Thursday, March 27, 2008

From Migrant Worker to Microsoft Role Model

The daughter of migrant workers, program manager Zoila Haro uses her success to inspire other minorities and women to pursue careers in technology.

When you’re poor and Latino and attending a school where three quarters of the student body is living in poverty, success can seem like an abstract notion, something only enjoyed by athletes or movie stars.

But when Microsoft’s Zoila Haro visited Cascade Middle School in Seattle recently,
students got to see someone who achieved success despite a background that isn’t much different from their own.

Now a program manager in MSN Platforms & Services, Haro spent her formative years shuttling between a two-bedroom adobe house in Juchipila, Mexico, and government housing in Modesto, California, where her parents labored as migrant workers. From an early age she rose at 4 a.m. to pick cherries, apricots, and peaches alongside her six brothers and sisters. Although Haro enjoyed the communal aspect of life in the work camp, her family struggled to make ends meet.

In an attempt to break the cycle of poverty, Haro’s older brothers and sister moved to the San Francisco area and took the 13-year-old with them. There, she finally got to attend a single school for the entire academic year. Enrolling at California State University, Chico, she became the first person in her family to attend college. Haro gravitated to engineering, where she excelled academically, landing internships at IBM and other companies before graduating in 2002 with a degree in computer information systems.

Nelly Lizarraga (right), a family support liaison at Cascade Middle School in Seattle, says it’s hard to find role models like Zoila Haro, whom students can identify with.

Hoping to get a job with Microsoft, she moved to Seattle the following year and found herself on the company payroll less than two months later. “It wasn’t as hard as I thought it would be,” admitted Haro, 30. “The hardest part was moving here. Like all major decision in life, it was something I needed to think through.”

Once she started at Microsoft, Haro didn’t waste any time reaching out to others who might benefit from her experience. She takes Latino college students on tours of the Microsoft campus and served as president of the local chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. “She’s really one of our great employee advocates in terms of wanting to touch more students and encouraging them to pursue careers in technology,” said Emily McKeon, a senior diversity marketing manager at Microsoft.

Addressing more than 500 students at Cascade Middle School in October, Haro shared the story of her life and mentioned the teachers who inspired her along the way. Most influential was Commander Petty, the head of the Naval Junior Reserve Officer Training Corp at Haro’s high school, who assured the teen – at that time, an undistinguished student – that anything was possible if she applied herself. “He really painted that picture in my mind of what I could do if I went to college,” Haro said.

She shared that same lesson with the students at Cascade, pointing out that by investing in college and professional development, they could reap rewards far greater than their friends who opt for a new car and low-wage job to pay for it.

The daughter of migrant workers, Zoila Haro, is now a program manager at Microsoft and a role model for women and minorities interested in pursuing technology careers.

Nelly Lizarraga, a family support liaison at Cascade, says it’s difficult to find role models that her students can relate to. “The students were really happy to hear that someone Latina can go from the fields to a big company,” she said. “They were really impressed that she was following her dreams.” They were also impressed, she added, that a huge corporation like Microsoft was interested in hearing what they had to say.

Given the decreasing number of students pursuing degrees in computer science or computer engineering, McKeon says it’s valuable having someone like Haro promoting the profession. “Sending people like Zoila out to be that role model for kids, showing kids that they can do anything and that computer science is a great career, really benefits Microsoft in the long run,” she said.

For her part, Haro says she’s just passing along what others did for her. “Not having members of my family who went to college … I had to rely a lot on the people around me. It was people who took me under their wing and helped me believe I can achieve greatness … that really made the difference. And that’s what I wanted to do for these students. If I can plant that same seed into their hearts … I would feel very fulfilled.”