Raised in Salinas, Calif., by a single mother of five — a Guatemalan immigrant — who struggled to make ends meet, Oscar Pearson has learned through experience the power of perseverance.
“She raised us all without a high school diploma on a $17,000 salary that she still makes today,” Pearson says. “We were on welfare and food stamps and lived in government-assisted housing for most of my childhood.”
With a desire to build a better life for himself and his family, Pearson attended college at the University of California, Santa Barbara and, until recently, pursued a career in software sales, working at companies including Oracle and Fastly. But, with a penchant for advancement, he made the decision in 2019 to pursue his MBA. Now a member of The Consortium at The Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, Pearson has found his calling in product marketing. Following the completion of an internship with Instagram last summer, he accepted a full-time offer to join the organization following his graduation this May.
Pearson recently shared with us how his experience growing up shaped his outlook on life and how he hopes to serve as an example for people growing up in similar circumstances.
How has your childhood influenced your perspective on life and your career?
Going through what I went through growing up and being able to make it through, I think that everything else in my life has been easy relative to that. And, in a weird way, I’m thankful for growing up in that environment, because I adopted this scrappiness and drive where I looked around and said, “I don’t want the things that my mom has sacrificed to provide for me to be for nothing.” That motivated me a lot growing up, and it continues to motivate me today.
I think now my perspective has shifted a bit. When I was younger, it was more about wanting to make the best of the situation I had and using my disadvantage to my advantage. I wasn’t given the resources or guidance that some other people have; the only thing I could do was work harder. If I was ever going to come up short in life it was never going to be because of a lack of effort. But, over time, it’s become less about me furthering myself and more about me being able to serve as a role model for people like me.
I’m sure there are young people all over the country, all over the world, who are growing up in very similar circumstances to what I grew up in. I know that sometimes, being in that position, you feel hopeless, you feel like there’s no path for you and that no one can really relate to your plight. So, if at least one person who grew up the way that I did can see the things that I’ve done and hear my story and say, “Well, if this person was able to go through this and come out successful, then I can, too,” then that’s huge for me.
Specifically, what challenges have you faced, and how have you overcome them?
Educationally, I had no clue what I was doing. For people in my high school, the reality is that college in Salinas, especially in East Salinas, is not something that’s valued by many. Gaining more clarity around what the process is like was a huge challenge for me. There’s other stuff, too, on a more personal level — not being able to afford certain resources, no tutoring, no academic assistance, nothing like that.
With my early career, it was the same thing. Nobody in my family had ever worked in a white collar job or in a sales role. I’ve had to figure things out on my own. But all I can do is bust my tail and do the best that I can.
When and how did you decide what you wanted out of life, both personally and professionally? Was there a moment in which you realized or was it a culmination?
I think the most private moment I’ve had where I felt a sense of who I was meant to be in the world was when I was back home in Salinas and my UC Santa Barbara diploma came in the mail. I’d just graduated, so I was back home for the summer, and nobody was home except for me. Seeing that gave me this rush of emotions because of everything that had happened before and what I had to battle through to get to that point. I think it was in that moment that I realized, “OK, I’ve come so far, and now I want to keep going further.”
I think the professional part has been more of an odyssey. Personally, I think it’s been a combination of things that’s included having the right mentors. My oldest brother, who’s eight years older than me, has kind of served as a father figure, and I’ve had sports coaches, teachers and other people in my life who’ve helped me realize that I have the potential to go as far as I want in life and helped me [find] my inner strength.
There’s another person, the father of one of my track teammates, who was an African American male and was working in tech in the Bay Area. There was nobody even in my peripheral network who was an African American male who was in that position. So I asked my teammate if I could connect with his father, and he’s continued to be a good advisor to me.
What are your career goals, and what role do you see your MBA playing in that?
I reached this fork in the road where I could either continue down the sales path or pivot to something else. I realized I didn’t want to be in sales forever, so I decided to apply to an MBA program to be able to pivot into something that I was more passionate about, as well as to develop myself as a person.
As far as my career goals, I think that once I was able to go to The Consortium’s Orientation Program & Career Forum (OP) and talk to recruiters and go through the whole interview process, I understood that product marketing would be a good use of my skills. That’s not necessarily the end goal; I think what I really want to do is become either an executive or a subject matter expert on branding. I never thought I’d say that, but as I’ve gone through the process and worked as a product marketing manager, that’s something I really want to do.
