Before this past weekend, Orlando is the farthest south I ever ventured. Before this weekend, Latin American food meant TexMex, maybe the Brazilian Steak House in Oklahoma City if it is a big night. Before this weekend, my only impression of Miami was Miami Vice.
Oh man. Or as my Uber driver from Portugal with bleach-blonde hair corrected me, Oh macho. This past Thursday and Friday rocked my perception on the Latin American community.
I spent 24 hours in Miami hanging out with VFA fellows working at startups across the city, interviewing with a VFA partner company, and getting a re-education in Latino culture ranging from life chats with Uber drivers to the best tacos I have had in a long time. Let me break it down for you.
Hanging with my Fellow Fellows
Ever since I received my acceptance call for VFA in early March, I have been itching for another fix. After you meet dozens of young people who are looking to get the same thing out of life you want, it’s hard to go back to school and act like it didn’t happen. When I reached out to the Miami fellows to tell them I needed a place to crash for a Friday interview, I received not only a couch to crash on but also a crash course introduction to Miami.
Austin, who is a year older than me and has been working in Miami since August, picked me up from the airport and drove me around town to show me Miami’s downtown and the art district (who knew Miami had an art district?). Then we met up with VFA Fellows Jackson and Nazlı and hit the town—by hit the town, I mean get great tacos. Like really good tacos, both from specialty taco shops and the archetypal taco trucks.
It was really cool to get a glimpse into the life of people only a year older than me who are in the thick of things with startup companies and launching their lives in a new city. It’s even crazier to think that I, whether in Miami or another city, will be in the middle of the same thing a year from now. The night ended soon (after all, everyone has jobs) and I was wrapping up the night on a couch in a high-rise condo apartment with a view of the ocean and lightning from a distant storm.
Interviewing on Miami Beach
I’m on the street by 7:00 AM. Even though my interview is not for another 5 hours, I want to explore the area. I settle down into a bagel café with a light read (The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future). By 10:30 AM I was on Miami Beach where I explored the turf around my interview location (the adventure ended swiftly: exploring in 85+ Fahrenheit weather while wearing a dark suit and carrying luggage only leads to an excess of sweat). By 11:45 AM, I was on site and ready for game time.
The company I interviewed with is in the heart of Miami Beach with a prime view of the area. On the 8th floor is the startup accelerator that they originated from, but with an expanding team and another round of funding closed they upgraded to the 9th floor. The company is an “Internet of Things” company with ambitions of becoming the next big data company. To put it succinctly, it is a far cry from any office I have seen in the OKC startup community (might have something to do with the Atlantic Ocean being a mile away).
For 4 hours, it’s a round robin of interviews with the head of business development, head of marketing, the product manager and the CEO himself. Within the period of those four hours, I met people from Peru, Venezuela, Colombia and the U.S. who had come together to make this startup the next big thing. From 25+ year experts in telecom to 15+ year corporate veterans to fresh university graduates, the leadership is a pretty rarified atmosphere. Not to mention the team of engineers hanging out in Colombia, along with business development team members hanging out in the U.K. It is, put simply, an international startup.
It’s an interview experience that I will definitely remember. After all, I never thought I would be talking about the long-term vision of a technology start-up with a view of Miami Beach in the background.
I knew the demographic of Miami before flying to the city. It’s a city of immigrants, and a huge port city for people from Latin countries to enter the U.S. But coming from a Midwestern state that is pretty homogeneous, Miami is a different kind of city—and I loved it.
The Latin influence shows in the art, in the food, and the leadership of local startups. It also shows in the people you meet on the streets. I had two Uber drivers this weekend, one an immigrant from the Dominican Republic with 1.5 years of U.S. living under his belt, the other an immigrant from Portugal with 10 years of living under his belt. These two guys were two of the friendliest, liveliest and most outgoing people I have meet in months. When the driver from the D.R. found out a spoke Chinese, he spent half the drive laughing—and I laughed too. The easygoing nature and culture that they come from is infectious.
Not knowing Spanish isn’t a huge barrier, but the language is everywhere—Miami is case and point for the argument of Spanish becoming the second official language of the U.S. It’s a second community that is integrated in the essence of what Miami is. If everyone is as genuinely happy and outgoing as the Uber drivers, I wouldn’t mind jumping into that community too.
Back to Real Life
Coming back to school is difficult after weekends like this, especially when the only thing to greet you is a 3,000 word essay that needs writing and a Chinese speech needing to be memorized. But despite the obligations awaiting me for the last three weeks of school, I’m glad I got to do a 24-hour blitz in Miami—I only wish I had more time to wear Chacos and visit the beach.
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