“Ghetto superstar, that is what you are
Comin' from afar, reachin' for the stars
Run away with me, to another place…”
I recently participated in a Google Hangout interview for a podcast from my home office in Phoenix. On my wall behind my desk, and in clear view of any video call I’m on, hangs big wooden hand made letters. They spell “GHETTOSUPERSTAR.” I was asked about it during the interview and I thought the explanation needed a little more context. The letters were a Father’s Day gift from my creative daughter who lovingly carved them with a table saw. The project took her weeks to complete and I’m actually surprised, and very thankful, she still has all her fingers.
I acquired the nickname while I was at Accenture (when it was still called Andersen Consulting). On many Fridays, I used to write “Jaime rant” emails (before we called them blogs) that I shared with my friends at the firm. A particular one I wrote, “why I was staying at Andersen,” was a reaction to the number of ‘goodbye’ emails we were all getting from fellow consultants leaving and joining the thousands of start-ups that were booming in the middle of the tech bubble. I wrote a ‘fake’ email about my decision to stay at the firm and included all the reasons why I decided to stay. Those I sent it to must have liked it because they forwarded it to their friends and networks. Before I knew what was happening, it was being read and forwarded by thousands of consultants all over the world. By Wednesday, the CEO had read it and he decided to forward it to all 70,000 employees with his thoughts on it. It was a stunning “Jerry Maguire” experience and something I will never forget! I had to respond to thousands of emails from consultants all over the world.
One of those first email forwards that was passed around and ended up in the inbox of many employees, was from a close friend who added to the forward, “from my friend Jaime Casap, the Ghetto Superstar,” referring to my background and to a song that was hot and all over the radio that summer. Before I knew it, I started seeing it in emails and hearing it in meetings.
Nicknames come and go (and I had several in my life) but I still use the Ghettosuperstar one because for me, it has come to symbolize that I should always remember where I came from and how I should always be proud of it. For the longest time I hid where I came from or how I grew up. I didn’t lie, I just never talked about it. I felt people would look at me differently or think of me less if they knew my story. Speaking to lots of other professionals who grew up like I did, I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.
Whenever I get the chance to talk to a class or a school of students, especially kids growing up in poor urban areas, I take it! I will always try and make it work (even if we have to do it via video). Students in these schools get to hear from guest speakers every once in a while at occasions like career days, or parent events. They get to hear what it takes to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a firefighter. They get to listen to how important education is and how hard they have to work if they want to succeed. I like to talk to them because I am someone who knows exactly what they are going through. I lived exactly as they live and it’s important for them to hear from "one of their own," to think, "if he made it, then I can also make it!"
Of course I start with the “what it’s like to work at Google” story. Students love to hear these stories. I get a chance to convince them all to go into computer science, engineering, or any of the sciences. I tell them that if they work hard and get a great education, the payoff in the end will be well worth it. I do this while I show them slides of people playing volleyball, playing pool, or writing scooters in the office (not something I would recommend by the way – ask me why if you see me). I get them pretty excited about the possibility of developing a set of skills that create useful applications millions use or solve problems. Before I start, I always ask them, “how many of you want to be engineers?” It never fails. Maybe one hand go up, if I’m lucky. When I’m done, I ask again and all the hands shoot straight up. One of my favorite memories is of a seven grader who added, “I want to be one RIGHT NOW!” We need to continue to beat the science drum any chance we get! We all know the high paying careers of the future will require skills in the sciences. More importantly, we want to create the entrepreneurs who will create the next 100 million jobs! These science skills are critical to all our students.
The other reason I talk to students directly is to give them a pep talk. I believe there are some critical messages they need to hear. From my own experience, I know they don’t get to hear these messages enough. I tell them that they should be proud of who they are and where they are from. I tell them that some folks have low expectations on whether they will succeed and that their motivation should be to prove them wrong. I tell them that their experiences, what they see in their neighborhood, and the lessons they learn on the street, will all be competitive advantage when they get older. I tell them that their cultural background will be unique in whatever field they chose to go into. I tell them that they will have a different perspective, that they will look at problem solving and creativity from a unique point of view. I tell them to work hard, get a great education, and be successful. I tell them to go out in the world and be ghetto super stars.
The power of education is amazing. I recall in my teenage years (not that far back) playing football against another team that didn't have matching helmets and may have been sharing their equipment. I thought in the middle of the game, we were winning by a lot, how can a team like this compete? Then I thought, how can a kid from this school academically compete? Then, like you, I thought of "leveling the playing field". What will it take to have true equity in education? Thus your words resonate with me and the passion that I have for education. I am also impressed with your affection for hip hop and R&B. So often kids miss the connection to the movement of power that they possess through education. How remarkable would it be if urban society rebuilt itself on the premiss of the power of education? What if that was the next social wave and movement? What if hip hop, valley DJs and radio personalities all promoted the power behind education? What a wonderful thought. I wonder how many kids know that many of their rap icons actually attended college for a few years and a few completed with degrees? Continue the passion and thanks for the words.