Creating Opportunities, with Ramona Ortega
Episode 36: Creating Opportunities, with Ramona Ortega
Ramona Ortega is the founder and CEO of My Money, My Future. Ramona grew up in Napa, CA; her parents were farmers and didn't go to college. Her career has spanned journalism, cooking, policy and advocacy, corporate law and now entrepreneurship. In this episode Ramona talks about the importance of having your family's support, building your career towards your goal, serving the needs of people of color when it comes to finances, and why financial security is so important for innovation.
00:00 Rachel Griesinger: Welcome to the Ellevate Podcast, conversations with women changing the face of business. And now your host, Kristy Wallace.
00:13 Kristy Wallace: Happy Holidays and welcome to the Ellevate Podcast. I'm so excited you are joining us here today and you're gonna be hearing a fantastic conversation between Ramona Ortega and myself. Ramona's the founder and CEO of My Money, My Future. But before we get there, I'm joined right now, this is Kristy Wallace, and I'm joined by Maricella Herrera. Hi, Maricella.
00:37 Maricella Herrera: Hi, Kristy.
00:38 KW: And Maricella and I are here to say "Happy Holidays" first off. We're really excited.
00:43 MH: Yay.
00:44 KW: Maricella's currently in El Salvador, as you may have heard on the podcast last week, but we're building up to the end of year Ellevate podcast which... Get excited folks, it is gonna be some fun times. We talk to many members of the Ellevate team, we talk about some of the highlights and inspirations from this past year and we look ahead to where we're going in 2017. We're really excited about that. Do you have some fun tidbits, data, insights to share with us?
01:15 MH: I do. Some of the data we have from the Ellevate polls... As you know, every week we poll the Ellevate community on different topics and what I have for you today is, "What's the most important thing for a successful career transition?" What do you think? You're looking. Don't cheat.
01:37 KW: Well, I was gonna give my go to answer which is always wine.
01:40 MH: I would agree with that. Our members said... 32% of our members said it's resilience, and I get it, you have to be able to push yourself to do it. 22% said having a large network to call on, 19% said having financial security before you change paths, so not starving, 11% said being okay with ambiguity, 7%, being sure of what's the next phase for you, 4% said trying it out before you commit to a new thing. Another thing we asked our members is, "How often do you take risks in your career?" 38% said, "Sometimes, when the stakes aren't too high." 36% said, "All the time. More risk, more reward." 21% said, "Rarely. I only take calculated risks. I need to do my research first," and only 2% said, "Not at all. I like to play it safe."
02:36 KW: What category are you in?
02:38 MH: I don't know. I wanna say all the time but honestly I know I'm an over-thinker. How about you?
02:47 KW: I would say when I was younger in my career, so less experience, less confidence, less money, I was pretty conservative but as I have become more experienced, I'm... Definitely become more of a risk-taker and I agree with you, I like the challenge, I like the thrill of high stakes, go for it.
03:10 MH: Yeah, that's...
03:12 KW: Bigger reward or bigger failure but, as we've said on this podcast, failure is not a bad thing. It is a learning experience that you learn a great deal from and move on.
03:22 MH: Absolutely.
03:23 KW: And Ramona's gonna share with us some of her failures but even more successes and she really has a fantastic story to share. We hope you enjoy it as much as we did.
03:46 KW: Thanks so much for joining us.
03:47 Ramona Ortega: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
03:49 KW: Tell us a little bit about yourself, your career, how'd you get to where you are today.
03:53 RO: Wow, that's a long story.
03:56 KW: We wanna hear every detail.
03:57 RO: The good thing is, there's a common thread and that was when I was very little, as a child, I wanted to be a journalist. I want...
04:08 KW: Where did you grow up?
04:09 RO: In Napa, California. My parents were, early on, farm workers in the Napa Valley, then became middle class blue collar workers. And so I really used journalism as this way to pave my path. No one before me had went to college, didn't know much about it. By becoming a part of a lot of these programs, I was able to find my way and see a real pathway to a career, early on. And one of the things that attracted me about journalism was that I could learn a lot about a subject and was able to then quickly translate that into terms that gave me great talking points. I felt I was able to learn a lot about a lot of different things and that's the great thing about journalism. You don't have to be deep into knowledge, into one track, but you can really... Jack of all trades, as you will. And so I started really focusing my early career on that. I left home very early, I was 16, had to make my own way. While I was going to school, and I left school early, ended up doing community college for a year and then transferring to UCLA, along those lines, I also had a whole different career in gourmet cooking.
