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By My Own Bootstraps

28 December 2017 Written by  By Nilton Serva
Published in January 2018 Articles

I was born in Rexburg, Idaho, lived in the town of Preston, and I had fun playing ball in empty lots during the summer and especially riding bikes around the small town with my friends.

We played in the snow during the winter and were outside most of the time. My father and I were close; he would sometimes play catch with my two older brothers and me. The town of Preston was an amazingly insular society. Our father was Peruvian, so we had tan complexions and were almost the only people we knew who weren’t pure Caucasian. 

Our father was incarcerated when I was five years old. Without a steady income, Mom fell behind on the bills and when I was nine we moved to Antioch and lived with my Uncle Freddie. The transition from the backwater village of Preston, Idaho to the relatively urban city of Antioch, California was enormous. It was the first time I ever saw an African American. I greatly appreciated the ethnic diversity. 

My siblings and I finally fit into society. We were living in a Section 8 house in one of the projects, called Hudson Townhouse Manor, which was by Somersville Town Center. My life got onto a downward trajectory. I got involved with a street gang, began dealing drugs, and dropped out of school in my freshman year. The fact is, I was a bright kid and enjoyed learning, so I cleaned up my act and returned in my sophomore year. When I enrolled, my GPA was an effective zero, but I applied myself, got almost all A’s and B’s, and by the end of the year had raised my GPA to 3.4. In the CAHSEE exam my English score was a respectable 390 out of 450, but in Math I was one of the few people to score a perfect 450 out of 450, which was remarkable since I had only taken a single Algebra class.

In 11th grade I had an unfortunate altercation with the police. They were after someone else but I got involved in the incident. They tackled me and injured me to the point that I nearly lost my vision in one eye. I couldn’t see well when I returned to school. I had been shaken by the incident, lost interest in my studies, and a month later was involved in a residential robbery incident. I was arrested and sent to Juvenile Hall in Martinez. They booked me, and sent me to the Pine Unit, which was for older and more hardened young criminals. 

I was incarcerated on October 9, 2014. In December I was sentenced to a six-month program at the Byron Boys Ranch. It was difficult being away from my family. I spent most of my time working out. I lost weight and gained muscle. During those months I was disconnected from my family except for my mom who would visit me during the Sunday visitation hours. They were not cheerful visits. After what happened to her husband, it was difficult for her to accept her son being in a lock-up. She told me that if I ever ended up back there, she would never visit me again. 

I was released on April 18. I had not been reformed during my incarceration. I filled out some job applications but nobody wanted to hire a guy fresh out of Juvie. My family and I had struggled all our lives; I was angry at our situation and imagined that criminal activity would be the only way to improve my lot in life. I was released in April, but in July I was riding with “my boys” and we were pulled over for a tail light problem. The officer saw that I was intoxicated and out past my curfew. Nothing happened for four months and I imagined the situation had been dropped, but in October I got a letter ordering me to appear in court. The appearance was scheduled for November 16, but during the interval I was placed under house-arrest and forced to wear an ankle monitor. 

I was hoping to get off with a slap on the wrist but they labeled me as having gang connections, and I was ordered back to Byron for another six months. My gang affiliation status made life a little more difficult, since I wasn’t allowed to hang out with other suspected gang members, which was most of the guys there. 

There wasn’t much to do except to go back to my workout schedule and to read. Everything changed when I read Robert Kiyosaki’s “Personal Guide to Wealth Management” called Rich Dad; Poor Dad. The book opened my mind and I realized that my passion and calling was to become an entrepreneur. 

I read every business and personal development book in the facility’s library. I began making notes about things I wanted to remember. We didn’t have internet, so I compiled a list of the websites I would visit as soon as I got out and the words and terms I needed to learn. I got a dictionary. 

I was released on March 2016 and immediately enrolled in Live Oak Continuation High School and earned my diploma. Mom said I could live with her for two months but then had to get out. I compiled a résumé and filled out job applications but just like the first time, nobody called back. Finally, I landed a job with Costco and moved out of my mom’s house the week I was hired, which was only one month into the two Mom gave me. I actually paid rent to live in a room with my girlfriend’s family. 

