I was born in Cuba and left with my parents when I was six years old. When I arrived in America, I didn’t even know how to say “yes”. We stayed at this little hotel in Miami and I remember one of the people working at the hotel was teaching me English. I started school and still didn’t speak much English, but knew I had to learn. It’s like when you’re thrown into a pool and forced to swim so that you don’t drown. Though I was young, what I do remember from our arrival is that people were overwhelmingly welcoming. I felt that people had empathy for us and they sympathized with our struggles. That is so much more powerful than some of the dismissive rhetoric that goes on now in the United States because it gives you as a refugee a sense of loyalty to the country and its people.
After staying in Miami, my family moved to New York where we became U.S. Citizens. My father got a job in Mexico, so that’s where we landed next. I attended Junior and Senior High School there and started my career in Mexico selling cereal out of a truck. I worked my way up over 30 years; it wasn’t easy, but it worked for me. One time, after I had managed Kellogg in Mexico for a while. I was talking to my boss and explained that I had been doing a good job and wanted to get transferred. He responded “Sure, where?” and I said I wanted to go to an Anglo Market. The Anglo Markets were the big, sophisticated cereal markets- UK, USA, Canada, Australia. He kept trying to ask me why I wanted to do that. Why wouldn’t I want to be head of Latin America? Eventually, I understood what he was asking: You really think that a Latino can lead Non-Latinos? This bothered me, but that was the general mindset at the time. If you’re Latin, you lead your Latin people but don’t try to cross markets.
Some other major obstacles I faced growing up were culture and language. A big cultural shock was what kids ate for lunch. I didn’t know what a peanut butter and jelly sandwich was but everybody else had one. Other kids found things we did at home strange, especially when they heard me speak the language with my parents. I’ve seen how these barriers affect the lives of other immigrants and refugees in America. Coming to a new county, you have to get used to a totally new world and over time, you do. The idea that refugees and immigrants don’t assimilate is crazy. It suggests that the people claiming such don’t have confidence in the country and the power of our society.
Later in life, I remember sitting around off-site and discussing work/life balance with colleagues. One guy said, if you want to leave work for a given reason, you’re able to but it’s your responsibility to tell your boss. Right then, it hit me. Even though I had been in the company for twenty years, maybe longer, I never asked my boss if I could take time to attend things like my son’s Little League games because the stereotype of Cubans was that all we wanted to do was play Baseball. So, I never gave myself the luxury of saying “Hey, my kid has a game, I’m leaving.” I probably don’t realize how often I have catered to the misconceptions of others in order to hide these stereotypes.
Starting early in my career, I was given the opportunity to manage the Mexico subsidiary of Kellogg Company and we turned it around. That was my first general management job and it gave my name a little more visibility throughout the company. I would say the biggest accomplishment was really changing the strategy and making the company’s business model viable again because it had the most impact on the people involved. They picked me, so I did what I had to do to achieve that goal. I think success is what gives you a sense of accomplishment. At one time in this country, success itself was measured by money. I don’t think that’s entirely true anymore, though it is one of the factors. The real measure of success is doing something that you love. What made me successful and gave me energy was probably, to be frank, the fear of failure. It’s easy to say that it was the excitement of success, but it was more-so the fear that Americans who didn’t believe this refugee could make it would be proven right. So, if other people in the office worked 12 hours, I worked. This is the drive that helped me become the youngest CEO in Kellogg’s 100-year history.
Refugees growing up must ALWAYS think long-term. The idea is that it’s rough today but 10 or 20 years from now, it’s going to be fine because that’s the future you’re actively working towards. It’s also important that you look at the short-term and figure out what you have to do to get there. So, there may be the struggle of 18-hour days but also the ever-present dream that this is all going to pay-off. In terms of empowering refugees as Americans, what I would tell people is to be kind. You have no idea how far kindness to a refugee goes. Good morning, welcome, how are you, good to see you… Especially in the workplace. Oftentimes, there may be someone who is an immigrant or refugee, documented or not, and when you walk in a room, nobody ever looks at them. It’s like they’re there but they’re not. Since 9/11, this narrative of compassion has gone downhill. Shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eyes, and acknowledging that they’re there can make a world of difference. In work settings, give immigrants opportunities and responsibility but also provide a level of protection because it’s inevitable that not everyone is going to be so kind. I wish we could make everyone think “Oh my gosh, this country actually wants and welcomes me.” Looking back on the impact that kindness, respect, and the feeling that people welcomed me had on myself and my family, I know I want us to have that effect on all refugees.
Currently, I’m Co-Chair of Albright Stonebridge Group, a global business strategy firm. I also sit on boards, councils, committees, and the like. My goal is to make a contribution in the relations between the US and Cuba. I discovered this aspiration when I went back for the Embassy Opening in 2015. I hadn’t returned to Cuba since I first left at age six. Since then, I’ve been back almost 20 times and I can’t get enough. Home is where the heart is, and I know that’s my place of birth. Every time I get off the plane, I feel the sense that I was born there and belong; it just feels natural. It’s a bit of an abstract goal but something I continue to strive for daily.
Author: • Mohamed Malim November 13, 2019