05:31 KW: What?
05:32 RO: Having lived in the Napa Valley, I accidentally ended up in the kitchen of a chef from Domaine Chandon when I was 16, 17.
05:43 KW: Oh my goodness.
05:44 RO: Yes, it was great. I got this great culinary education by working as a second hand in the kitchen. And that allowed me also to pursue what I was doing and move out and ended up going into the Bay Area, doing community college for one year and then transferring eventually to UCLA. While I was studying and preparing for my transfer, I was also... Had this career in cooking and worked in many great restaurants in the Bay Area. At the same time, I was interested in also writing about food. I was trying to...
06:24 KW: To marry your two loves, journalism and...
06:24 RO: Trying to marry these two loves. And even at that point though, I realize now, looking back, that there was a focus. I wanted to write about why we didn't see more people of color eating in great restaurants. And so clearly, I came from the lens of understanding myself at the center of two different worlds. And especially growing up in the Napa Valley; Napa's wine country. It's elegant, it's got lots of money. But I've always been at that kind of crux in between not having and seeing the haves, and I think that that was something that I really honed in on even in journalism. Looking back though, also I see that it's followed me in everything I've done in terms of my career. To fast forward, I ended up going to UCLA. I majored in English, I was working for the LA Weekly at the time, covering a lot of news. I really liked the policy piece of journalism. Then I ended up working as an intern for 60 Minutes for a producer in LA.
07:33 KW: Oh, wow.
07:35 RO: I sort of was like...
07:36 KW: There you go, yeah.
07:37 RO: Going after that dream. It was great. I had a wonderful time. It allowed me to come up to New York early on during my undergrad years, and I did an internship in New York and fell in love with New York. That's how I eventually came back. I ended up staying in LA, working in journalism, doing some policy work after UCLA, after I graduated, and then got an opportunity to come to New York and work for CBS. That's how I ended up making that transition from journalism and early stages at UCLA to come to New York.
08:16 KW: Wow, there's a lot there. One, you went after the dream and you made it happen. And I think that that's something we all "dream about" but we don't either believe we can achieve it, or we don't know how to go about achieving it. How did you do that? That's phenomenal.
08:37 RO: Because I grew up in a very working class household and everyone around me, I see, was working really hard, but wasn't necessarily seeing the fruits of their labor, I realized that if I put in the work, I hustled hard, opportunities were created. And I think early on I had seen that and I was like, "Oh okay. If I do this, continue on this track, more doors open up." And the options were just so few that I was like, "If I don't do this, I'm not sure what I'm going to do." Even growing up in high school most of the people that I knew either dropped out, they were young mothers, very few went on to college. At that point, I was like... I think there was always this self-fulfilling prophecy that if I just kept my eye on the prize and kept going, that somehow I would get there. And that, at the end of the day, the options that I had and the alternative were just so unappealing that I just kept focused. And I knew that even if I didn't get to that goal, something else would happen. And I think that core also belief in the doing, in the action itself, was really important for me.
10:01 KW: Were your parents supportive?
10:03 RO: Yeah. Absolutely. Not in the traditional sense. I don't think that I grew up in a very traditional household. Nobody went to school before me. I think there was always the sense that if you go to school, something good will happen. That was instilled in me and my mom always supported everything I did in terms of reaching those goals. Was it a [chuckle] peaceful home? Probably not. And I think part of that actually pushed me to get to where I was, was that I knew what I didn't want, to be stuck in. And so having that as a reference point really was important for me. I think that having people around me, my family was super supportive in just saying, "Go do whatever you have to do." And they didn't necessarily know what support I needed. Like I remember, when I went to UCLA, it was a chaotic time in my family, I ended up driving myself in my car from the Bay Area to LA and I ended up staying with some cousins 'cause I didn't have a place to stay at the time. So it wasn't that traditional supportive system but they were supportive in so many other ways and they continue to be. There's no way I would have got to where I am now without that family unit being... The community helps you get to where you need to go.