I enrolled at Los Medanos College and placed in college level English and Math. I signed up for two summer classes, Political Science and Astronomy. Every day I would attend class from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. and then work at Costco from 4:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m. I would then go to my room  and do homework until 4:00 a.m., sleep three hours, and then go back to class. College was a challenge. I remember being assigned to write a five-page essay, which was the first time I ever wrote more than a single page about anything. 

My schedule was insane but I was a man on a mission and got a 4.0 GPA. In the fall I enrolled as a business major and took four more classes while working part-time and got three A’s and one B. I wasn’t focused on academics alone, but joined the honors program, the computer science club, became a senator in the LMCAS student government, and organized the first Los Medanos College Business Club. I was also attending every business and technology networking event I could find. I enrolled in the “Startup Weekend, Latinx Tech Edition,” which is a Shark Week-type competition. I enlisted other students to join with me in developing my idea of creating a mentorship platform for at risk Latinx youth. By the time we pitched the idea at Oakland’s Kapor Center for Social Impact we had the largest group in the competition. We were given 54 hours to put together a platform prototype — from Friday evening, all day Saturday, and then making the pitch on Sunday night. Mitch Kapor, himself, was one of the judges. We competed against ten teams and earned Third Place honors. It seemed amazing that a team of Antioch young people could succeed against youth from the big city. 

When spring semester came around I again took the full load of four classes while still working at Costco. I became involved in technology, attended Silicon Valley networking events, and switched to a Computer Science major. My grades remained high and I continued in my student government role. 

Last January, just before winter semester began, I attended a CWA Youth@Work Conference. I was participating through a “reset program” designed for young people on probation by a non-profit organization called BACR. They awarded me a $1,000 scholarship, and at the awards ceremony Arel Moodie gave some advice for preparing ourselves for success. “Never let anyone outwork you,” he said. I took that to heart. It encouraged me to continue moving forward. On the last day I received my award and had a chance to deliver my first speech. I told them my story and got a standing ovation. 

My success with that speech made me think about becoming a motivational speaker. During my spring semester I did a lot of speaking at BACR and Workforce Development events. I videotaped my speeches and posted them on my own YouTube channel. 

Last April I quit Costco in order to create a start-up digital media company called Servamedia. A month later I invited my two brothers George and Dean to join me in the adventure. 

George brought with him some experience from his own Silicon Valley start-up. We engage in digital marketing and originating creative content. One of our first projects was creating a video for the Renaissance Entrepreneurship Center in Richmond. We continue doing digital marketing, content creation, branding, and website development. 

During spring semester I was invited to present my research at Stanford for an Honors Symposium called “Latinx in Entrepreneurship.” I interviewed a few Latinx entrepreneurs about what was working and not working for them. 

During the summer I spent 16 to 18 hours a day working the business, attending classes, and meetings. Schooling has been a big factor, but my brothers and I have mastered the most important skills including business practices, videography, and computer science by teaching ourselves. We bought a membership with Skillshare, which is a site where practitioners teach learners. We’ve had initial conversations with venture capital groups and are laying a sure foundation upon which we can build something big and wonderful when we are ready for investors. 

During the year-and-a-half since my release from the Byron Boys Ranch my life has illustrated the fact that each of us creates our own realities, and I’m having a wonderful time living in the new reality that I have been creating. I’m excited and motivated by the fact that, even though the future is uncertain in its details, I’m anticipating that it will be wonderful. For one thing, I recently learned that my girlfriend, Maria Fernanda Corea Sandoval, is pregnant, and I’m looking forward to parenthood with great enthusiasm. 

Life is good. The members of my family are fine. I keep in regular touch with my mother over the phone. My brothers and I put her through hell and it seems wonderful that she can now relax and enjoy life, including the fact that next July she is going to be a grandma. 

Last November I delivered the first speech for Los Medanos College’s new role as a Ted Talk site. It was the first Ted Talk delivered in Contra Costa County. My subject was “How Entrepreneurship Saved My Life.” I described how I lifted myself by my own bootstraps. 

My life is overflowing with wonderful people who contribute to my success but in the end, we are responsible for the things that happen to us, whether good or bad. So we might as well be good and do good. Anyone can discover what they were put here for and then pursue that purpose with energy and hope so they can shape their lives and their world into something worthwhile and satisfying. 

As I said, anyone can do that. Look at what I did.

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