Unapologetic

Judith Pérez Caro

Success is when you can marry your values with your goals and feel proud of them.

Washington, DC

Puerto Rican; PhD; First-Generation, Low-Income College Graduate; Native New Yorker; Wife; Caregiver; Business Partner

I don’t take anything for granted or feel like any connection with anyone is a coincidence.  Of all the people I collaborated with, no one has ever said, “Do you want to go into business with me?” except for my friend Ben. He has a relentless drive and entrepreneurial mind; he’s a businessperson. He saw an opportunity to create something. Since we formed our business, Perez & Cheng, we have been hired by corporations, nonprofits, and military-connected organizations as diversity consultants, and we’re thriving. We’re bridging this work in the business, law, non-profit, and education spaces. Together, we combine over 25 years of leadership experience to empower our clients with tools for their ongoing capacity building to seamlessly reduce bias and integrate equitable business practices.

When you first asked to interview me, I had imposter syndrome.  I’m like, I’m not an entrepreneur!  I just started this thing; it’s an extension of my work.  But I have an entrepreneurial drive and spirit. For me, it comes from being a first generation and low income college graduate.  You have to be bold.  You have to be brave.  You have to be courageous.  And you have to take risks.  

Part of my wellbeing is recognizing the power and privilege that I have, which is hard for someone who was raised to believe that they do not have any power and privilege.  I have both right now.

I’m a third generation New Yorker.  I was born and raised in The Bronx.  My parents came from Puerto Rico as babies….my grandparents on both sides came in the 1930s and 1940s.  

My mother is a Puerto Rican woman with hazel/green eyes and when I was younger, she had dyed blonde hair. People often thought of her as a white woman. But the minute they learned that she was Puerto Rican, they treated her differently.  And my father is undeniably a person of color.  He’s so brown he’s almost red.

JUDITH CARO (1)My parents said that New York was very much like West Side Story when they were growing up. They treated Puerto Ricans the way they did in that movie.  So my parents very quickly learned that to speak Spanish in public was seen as a handicap.  They went to school during a time where they were constantly being told “Speak English! English Only!” I think they carried that trauma into their marriage. I grew up without speaking Spanish, and it has been a deficit for me. People assume I speak Spanish, assume I’m bilingual.  I think a part of it is the trauma and shame that my parents carried with them from the discrimination and harassment they received as they were coming of age in New York City. 

I’m a Nuyorican: a New York Puerto Rican. I’m very Puerto Rican in my affect, in how I carry myself.  I listen to and love to dance to salsa music, even though I don’t know what they’re saying! I know how to make the food and cook it well.  We make pastelitos, have the guava and cheese, and the coquito.  

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But I also grew up eating Matzoh Ball soup, putting dreidels on my Christmas tree, and saying prayers in Hebrew.  I lived in a neighborhood with lots of Jewish families. I also have handed down recipes for collard greens, fried chicken, and mac and cheese.  My mother learned how to make that from her Southern-born African American godmother who raised her.  And my best childhood friend’s family was from India.  So I would go into her home, and they only ate vegetarian food and adhered to very specific customs that I personally follow to this day.

I went to a Jewish-run day camp and sleep-away camp for many years.  I also went to Catholic school my whole life, so I’m this Brown, Puerto Rican, chubby Catholic kid going to these Jewish summer camps.  My experience growing up is a combination of Jewish New York, African American and Caribbean Black New York, and the Puerto Rican diaspora, and a bunch of other things in between. Simply put, I’m a New Yorker.  

While I am the first person within my immediate family to get a college degree, I had this older cousin, Cely, who had her master’s degree, was a social worker, and became an entrepreneur. She became a psychotherapist out of her home.  She did it for the most part while she was a single parent.  My mother had to function like a single parent too after my parents divorced.  My godmother, Provi, also divorced, was a bad-ass woman and became a VP of a bank and earned her associates degree as an adult.  She was very helpful to me and my mom, especially financially. So, I watched these women in my life do things on their own.  

My family growing up really was an extension of people who became family. My mom had a small but really good group of friends.  As a kid, I didn’t realize how generous they were. My mother’s best friend, Gigi, also helped pay for my private, Catholic high school tuition – around that time my father moved away and was not present in my life. So these women stepped up. I mean, who does that? These are the kinds of loyal, amazing women I grew up with.  

I watched adults be there for each other, even when they weren’t blood relatives. So I take friendship really seriously.  I treat it very preciously.  I would say that it taught me how to be a good friend, a good colleague, a good person to others, and a good wife. I also have a loyal, small friend group like my mother had, who love and support me.