11:28 KW: You had made mention about when you worked in the restaurant and that not seeing diversity, I guess, people of color within the consumers. And that's a big commentary because if you're gonna go to a big restaurant or an expensive restaurant, you have disposable income that enables that to happen and you're comfortable spending that money on food. What impact did that have on you?
12:02 RO: I think it has to do with the fact that where I grew up, at that intersection of wealth and opportunity, and seeing both sides of... And what we lose when we don't have economic opportunity. And so the issue when I was working in the kitchen was that in the back house, there are a lot of folks of color, a lot of Latinos, especially in California. And although I was still an uncommon figure working on the line, I was actually cooking.
12:37 KW: Were you cooking?
12:37 RO: Yeah. That was rare.
12:40 KW: What station were you on?
12:41 RO: I was on saute for a little while. I did grill. It was a small kitchen. I did everything except pastries. And me, being a young women in the kitchen, is obviously... Is it's own interesting story. But what I realized was that there was something about people coming into a restaurant. It wasn't even the disposable income because I would go out with my friends, and they would spend money. They might go to an Applebee's or they might go to a Red Lobster and they would spend the same kind of money. It wasn't necessarily that the income threshold, but really about, "Oh, I don't understand what's on this menu so I'm not going to spend my money there," or, "I feel uncomfortable there." And interestingly, I actually think that is exactly the same phenomena we see in terms of finance. I always say this in terms of what I'm doing right now in FinTech, "People don't buy what they don't know." That's true with financial products. No one's going to buy a complex financial product if they don't understand what it means to them. They also don't feel comfortable in the world of finance: Folks of color, women, young people. The world of finance is a very uncomfortable place because traditionally we don't see ourselves reflected there. And I think that's the same kind of thing. And so what's interesting though that economics is something that runs through that.
14:14 KW: You went to CBS and then you left CBS?
14:17 RO: Yes.
14:18 KW: And now we're talking about money. Why don't you tell us how do we get to the money conversation?
14:23 RO: Sure. I left CBS partially because I realized that what I wanted to really do was cover news and work on policy, and at CBS, that wasn't necessarily the track that I was...
14:37 KW: What type of policy?
14:38 RO: Public policy, just hard news.
14:42 KW: Like all topics.
14:43 RO: All topics. And I realized that it wasn't... That position wasn't going to allow me to be the kind of print journalist that I wanted to be. And also it was like, "I'm not making much money in journalism," as you know, it doesn't pay very well, and so I started looking around. I ended up at a research institute, doing public policy research, and I became trained as a social science researcher there doing research around welfare reform and education reform at that time. And so, that was a really great, another skill-building set for me, as a researcher, big data sets and understanding survey and analysis and all of those things that are very important to figure out if the kinds of policies that are being put into place are actually changing trajectories. And so, it was great for me to be on the inside of that, because I obviously had a lot of insight, for example, in school reform. I had a lot of insight into what kinds of programs I thought might actually help people get out of poverty. One of the things that I realized about research was that while it's very important at the end of the day, it wasn't a very immediate response. A report can sit on a shelf, be distributed and nothing's ever done. So I think that was frustrating for me. It was, again, pushing me towards something that was more active.
16:12 RO: I ended up going to a... Taking a very big risk and joining a team of non-profit that was doing human rights work, in the context of the US, though. The project was focused on, "How do we hold the US accountable to International Human Rights standards around poverty and race?" Hence, I get into this project. I was doing a lot of research. Long story short, the director left. I was offered the position to be the director and it was just sort of right time, right moment also, where they had just received some funding from Ford to be a part of an international campaign that was going to submit shadow reports to the committees in Geneva regarding the US's progress on certain international human rights standards that the US had actually signed.
17:12 KW: What was... Can you pick one shining moment in that work? Where did you feel the biggest impact?
17:21 RO: The biggest impact is actually after I left and really looking back. And this is collective work 'cause there was sort of a movement at that time to really shift the narrative to human rights, to even saying human right, so housing is a human right, education is a human right. I think people say that now with ease because of the work that was done and I was a part of that work. There was many people that were part of that work, but I think we did shift that narrative. And that, to me, is the thing that I look back at and go, "Wow." We were talking about that kind of work and really trying to figure out how to implement it at the local level. People in San Francisco were doing that. We put together a law in New York City. It ended up not passing, for many political reasons, but the fact that those models were put out there in the world, people are still using them and are still reflecting on them. So, I think that's, to me, success.
