As the pandemic forced people to shelter at home, business student Juan Pèrez found himself deep in thought. Then at the halfway point of his college career, he began contemplating his journey — a “grind,” as he describes it — from the day Juan’s father told him that he would have to find the money to pay for his own college education.
“I was reminiscing about the past two years at Cal Poly and the people that I met, the things I’ve done and the things others have done,” Pèrez says. “[They] have inspired me, and I wondered what they can do for others.”
Then, an idea struck: a podcast that would shine a light on the personal stories of young people of color as they reach major milestones. Pèrez thought it would make an impact to hear directly from young adults working hard to earn a scholarship, learn English as a second language, share their art with the world, and step up to lead their campus and community. Those kinds of success stories, he says, were what he was missing when he was growing up.
“The overall idea really came from the fact that people of color are not necessarily represented in media today,” he says. “There are so many amazing people out there whose stories just haven’t been told because their stories are barely becoming important in our society, and we want to showcase those.”
The podcast is named The First Few to honor the paths many guests have taken to become the first in their family, community, culture or campus to achieve something new. Pèrez says he thinks about people like his parents, who came to the U.S. and settled in Salinas as farm workers without many role models for success in their circumstances. He hopes the peer-to-peer conversation among people of color can “influence someone else in that same situation to push for more” and inspire a new generation of minority leaders.
When Pèrez began, he reached out to high school classmates, a Cal Poly roommate, and even his Week of Welcome (WOW) leader to share their stories about navigating the high school and college experience. Within a few months, the podcast had welcomed young professionals, activists, a comedian, a professional athlete and an up-and-coming musician to discuss their journeys toward achievements in their lives.
Serving as the show’s host, Pèrez says he doesn’t have a “dream guest” but rather finds something special in every conversation. “Every time that we pick someone to interview, I get this excitement inside of me — I get to learn about someone’s life today,” he says.
Instead of a strict interview structure, Pèrez focuses on connecting with his guests and putting them at ease so they can be candid about their family, their insecurities and their triumphs. Guests share their raw perspectives about confronting racism, dealing with imposter syndrome, and learning in a predominantly white institution. Yet the conversations often come back to common sources of empowerment, like mentorship from friends and family and advice they’d give to a young person imagining their future.
One episode that stands out to Pèrez features the story of Angel Ramirez, a young man from Salinas who learned English at 15 years old. After the death of his father, Ramirez and his family moved to California from Jalisco, Mexico. He overcame significant barriers to complete high school, earn an associate’s degree at a community college, and transfer to Cal Poly to study agricultural and environmental plant science. Pèrez says Ramirez was nervous for the live discussion, but his grit and determination came through as he spoke from the heart in both English and Spanish.
“Angel’s story really touched me personally. After we were done recording the podcast, he actually sent it to his family back in Mexico, and he was just super happy with how it turned out,” says Pèrez. “It was great to be able to represent someone like that.”
For his part, Ramirez said that telling his story on the podcast helped him, too.
“It made me go back and think about things like my family, friends, struggles, where I’m from and where I am now,” Ramirez said. “These things are my identity, and I felt proud.”
Pèrez hopes people who listen to that episode walk away with a better understanding of how hard someone has to work to be bilingual in the U.S.
“Maybe next time when you meet someone like Angel, you’ll be a little more empathetic or you’ll reach out to them,” he said.
Pèrez also remembers that episode because he chose not to omit two instances where police sirens blared while driving by Ramirez’s home in Salinas, a common occurrence in a community that struggles with violence.
“It was interesting to have that because it really shows where he’s coming from and what it means to be someone in his position,” says Pèrez.
After nearly 20 episodes posted this summer, Pèrez says he continues to learn from his guests as national conversations refocus attention on racial injustice.
“When I first started the podcast, I didn’t really see the connection between the Black community and the Latino community,” Pèrez admits. “Then I interviewed Kenya Burton — she’s an activist — and it was only at that moment that it clicked for me.
“That’s the feeling we want people to have — that ‘oh’ moment. That snap. Everyone can have those moments. We’re trying to operate our podcast to be that sort of light for people.”
The podcast is currently gearing up for its next season with a new slate of guests. Pèrez now leads the interviews with co-host Jonathan Rome and works with a team of designers, editors and marketers. Together, they are surveying ways to sustain listenership among their audience of 16- to 25-year-olds while addressing big topics affecting people of color on national and local levels, including policing, capitalism and immigration.
“We want to be able to bring on people who have strong opinions about these things and discuss them in a way that’s not only entertaining but educational,” Pèrez says looking toward the new season.
After all the thoughtful reflection 2020 has brought, Perez is excited to amplify his entrepreneurial endeavors. He’s motivated to be part of a more complete picture of what leaders and change-makers look like today.
Today, he’s found a way to combine his passions for social justice and for developing a new business. Pèrez co-founded a company called Celebrate, a virtual gifting company led by people of color who weave anti-racism and equity into their mission.
He beams when he describes what it could mean to other students to see a startup run by women and underrepresented entrepreneurs.
Though much is uncertain about the budding company as it begins to scale, Pèrez isn’t scared. The group took the stage at the university’s annual pitch competition and plans to leverage the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship’s support programs in the coming year as it builds its customer base.
“When I was young, I knew I wanted to go into business but I never saw Latino Steve Jobs on TV or social media” says Perez. “[Entrepreneurs] I knew didn’t look like me or come from my experience.
“I know that if I can be that for other people, I can change the way they see themselves and impact their communities and the world.”
Find out more about The First Few Podcast at https://www.thefirstfew.org/.