Jesse Meza may not have had the same opportunities as other kids growing up, but he’s never let that stop him from going after what he wants.
Raised by a single mother on Houston’s north side, in a neighborhood riddled by poverty, crime and drug addiction, Meza found it difficult to stay out of trouble. Basketball, he thought, provided a way out. But, following an injury, Meza realized that if he wanted to escape his circumstances, he would have to redirect his efforts.
In education, he found hope.
By refocusing his time and energy, Meza was able to gain admission to The University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin), where he studied advertising, and ended up becoming the first person in his family to graduate from college. After working in the advertising industry in New York City for several years, he decided to change directions. Meza is now pursuing his MBA as a Consortium fellow at UCLA Anderson School of Management, where he remains heavily involved on campus, serving as the Anderson Student Association’s (MBA student government) vice president of EDI for the class of 2022 and co-president of The Alliance of LatinX Management Association.
Meza recently shared with us how his experiences growing up instilled in him a passion for improving access to education for other disadvantaged youth, how he’s working to provide those opportunities through his nonprofit, and where he hopes to go next in his career.
What was your childhood like, and how did it affect your perspective on life and its trajectory?
When I think about my youth, I think about poverty and the effect it had on me. It often felt as though I was there because I was supposed to be there, but I eventually came to understand that not all poverty is self-induced; it’s also a result of the capitalistic system we live in. There’s a reason why poor people stay poor. That realization instilled in me a lot of empathy toward others who are disadvantaged in our society.
It definitely wasn’t the prettiest childhood. There were a lot of hardships. I remember during the winters, my mom and I would cover the windows in cardboard. I thought of it as a fun winter activity, but the reason we did that was because we didn’t have heat.
Growing up, I didn’t really think about education. I didn’t think about where I was going to go with my life for a long time. I just fell into what I saw around me, which was selling or using drugs because that was the norm. When I was 17 years old, I fell for a sting operation set up by the Houston Police Department and was charged with burglary of a vehicle. It sucked, but it was the biggest blessing and catalyst I could’ve hoped for. When I went to jail, a switch flipped in my mind. I realized I didn’t have a lot of people to ask for help and that the only real way that I could see to get out of my zip code was through education.
So, when I did go back to school, my senior year of high school, I focused as much as I could on my education. I was working full time at Taco Bell during my last year in school and trying to manage probation. I started to go down the college route. I wrote my application essay for UT one day when I was working the drive thru at Taco Bell — and I was blessed enough to be admitted.
Being a first-generation American, as well as a first-generation high school and college student, growing up in the neighborhood that you did, what challenges did you face — particularly with regard to education? How did you overcome those?
My first challenge was the language barrier because I didn’t understand English well enough to learn until I was 10 or 11. I was in ESL classes until I was in the fifth grade. I didn’t grasp certain terms, and I ended up having a pretty bad stutter. I couldn’t say certain words in either language, so the school ended up classifying me as special ed and put me in separate classes. There were so many things going on and I didn’t feel like any of them were explained to me. It made it hard to focus or find interest.
I didn’t overcome my language barrier or ability to focus in class until I reached middle school. That really came from getting more comfortable with the things we were reading and talking about. My friend groups also changed throughout those middle school years. My mom put me in gifted classes, and the students I was surrounded by were actually talking about school versus skipping it. It made it a lot more interesting to me, and I think I learned a lot more from them than I did from my teachers.
When did you start to notice or develop an interest in advertising?
I originally had an interest in finance and building companies. When I got to UT Austin, I was majoring in finance, but I realized that being in finance meant that you had a very strict code with regard to the way people interact with one another, so I decided to pursue advertising instead. I just felt like it fit my personality a lot better. I felt like I could express myself a lot more but still continue to have an interest in how to build a business, brand or product.
So what inspired you to shift course and pursue your MBA?
Well, to take a step back, when I was in high school, it was really hard to get a job, especially when I ended up on probation. They wouldn’t even consider me to be a grocer at Kroger. But once I got my high school diploma, that changed. There was this whole other level of opportunities. And once I got accepted to UT, I felt like there was no way I could ever stop at just one degree. Why would I limit myself to one degree when the doors of opportunity had just opened for me and, therefore, my family?
After about five years in the ad industry, it was time. I always knew it was just a matter of time, but I finally felt like I hit a certain threshold in my advertising career where I felt I would be better served doing something else. I wasn’t doing bad in advertising; it was just no longer as fulfilling. I feel like that just comes with reaching middle management, from being limited by how people are willing to put brands out there. Especially prior to last year, prior to Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, there was a lot of fear around equity and diversity; I really wanted to be a part of that change, but I couldn’t do that in the ad industry. I wanted to get my MBA so that I could move into a different sector in a different industry and be able to actually use my voice to create positive change.
What are your career aspirations, and how do you think an MBA will help you get where you want to be?
CPG brand management — and my MBA has already helped me to get there. These two years of investing in the MBA have built up my network to move into my second and third job post-MBA, because I know wherever I go to work in brand management won’t be my last job. I am so happy to be here because I can already see my goals coming to fruition. I’ve actually accepted a brand management internship at Procter & Gamble for the summer.
What has your experience been like thus far in your MBA program, and what are you looking forward to?
There are a few things I’m really looking forward to. I think the first one is getting to know a lot of the people in my class. There are some really cool people, and I’m looking forward to building more friendships. The second thing is there are just so many cool classes. I want to take some undergraduate courses and possibly some policy and real estate courses. I love learning, and I think those topics are all applicable in different ways.
The last thing that I’m really looking forward to, because I’ve spent a lot of time on it while I’ve been here, is building out more diversity, more pipeline programs. One of my goals in life — wherever I am and whatever I’m doing — is to build more equitable spaces for people. I love building programs like the one that’s coming to fruition on May 14, Dialogue on Equity by Anderson.
When did your interest in and focus on diversity and inclusion begin, and why is it so important to you?
My interest began as soon as I felt I had a voice to empower others. I started mentoring others as soon as I could while at UT Austin, and during my first year there, I visited my high school twice to speak to students about the college experience.
I feel like there are a lot of people who aren’t always given the resources or opportunities to be able to create the lives they want, but it doesn’t mean they don’t have the potential. They just need a guide and some coaching, and they could do so many cool things. I want to do that as much as I can for as many people as I can, regardless of my line of work.
You have already been helping young people from similar backgrounds as you through your nonprofit. So, what led you to create the organization and what does it do?
I started a nonprofit to support the students in my high school because I feel like they’re very underserved in that district — and sometimes by the high school itself. I realized there were not a lot of people at UT who looked like me, and there were definitely not a lot of people who look like me who are comfortable making some of the decisions that I’m making.
Once I felt I had enough experience, I started putting together a plan to create a nonprofit. A few friends and I put together a board, and we give out scholarships and provide internships once a year. That’s the goal for the time being. I want to see it continue to grow and to provide more opportunities to some of these students who very often haven’t been exposed to much outside of that high school zip code.
Ultimately, how do you hope to make an impact?
The lack of opportunity and resources to get into business school isn’t just a challenge when we apply to business schools; it’s a challenge many of us face our entire lives as we enter different rooms, as we enter middle management, as we advance in our careers. I think those of us who have had marginalized life experiences have a lot more power than what we’re told we have, and I would love to empower others to be the difference they want to see.