The path to M'preneurship
It was the year 2000, I was 20 years old. Ready for the new millennium, my life in my hometown Bogota, Colombia, was just perfect. I was halfway through my sophomore year of college, though as often the case in Bogota, I was still living at home with my family. I was lost in love in my first serious relationship. I spent my afternoons horseback riding; I had my own horse and participated in shows almost every weekend. My path ahead seemed quite clear. Naively, I believed eternal happiness was a given.
Colombia has been the scenario for rippling violence for over 50 years. In the 90’s, guerrilla groups such as FARC (Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia) financed themselves in part through extortion and kidnapping. Sometimes they would target specific people, but sometimes they would simply practice “pesca milagrosa.” Named after a party game where children dangle a fishing pole behind a hanging blanket and miraculously capture presents with their hooks, guerrilla would randomly “fish” people for extortion and kidnapping. For example, they pulled vehicles off the road and sifted through their passengers to find suitable victims. Or in a macabre version of a phone prank, guerrilla members would pick random num
-bers off the phone book, and extort people at the other end of the line. In a world where the 7 pm news always included bomb explosions, murders and kidnappings – such call was never a prank and most people receiving them would simply comply with all demands.
For me, however, the guerilla were just TV characters; they seemed completely detached from my reality. Events on the news had the same feel as the latest episode of Law and Order or CSI. Until one day I found my mother hunched over and tense, covering her eyes with one hand, listening intently on the phone. My mother was receiving threatening calls from a FARC front. They wanted money from her, but my mother would not play the game. The threats started escalating. I will never forget the roaring voice on the answering machine “Mrs., if in 6 hours you have not followed our instructions, we will declare you and your family a military objective.”
I had to leave my home country a soon as possible. My family saw this as an opportunity to study abroad. But I had to choose; where in the world did I want to go? Nowhere really. It was not part of my master plan. But I had to pick. Australia, France, or maybe England? It had to happen immediately. I felt numb, overwhelmed. Pushed suddenly out of my home, forced to grow up in an instant.
I transferred to Tulane University. Few institutions were able to accept applications so late in the cycle. Tulane had a close relationship with my former university, and I was welcomed with open arms. Life in the Big Easy did not prove that simple at the beginning. Though I had learned the basics of the English language at school, it was a challenge to actually live and breathe English. At the beginning, I struggled in my classes; I could either listen or take notes, but not both at the same time.
Finding my place on campus took a while. I had never lived away from home, and though familiar with the American culture, some aspects were a bit of revelation. For example, how men and women interact in a very different way. Colombians tend to have a “smaller” personal space than Americans. You even greet people you just meet with a kiss on the cheek. Friends often behave in a way that Americans would consider flirtatious. Many of my male acquaintances were convinced I was hitting on them, even though I just meant to be friendly.
I decided I would make the best of the opportunity to study in the US. In order to gain some research experience, I approached my animal behavior professor. I chose him mostly because he was teaching the only biology class I was taking my first semester, and thus he was the only professor I knew associated with my major of interest. The lab I joined focused on various aspects of sexual selection in spiders. Soon I was deeply absorbed in many projects that took me to the depths of the bayou to examine the sexual behavior of spiders such as the golden orb weaver or the banana spider. These are rather large spiders, that build giant webs of thick, golden silk. While studying them, you had to watch out for protective female alligators that wanted to make sure you stayed away from their nest, ward off hordes of giant mosquitoes (no repellent allowed when you study spiders! It might affect their behavior), and of course make sure you do not step on any cotton mouth moccasin snakes.
The dangers of the bayou did not keep me from falling deeply in love with field research. I soon started working at a second lab, researching functional biology of lizards. Projects with this group took me to exotic field sites such as Cocos Island and Malpelo, an island lost in the middle of the Pacific Ocean where animals don’t fear man and literally climb all over you to check you out. At the end of my stay at Tulane University, I was part of several publications in prominent scientific journals.
I wanted to dedicate my life to learning more about the natural world. So I started a PhD at Princeton University. I traveled to remote areas of the world scouting field sites, attending conferences, or taking field courses. While on campus, I practically lived in the lab researching the genetics of fruit flies. Despite such a busy schedule, I had the time to find true love. Another member of the lab where I worked decided a friend of his was the perfect match for me. I was not interested; I had just broken off a long term relationship and wanted some time to myself. My colleague insisted however, and one evening he convinced me to just go out for a drink at the local pub. After a brief “this is him” encounter that night, my colleague told me that this guy he had introduced me to could not stop talking about me, and was asking for my phone number. He told the same story to his friend: I was totally smitten; here is her number, maybe you should write it down. Neither one of us had said a thing after meeting at the pub. It worked out though: we got married in 2008, our first son was born two years later. Two more sons followed in the next 6 years.
I spent key formative years in the United States. I am part Colombian, part American. Part of me belongs in Bogota, Colombia, where I was raised. Part of me belongs in Bethesda, MD, where I carved a niche and started my own family. I have spent now over a third of my life in the United States. People hear my accent in the US, and often ask where I come from. I get the same question while on vacation in Colombia. Apparently I also have some sort of accent when I speak Spanish. In a way I belong here, I belong there, but I don’t belong in full anywhere.
What would have happened if I had picked a different place to go to college? Or if I had not joined a spider research lab where I had a chance to see a future in biology? If I had not gone out that night and met the love of my life. I would be someone very different. I can’t even fathom who I would be. Probably not as independent or strong. Maybe a little less anxious. I would certainly not lecture my kids (and open mouthed friends) on the incredible, giant spiders hanging out on the bush outside our home. For sure, I would not be breaking the mold as a woman entrepreneur and building an M’panada empire.