I met Laura Gomez on June 29 in the basement of the Laundry Cafe in the Mission District. I was at an immigrant pop-up experience organized by “I Am An Immigrant.” Gomez was a panelist on the immigration and technology panel, and as soon as I heard her speak, I was captivated. She is the CEO of Atipica, a startup venture that applies artificial intelligence and big data methodologies to “understand how people move through recruiting.”
Gomez arrived in the United States from Mexico, without a legal visa, as a child. Her story, as it unfolded during the discussion, broke every stereotype and barrier about undocumented immigrants.
During the event, San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee said he loves when tech communities and immigrant communities come together, and “their workforce is part of our workforce; when our city is part of their city; and we’re working together to make sure that we stand up for immigrants.”
Indeed, Mayor Lee may have been referring to Gomez with his remarks.
“I’m an entrepreneur — first and foremost, I’m a founder of talent, and I think that’s so important that people see a different face of undocumented America, when they see me,” Gomez told the audience to much applause. Atipica currently has 10 employees, which Gomez hopes to expand to 20 by the end of the year.
Gomez started Atipica two-and-a-half years ago, raised $2 million in seed funding in October 2016 and is currently raising another round of capital. “I believe it’s the only company started by an undocumented woman of color in Silicon Valley that’s raised that much money,” she said.
Gomez is a lovely woman with long, flowing black hair and eyes that animate her conversation. It’s not unsurprising that she gets plenty of male interest. “I got proposed to last night,” she revealed, laughing uninhibitedly. She was at a speaking event in Chicago when a man came up and “jokingly” asked her to marry him. Regardless, she remains singularly focused on her passion to make change and create a legacy.
Gomez’s parents came to the U.S. legally under a Reagan administration immigration program. They started their lives in the Bay Area, but soon after, Gomez’ mother, who was in her mid-20s, was diagnosed with cancer and told that it was unlikely that she would survive. She wanted her children with her as she confronted the disease, so Gomez’s mother applied for visas for her four children who were still living in Guanajuato in Central Mexico.
The visa applications for the children were rejected. Desperate and taking matters in her hand, Gomez’s mother paid a “coyote” to bring her children across the border into Los Angeles. At the time, according to Gomez, the going rate was about $2,000 per child.
“I don’t remember exactly, but it was either July or August, and it was really hot,” Gomez said, describing the journey. She was 9 years old at the time and was packed into the backseat of a car — only the car didn’t have any seats. Gomez recalled sitting on metal. “It was very hot — hot enough that the metal from the car burnt me,” she said. The journey began in Tijuana and ended in Los Angeles and it took somewhere between six and eight hours. Gomez and her siblings were finally picked up by their uncle from a house in Los Angeles, where other immigrants also waited to be picked up.
“I think of it like was this a movie. Was this real? No, it was real,” Gomez said, shaking her head.
Happily, Gomez’s mother survived cancer and lives a block away from her daughter today.
Gomez grew up at a time when Pete Wilson was the Governor of California, and his adversarial stance on immigration took a toll on her. “[Wilson] wanted to deny health care and education to any undocumented immigrant. And I grew up during that time. I grew up fearful for my life, fearful for when I was sick to go to the hospital,” she said. As a child, Gomez remembers being terrified La Migra would come to her school to take her away and she often begged her mother to stay home.
We, as a nation of immigrants, must realize the contributions of immigrants, Mayor Lee said. “As the son of immigrants, I recognize that very clearly. I know how hard immigrants work. I know they want the best schools. They want their kids to go to school. I know they just want to participate equally.”
And Gomez epitomizes The City’s ethos. A big believer in public education, Gomez went to public schools, and when it came time for college, she chose a public institution. “I chose Berkeley over Stanford and Harvard, so everything that the current administration thinks that doesn’t work … I am a product of it. I am a product of immigration and public education and successful,” she said.
Gomez made the transition in documentation status when she was in college, and the process was enabled by the help she received at a community center. These volunteers spend their free time helping undocumented immigrants navigate the intimidating application process of legalization. “[T]hey don’t go unnoticed. I don’t know their voices, I don’t know their names, but all I know is their impact,” Gomez said.
“[W]hat’s happening right now is extremely devastating in so many levels to a lot of families,” Gomez concluded, her face reflecting traces of her own journey in America from scared kid to confident speaker, technology leader and fearless entrepreneur. And she has done this despite being a woman, a person of color and being undocumented.
Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.