identify with the term Latinx? Do you call yourself Hispanic?

I resonate with the terms Latina and Hispanic. I don’t like the term Latinx ☹️. I think it's a very American term. It doesn’t feel like my language.

/ We’d like to hear more about your upbringing. Where were you born? Where did you grow up?

I was raised in the Dominican Republic, in Pueblo Vieja de la Vega, Santiago. I lived with my whole family in the Dominican. I am an only child, but I had a lot of cousins. I had an amazing childhood. I moved to the U.S. when I was 12. I still feel very close to my friends in the Dominican Republic. I lived in el campo, and I didn’t grow up in the City 🌆. I always appreciated living there, and one of my favorite things to do was look up at the stars 🌃.

When we moved to the U.S., I lived in New York City: in Washington Heights, then Inwood, and then the Bronx. A lot of my Dominican identity was shaped by living in New York, not by living in the Dominican Republic. You can feel a lot of Dominicanidad in NY.

/ When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? What were your career aspirations and why?

I wanted to be a lawyer. Now, I would never want to be a lawyer, and I don’t know if it was my family telling me to be a doctor or a lawyer, or if I actually wanted to be those things. I definitely did not want to be a doctor. Or if it was media influence. I wanted to avoid business, since my family was full of entrepreneurs (but here we are!)

/ Let’s start with your K-12 experience. Tell us about the schools you went to, and how did they help you prepare for a job or career?

Money 💸 is a lot more important in the U.S. In the Dominican Republic, you can make things work with little money. My local middle school wasn’t great in terms of the resources that we had, but I was fortunate to love education so much that I still was able to do well. I also met teachers that invested in me to move forward. Middle school was in Inwood and high school was in the Lower East Side. I went to the best high school. It had a lot of AP classes and extracurriculars. I felt lucky because I knew that most people didn’t have the same opportunities. My middle school was 98% Hispanic. At my high school, 8% of the entire high school was Latino and 11% was Black. To me, that’s where I discovered my hunger for making my Latino community better again. Not all my friends have been as fortunate as I was. Middle school is really important because it is when you prove yourself and where you find role models and mentors.

/ Was the plan to always go to college? How did you choose which college you wanted to go to? Did college help you prepare for a job?

That wasn’t even an option, not to go to college. It was always so important for me, being a first-gen college student. I wanted to better myself as a person, and I wanted to improve financially.

The Posse selection process began when I got nominated during my junior year. I did not expect to get it. I tried not to put all my eggs in one basket. When I was looking at schools, I had never heard of Babson, but when I landed on the website, I knew it was the one. I like that Babson brought people together from around the world, 🌎 and there was a culture that I really liked.

I knew I wanted to do business because I took a summer class at Baruch in marketing.

/ Did you do internships, apprenticeships, or college campus jobs while in school to gain experience? Was it difficult balancing academics and extracurriculars?

I worked on campus starting my freshman year. I worked at the Student Life office for a while, and it taught me a lot about interpersonal communications.

After my freshman year, I was taking summer classes, and then I started doing my rotational internship at a large accounting firm. I was grateful for the opportunity, since I got to interact with a lot of people. I learned what I did right and what I did wrong. It helped me understand the corporate world a little more.

It was good to be responsible for myself and have financial independence 🦸. The summer after my sophomore year, I rejected a second internship at the same company before getting another offer. I wanted to try something different. I got to take some electives abroad, and then I started my internship at Posse. It helped me feel grateful and more appreciative of the program. Then I joined Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT). The Posse Foundation’s headquarters is located on Wall Street, and I was able to feel the energy for my place.

During my junior year, I interned at Adobe. That year, I had also received offers from Amazon and Deloitte. At Amazon, it was a finance internship and I was setting myself up for failure 💼. At Adobe, it was an HR internship where I worked with HR partners, and there weren’t any entry level people. I was the youngest in the team. I really loved it there, and I hope to go back. It had an environment where we all lifted each other up.

/ What scared you the most about choosing an employer?

It was the most amazing problem to have. I had offers from Deloitte (sales; pay was low), Accenture, and Adobe. This is a big one. It’s a choice that is not easily reversible. Accenture only had positions for my role in California, but my mother and my boyfriend were the biggest factors, and I wanted to stay close to them 👪. As for Accenture, I was thinking long-term, as consulting would give me varied experiences. Happiness, salary, culture, and location were also important. I didn’t want to leave my mom alone 🤶. It was the right choice for me.

/ What did you wish you had to support you in the job search process? What resources did you feel were missing?

I can’t complain about anything. I try to be a resource for my peers. My friendship with Leslie was life-changing. She understood my culture, and it was great to have someone at the same level, one more step along the line, who knew exactly what you would be going through.

A near peer mentor is a great resource. Additionally, having specific actionable steps and someone that holds your hand through the process was awesome 👭. A lot of people are disadvantaged for being first-gen, because they just don’t know what they don’t know. I wanted someone to walk through my resume, what companies I should apply to, and what roles to look for.

/ How did being Latinx impact your job search? The career fair? The application process? The interview?

100%. I noticed quite a few low-key things in the interview, like how to act differently with different kinds of people. When I was with other Latinas, it made me feel more comfortable, so that required different navigation. If the interviewer was a white man or a black man, they don’t see me as a threat. The best interviews were where I knew my audience and how to balance the different parts of myself ⚖️.

I am an extrovert because of my culture, and that provided an advantage through the job search process. When you are aware of your identity as a Latina, it pushes you to work twice as hard. Latinos are very family-oriented, so you know that you have your entire family counting on you. You are not just doing it for you, but for so many young people.

/ What would you like to bring to the forefront regarding the conversation about Latinos in the workplace? What do you think is the important element of this conversation that is not talked about as much?

We have been looking at Latinos the wrong way. We have been trying to put the hiring ideals into conference, but that doesn’t have anything to do with being Hispanic. We are failing to target Latinos with their core values. How can we build a community and a workplace culture that embraces Latinidad and the unique values we bring?