Was there something in particular that sparked your decision to get an MBA? What role did The Consortium play in your decision?
I didn’t know what MBA programs were until some of my friends at Oracle were talking about how they were thinking about applying. Then, when I got to Fastly, the chief operating officer was a Kellogg graduate. I got to know him a little bit more and talked to him about the value of an MBA, and I became really interested in doing it — but, it was so intimidating. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more unsure of myself than when I began looking at MBA programs, because you look at average GMAT scores, and these people just seem so polished — and there were so many aspects to the application process. I just felt so behind.
Luckily, one day while at the gym, I noticed a woman with a UC Berkeley Haas water bottle. I asked if she had gotten her MBA there, to which she said yes. After telling her that I was looking to do the same, she recommended I consider applying through The Consortium.
What really set things in stone is when I went to The Consortium MAPS event in San Francisco. The fact that they had alums from each of the member schools talk about how The Consortium helped them, being able to meet the admissions officers, being able to meet other applicants who were also nervous, was just so comforting. I understood so much more about the application process after that MAPS event. Then I looked at this table and it said Dartmouth Tuck, and there was Tuck’s admissions director, Amy Mitson. I went over and spoke to her and loved the connection we had — and now I’m here at Tuck.
How has your experience at Tuck been transformative?
There’s no Consortium member school that seemed more out of my element than the Tuck School at Dartmouth. I came here because I understood that to grow you have to push yourself to the edge — you have to be uncomfortable to grow. I really wanted to chase that growth opportunity knowing that it was going to be hard.
Tuck’s literally as far away from California as you could possibly get. The weather’s different, the demographics are a little bit different, but I wanted that experience. It hasn’t been a total cakewalk, but I think I’ve grown in so many ways in the short amount of time that I’ve been here because I am so out of my element.
Working collaboratively with people who are from entirely different backgrounds than myself and understanding how to work with them is going to serve me so well in the future. I think there’s an aversion sometimes from people who are interested in coming to Tuck that “There’s not a lot of people like me in New Hampshire or Hanover, or at Dartmouth.” It’s going to be that way sometimes. So, I want to be able to develop my ability to navigate those environments.
You connected with Facebook at the OP, which is how you landed your 2020 summer internship with Instagram. Had Facebook been a company you were interested in working at? What was your experience like there?
Facebook was not one of the companies that was initially on my list, but out of curiosity, I went to their company presentation and was blown away. Everybody was so nice, relaxed and fun, so I went to their booth the next day and spoke to them a little more. I interviewed with them, and it was amazing. They flew me out to Menlo Park, and I got to visit the campus there and speak to more people. It was incredible. One of my interviewers, Jon, was actually a product marketing manager at Instagram, and I just hit it off with him. They offered me the opportunity to join Instagram, and I immediately said yes.
Fast forward to the internship; it was remote. It was challenging because I had never done product marketing, and I’d never worked remotely before. But it was fun because it was something that I actually really care about. I ended up receiving a return offer, which was incredibly rewarding because of how far I’d come in just a couple of months. I was able to get an in-hand paper offer, and I accepted it without really even considering applying anywhere else.
How do you hope to help others or to give back to those who have also faced challenging circumstances?
One thing I want to do and that I think you have to do is go back to the community that you came from. I think there’s this vicious cycle where people who are able to make it out of some less-than-great neighborhoods and environments leave and don’t return. So, there are lessons that are lost there. I want to be able to reciprocate that by at least visiting Salinas. I want to start a scholarship fund at my old high school, if I can — something small for a handful of students. I want to have a presence there and not be someone who left and turned his back on his community.
What advice do you have for people who come from a similar background as you or have faced similar challenges?
I think it’s important to understand that there’s an advantage to their disadvantage. Things [may be] hard; there are going to be challenges you’re going to have to overcome at a young age, and you’re going to feel like it’s not fair and that you don’t really have much chance of success. But what I would like younger people in that situation to think about is that the challenges they’re overcoming now are going to serve them so much in the future, because they’re going to have that mental strength, that moxie, that scrappiness and that resourcefulness to be able to address problems that happen later in life. There are times you’re going to fall, but it’s about picking yourself up and continuing to move forward.