18:22 KW: What was the next phase?
18:25 RO: Right. It takes me into the next phase. I remember being in Geneva and there was a committee meeting of development and finance. I was peaking in and gathering materials and I was going, "Man, if we really wanna change the big picture, we have to understand the money." 'Cause if you think about development and finance, that's big world bank money. It's infrastructure, things like water and bridges, and I was going, "Wow. This could be a really interesting next path for me," because I think at that point too, I had spent a number of years doing that work, what was the next thing? And again, I think just 'cause I'm very practical that if we're going to be human rights advocates, we really need to have solutions that understand capital markets, that understand where the money flow is and how to also bridge that gap. I ended up going to law school. I went to Fordham Law. I focused specifically on corporate law because I knew that I needed to do something that was, one, going to provide stability for that next move, but also to give me core skills that would guarantee that I would have a job.
19:40 KW: It just strikes me, the daughter of a farm worker, or farm workers, who is doing policy and advocacy work on human rights access to education and then going to law school. You're starting out in a place that you are then overcoming obstacles to get to opportunities that many don't have access to. It's very inspiring that you did that.
20:11 RO: Yeah. No, I think that at every point in my life, I realized that I'm very fortunate and I have the opportunity to take advantage of whatever is in front of me. So I think about it in that context, that if I let this go, not many people are going to even have this opportunity. Even with law school, you have a ton of self-selection with a lot of young lawyers of color who end up going into non-profit law, immigration law, family law, the social services, a lot of times with this understanding, like, "I wanna help my community." Well, I'm helping my community, really, since undergrad in terms of being active and organizing and advocating. But I also realize if we're not on the other side, we're losing a lot. We need to be everywhere, and in a lot of ways, we really need to penetrate the places we're not. And so that was my goal with law school, was that, "I need to penetrate these places. I need to get this understanding," so that I can then either figure out what I'm going to do with it, with this knowledge about finance, but also how do I really shape a different trajectory for other people so that I can talk about it in a way that I've... And saying, "I've experienced this. I know."
21:37 RO: People, all the time, tell me, "Law school seems so alienating." And it is. It absolutely is. And even as a 30 year old, coming to law school with tons of experience, it's a really weird space. [chuckle] It's a very competitive space anyway. You have a lot of very young and entitled individuals going to law school or business school and you're talking about finance in the classes that I was in. I was generally the only woman of color in the class and then I ended up going... My first year, I interned with a judge, Chief Judge Gonzalez, in bankruptcy in a Southern district. That was interesting 'cause here I was, even in bankruptcy court at the highest levels dealing with Chapter 11 restructurings, even at that level, you also, I didn't see that many women of color litigating. They're nowhere in that room 'cause it was big money. And then ended up going... Doing the summer honors program at the SEC, working in private equity and hedge funds. And again, it was...
22:46 KW: Yeah. And there's still no women.
22:49 RO: At every level. And after law school, I ended up working in securities litigation. It was a boutique firm that worked on class actions and my first case that I was working on was Madoff.
23:01 KW: Wow.
23:02 RO: And then I ended up doing some work on MF Global. I got a really amazing experience on the inside of all things finance. I think when I was at the SEC, I really started thinking about, "Why is it that we're not here?" Even at the hedge fund level, private equity level, you barely see women heading up hedge funds or private equity firms, let alone people of color and we're talking at every level. They're not even as the LPs or the investors. We're not to be found. I'm thinking, going, "Wow! Some of these firms have just massive amounts of money. Where did they get that money?" "Oh, they get that money from pension funds, so CalPERS and those others." "Well, where does CalPERS get their money from?" "Oh, they get it from blue collar workers." These are people that I'm very familiar with, people that...
24:02 RO: My parents ended up being blue collar workers. They worked at the shipyard, a naval shipyard [24:08] ____ before it closed down and then my mother ended up becoming a postal worker. So, these are the pension funds that give money to the hedge funds and the private equity funds that allow these people to make tons of money. And yet the people that are funding it have no connection to this world. Sure, they may benefit in the sense that hopefully their pensions are getting funded, but if you look at issues that were happening in Detroit, for example, their pensions were literally on the bargaining table. And I was thinking about, "Well, how do we actually build wealth?" There's the policy piece, which I've worked on for many years. You're talking about minimum wage, which I support. There's certain kinds of benefits that increase wealth overtime. Those things are important and that's a government responsibility. [25:06] ____ Human Rights Day, right?