I grew up in The Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s during a time where NYC was dealing with the crack epidemic.  Our family got hit by crack, cocaine, real hard drugs, and then the AIDS epidemic, back-to-back.  So by the time I graduated from high school, I had seen a lot of things that kids – if they’re sheltered – don’t see.  A lot of heartache and shame and sadness and danger and violence.  Due to all the chaos around me, I wasn’t a very good student in school.  No one thought I would go to college. There weren’t very many expectations of Puerto Rican girls like me back then.  

Growing up, I always felt like a misfit, always a little different, so the angst era of post-punk music spoke to me.  I discovered post-punk and new wave musicians like Depeche Mode, The Cure, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. These people were weird and funky and “on the margins,” and their music helped me feel accepted.  I loved how these artists weren’t afraid to sit with the dark; with the reality that things are not rosy all the time. 

By the time I got to college I was ready to be serious and studious.  I got into a small, Jesuit, predominantly white institution in upstate New York – Canisius College.  I became a student leader there.  I spoke at my graduation commencement. I studied abroad twice.  I thrived.  And part of it is because I had endured so much at such a young age, and I knew how to function without my parents.  

When I left my home and went away to college, I didn’t realize how unique my upbringing really was. I took for granted a lot of things. Like, the white people I grew up with had a little bit of soul.  They were sassy.  You never mess with the Italian girls.  The Jewish kids were funny as hell.  The Irish kids were first-generation Americans and were loyal.  These kids had seen some sh*t and could hold their own.  But these college kids were different kinds of white people.  So I felt very out of place. 

JUDITH CARO (3) (1)I think realizing that I was a minority didn’t really hit me until I got to college. My identity development became very much tied to my ethnicity and my upbringing.  Being a Latina, we don’t have a particular race.  My mother is a white Latina. My father, he looks indigenous.  I knew I was a person of color, a minority.  But I really felt like I needed to claim my identity as I grew older.  

I had gotten so used to seeing myself as a minority, because it was clear that I wasn’t white.  I was Puerto Rican, but I didn’t speak Spanish.  I was Latina.  I was urban and grew up in the Hip-Hop era.  I understood and was very comfortable in Black culture. I have Black family members, but I knew I wasn’t a Black American.  I was getting clearer about that.

I studied abroad in London, and that’s where I really struggled with my identity.  In London, people looked at me and said, “You’re American.”  But then, the Americans in London are like, “No you’re not.  You don’t look like us.”  Sociologists call it this in-between status of neither being accepted in this culture or that culture. You’re never really accepted anywhere.  That’s how I felt; that’s how I still feel. Like an outsider.

So there’s a burgeoning awareness around my class identity, my racial identity, my ethnic identity, my nationality, and my place as a person in a society.  This is all coming out in my early 20s.  And that’s when I think my sociological imagination was really born.  

Right out of high school I had this job at a bank on Wall Street.  From the ages of 17 to 29, I worked on and off on Wall Street. Most people start in their 20s, after college, when they’re going to work in the financial industry.  Getting a job on Wall Street was very hard and very competitive.  

I left the bank when I was 23 to attend Columbia University Teachers College to get my master’s degree, and decided to go full time.  I couldn’t believe I got into Columbia. Like I said, I’m the first in my immediate family to get a college degree. It was something that I could not have ever imagined would happen.  But it did.  And then I got a scholarship and an assistantship, where I could live on campus.  

I was completely immersed in the life of the university.  That year changed my life.  It changed the quality of people in my life.  It changed the opportunities that were available to me in my life.  I saw doors open for me that had not been open before.  

I met another Puerto Rican student in my program, and we instantly became best friends.  Through him I met his sisters, and he was the kind of person that if you meet him and he vets you, the whole family vets you: “Jon Jon says you’re ok, then you’re family.”  His whole family just adopted me.  His eldest sister, Jodie, a powerhouse JD/PhD, introduced me to one of her friends, Jose Luis, who was a chairperson of a department at a local college in the City University of New York system.  

Jose Luis started coming to these networking events that I used to host.  He’s older, also Puerto Rican; we used to call him “the Professor.”  He said, “I’m the chair of this department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.  We’re looking for an instructor for this course, and I think you could teach it.  Do you want more information?” It’s all about networking.  This is what I’ve learned.  I was able to get an adjunct professorship at 28 years old, teaching a course on Latino history and culture, through this department.  And the “Professor” became one of my mentors.  

Through Jodie and Jose-Luis’s encouragement, I started seriously considering PhD programs.  I got into Fordham University’s Sociology PhD program on a Presidential Scholarship.  While I was at Fordham, I was still teaching at CUNY.  I taught in that department for six years.  I met my husband, Howard, there, who was a doctoral student at the CUNY Graduate Center.  He was hired by Jodie to do research and was hired by Jose Luis to teach a class.  That was their thing: “We need more people that look like you/us in front of the classroom.” As we still do. There were so few Latino PhDs.  We still make up less than 2% of the professoriate and the doctorate.  

I moved to DC in 2010. I came to complete a graduate public policy fellowship through the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and finish out my dissertation with the intention of going back home.  I am a New Yorker.  I can’t believe I left.  Home is a very formative part of my identity.  But I never went back.  

I didn’t have a network here in DC, but I had to get a job.  I had to create a network and do the things that people in academia do not do.  I started cold calling different academic departments.  My dissertation advisors were like, “You don’t do that, that’s rude.”  I said, well you’re not going to pay my loans, you’re not going to pay my bills. I didn’t come here as a little kid.  I moved here when I was 36.  And I’m going to cold call departments.  

A sociology department responded. The chair of that department called me in for an interview, but by that time I had landed another job.  You know what I did?  This is being a New Yorker.  I brought Howard’s resume to that interview because I already had a job.  I said, “Actually, I don’t need a job, but my fiancé does. He’s also a sociology doctoral student.”  And guess what?  They hired Howard to teach a class! They couldn’t believe

 that I had the nerve to cold call, come in for an interview, and interview for Howard!  

I put myself out there, landed the gig for Howard.  Then I networked and ended up getting a visiting professorship at Catholic University.  Howard ended up getting a visiting professorship that same year at Georgetown University.  I cannot overestimate how hard it is for an academic couple to get jobs in the same city, let alone visiting professorships, at the same time.  We both landed it.  

Remember, I’m first gen, low income.  I had been taught to not believe in myself. To question my abilities.  But when I think back to how I hustled- how entrepreneurial is that?  I didn’t know anyone here.  And everyone was telling me, “You can’t do this or that here.”  And I’m like, F*** you!  You’re not paying my bills.  I’m doing it.  I did it. And here we are, 12 years later still living in DC.  We have our careers on track.  We’re both making good money.  From nothing, you create something. 

Growing up in New York, I think it is not a surprise to me now that I specialize in diversity work.  I think especially because I had this unique perspective on different cultures and class backgrounds, and even regional backgrounds growing up.  

I co-founded a diversity consulting firm in Washington, DC – Pérez & Cheng – with a work colleague, Ben Cheng.  He and I worked on a project together at Georgetown Law.  I was asked to create a diversity module for a legal executive education program.  So we embark on this project.  We executed it well. It was received well.  We really worked well together.

People had started asking me to do diversity-related consulting work for them around that time.  I would decline the requests because I had this big, full-time job at the law school.  Ben said, “Well, if another company comes to you, I’d be willing to do that with you because it wouldn’t be that hard to create a business…I would like to do this with you.” 

I have to give Ben a lot of the credit for creating Pérez & Cheng. We named our firm Pérez & Cheng because we are a unique combo in the DEI space, and you don’t see us together, at least not on the East Coast.  But we’re doing this together, a first-generation Taiwanese-American and a Puerto Rican New Yorker, with combined backgrounds in law, finance and banking, education, and sociology.

I have become an executive in my work and entrepreneurial in creating programs.  I came in as a consultant to create a pre-college program for a brand-new Latinx leadership institute that is still in existence at a highly ranked University in DC.  I laid that foundation.  Then, I created the Office of Equity and Inclusion at Georgetown Law – no small feat for the largest law school in the United States (and being a non-lawyer).  I had all these skills, but I wasn’t calling myself an entrepreneur.  I was just thinking of it as a natural arc of my leadership abilities. 

I was doing the work of an entrepreneur without calling it that.  It wasn’t until I met Ben, who had the language, the words, and the positioning, that I realized, I’m already doing this. I’m just not calling it that.  I’m not seeing it that way.  But much of my success, especially at this stage of my career has been very entrepreneurial.  I credit Ben for helping me to see that.

I think one of the barriers of the diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) field is that it’s burnout work. There’s no end in sight.  Racism is in perpetuity.  Inequality exists in perpetuity.  We’re in a business where everyone claims to be an expert, but they are not.  I feel very confident in saying that I am an expert at bias reduction, coalition building and addressing inequality because I have formal, professional, and academic training in it. But there are an endless amount of problems that need to be solved, and people need ongoing support to truly integrate the principles of DEI into their work and organizational structures.