25:08 RO: That's a government responsibility, but what is it that we can do? What can we do as a private sector and what can we also do as individuals and as communities? I started looking around at what was out there. I came across, [25:23] ____ and DailyWorth and LearnVest and these products that were emerging in the space called FinTech. And I realized that no one was speaking to the really unique, I think, situation or cultural values, cultural nuances of people of color and money. Because we have this wealth gap that is legacy wealth also and because we have so many barriers to wealth creation, there is different... There's very specific and nuanced issues, I think, that we face when we talk about building wealth. It's not just about how much money you make, but it's about asset-building. I realized that no one was really speaking to that and it left a huge gap in the market. And I think it was at that point that I was like, "Okay, there's an opportunity here." Something just in my gut was like there's an opportunity.
26:25 KW: My Money, My Future. What's the first step someone to do after listening to this podcast? Go to the website, check it out?
26:34 RO: Go to the website and check it out. Mymoneymyfuture.co and we just launched the platform. We say that we're about 30% to 40% a publishing site. We do a lot of digital media, content, and then you can sign up for the platform and the platform is this. The idea is money made simple. Where can I get information in bite-able pieces to take action on things like investment or retirement or insurance or improving my credit score? We give them basically a checklist of information and suggestions on actions to take and then we're able to stay in business because we are an affiliate model like many others, like NerdWallet and Credit Karma and Mint and we work with partners to help curate those financial buys. The products that they do need, they can buy them from our site. We wanna really be a place where people can come to us, they know it's trusted information 'cause we're not necessarily selling them anything. The first thing that they should get value from is the education around whatever it is that they're looking for.
27:45 KW: The last question, your tattoos that I've been looking at. No one else can see them but I can see them and they're beautiful. Tell me about them.
27:54 RO: Wow, [chuckle] so what do you...
27:56 KW: Well, I'll give you some background. I asked 'cause I also have tattoos. I'm a leader in business and I'm always, like... I know why I have them and I'm very happy that I do, but you don't always see other successful professional women with them so we're soulmates and I wanna know more about it.
28:17 RO: Actually, this is a great question because I was obviously in corporate law environment and it was very important for me to always be super-professional and also just being cognizant that I was a woman of color there and just to never to have any unwanted or weird attention my way. But it was very much about covering up even when it was hot. I always had long-sleeved shirts and dressing appropriately for the occasion and one of the great things about starting the company was that I was like, "You know what? I can basically wear whatever I want now and I don't have to necessarily cover up," because it's kinda edgy. I'm in tech.
29:04 KW: You're a start up now.
29:05 RO: I'm a start up. I cut my hair. It was really liberating in some ways to kinda be my full person and sometimes I still, depending on where I'm going...
29:17 KW: We express our identities in so many ways and it's unfortunate because many of those ways we feel limited in.
29:24 RO: That's right. And so these tattoos... So one arm says justice, the other is libertad, which means freedom. It's interesting, I got these a long time ago and I always said, "I'm going to get these two and then once I'm at a place of peace, I'm gonna put 'paz' here," 'cause it's like when you have justice and you have freedom, you have peace. It's something that I think that even in the work that I'm doing now, I don't care about people being wealthy to have bling. I want people to be able to have opportunity. I don't want people to be struggling so that they're not the next innovators. If you don't have a safety net, if you're not able to be financially secure, you're not thinking about building the next company. You're not necessarily going to be in the innovation economy. For me, it's about creating opportunity and to change the disparities and this is core. This is the last piece of that human rights evolution, which is the economics piece.
30:40 KW: Thanks so much for listening to Ellevate. If you like what you hear, help a girl out. Subscribe to the Ellevate podcast on iTunes. Give us five stars and share your review. Also don't forget to follow us on Twitter @EllevateNtwk, that's Ellevate Network, and become a member. You can learn all about membership and all the great things that Ellevate Network is doing at our website, www.ellevatenetwork.com. That's E-L-L-E-V-A-T-E network dot com. And special thanks to our producer, Katharine Heller. She rocks and to our voice over artist, Rachel Griesinger. Thanks so much and join us next week.
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