The thing with consulting and owning your own business, is that people can tell you they want you to work for them, and then decide at the last minute that they don’t. It’s not something you can wholly rely on, so it’s not stable. When I do consult, I sacrifice vacation days; social time; down time. Ben and I have full-time jobs and families; other commitments.  We can’t focus on our business full time.  Again, as someone who is from a low-income background who is solely responsible for generating my own wealth, I can’t take that risk.  That’s why I think I have not pursued it wholeheartedly.  But I feel like that’s coming…

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I have been touted as having deep wisdom. I’m able to dole out advice with confidence, but I don’t take my own advice, or listen to my own inner voice and trust my gut as much as I should.  I think women in particular are taught to not trust their own voice.  I doubt my own inner wisdom, which stems from imposter syndrome and stereotype threat.  Believing that I can’t believe in myself – it comes from years of trauma and shame, imbued on me.  

Thankfully, I have a really supportive spouse. Howard believes my true last job will be a job where I’m working for myself.  And maybe this is my own deficit thinking, but I can’t imagine that.  When you don’t have a safety net other than yourself, you gotta be careful.  But Howard always gently reminds me that I am forging a new path and I do have support, with him.

I quit my f**ing job last year.  The plan was…no plan!  And that is scary as f***.  And empowering as you wouldn’t believe.  I walked away from something that wasn’t working for me anymore and centered my wellness instead.

I kept saying, I can’t afford it, I can’t do this. This is selfish, this is wrong.  But I did it.  No, I didn’t let Howard know.  No, I didn’t let my business partner, Ben, know.  No, I didn’t even let my mother know.  Because this was my decision to make.  Making a decision to say no, to say I’m leaving this, is probably the most empowering thing and ultimate form of self-care that I have ever done for myself.  At the center of it is the word no.  At the core of the center is me. 

I think leaving my job, making the decision to care for myself, and really centering my wellbeing, reminded me that I have values.  My values have guided my whole life, including my career.  My values don’t necessarily equal lots and lots of money. And my values are what led me to my current job in social justice research and teaching. 

Success is when you can marry your values with your goals and feel proud of them. My goals have always been to be of service.  I felt like I was losing that part of myself because I was burnt out from doing constant crisis management work, especially during the pandemic.  But my goals remain the same: being of service.  Even though making that decision, to be of service, can be tiring.  That is what success means for me.  Even though I was making more money than I have ever made, I wasn’t feeling successful because I was feeling burnt out, undervalued, and disrespected.  

In terms of Pérez and Cheng, we had to make a really hard decision in 2020, especially during that watershed moment in the summer of 2020.  People were relying on us and saying, “We want to use your services because we need support right now.”  We had to make a really hard decision that our focus in 2020 was prioritizing our self-care above anything else, because we also needed support as people of color.  That impacted our business.  We created our brand, our logo, and our website.  We created prospects for 2021, and the minute 2021 hit, we were booked all year. But we didn’t make any business in 2020.  We had to remove our own egos from that decision, which goes counter to having that mind of an entrepreneur.  Pursuing every lead and goal.  We weren’t relentless in that way.  We prioritized our own wellbeing.  And we have no regrets.

I feel very fortunate to go into a business venture with Ben. He was my friend before he was my business partner.  I feel that there is great care that is put into our brand and our name and our work as a result.  We continue to ground our approach in sociological theory and legal practice, and we focus on our clients through direct advisement, training, and professional development support. We’ve created a niche in the industry as “industry-fluid” consultants and we have a loyal clientele who value our insight and who trust us.

I really think the universe has my back.  I feel guided.  I think a lot of people of color are hyper aware of their ancestral line, guided by our ancestors in some way.  Sometimes I make decisions that I don’t even want to make, but I feel guided to make them.  I believe in God.  I believe in the universe.  I believe in quantum physics.  I believe in the timing of things.  My biggest support comes from listening to the universe and not having the arrogance to believe I orchestrate all my decisions on my own. 

I think very few of us are lucky to live out our dreams.  I’m able to live out many of them.  I’m most proud of the humility that I’ve gained throughout my life.  To be both proud, but also be humbled by knowing that there’s still a whole lifetime to live that I don’t even know about yet.  There are still more people to meet.  There are still more people to love.  There are still more things to do and so much more to learn.  There are still more opportunities that can utilize my talents, gifts, and skills that I may not even have a name for yet.   

I’m living life so fully and so loudly, there’s no way I will get to the end of my life and feel like, man, I never got to do this.  I feel like I’ve had lifetimes of experiences already.  If this were to end tomorrow, I’ve had one hell of a ride.  If this were to end in ten, 20, 40 years, that’s ok too.  Because I’ve lived.  I’m living.