Arlene Mendoza struggled with feelings of loneliness in her youth.

As a child, I wanted so badly to fit in with the “cool” kids. I wanted to wear the right clothes, have the latest shoes; I wanted to style my hair with the cutest side clips. I wanted to feel I belonged.

There was a division in town where the upper-middle class kids lived on the ‘Westside.’ I lived down on the other side and remember driving into town, wishing we’d take a right turn instead of left.

One day, I was in a circle with one of the most popular girls at school, *Angela. I was thrilled to be sitting in her circle, included in her tribe. Out of nowhere, she made a comment, “Why do you have such dark gorilla hands?”

I shrank and stared at her. Everyone stayed quiet. I froze, afraid she’d tell me to leave if I showed any hurt or embarrassment. I don’t remember the conversation after that moment or the rest of that day. What stuck with me is the feeling of being judged for something beyond my control.

Many years later, I lived with a chip on my shoulder and it wasn’t until years later I recognized what that moment taught me. It was just one comment, but what it represented was more. To me, it was a powerful microcosm for what we all crave: acceptance.

Adolescents say hurtful things. We’ve all been hurt by the thoughtless words of others. But I learned to observe the world from the lens of inclusion. I believe in creating teams and communities, both in my personal and professional life, where others feel seen and heard. I make an effort to push myself on understanding and questioning from various perspectives.

The gift of my childhood struggles, most of them beyond the scope of that single moment, is the resilience and perseverance I developed in the face of hardship. I now have the ability to stand in the face of adversity, and recognize silence is a strength. My gift is my ability to adapt and remain steadfast from the “outside looking in,” and my emotional control when confronted with challenging circumstances.

These gifts helped me through undergrad, grad school, work, health concerns, and going after ambitious goals. I’ve developed a high tolerance for struggle.

As I’ve gotten older, my belief in creating spaces of belonging anywhere has strengthened. I’ve learned that methods children use in groups to dictate what’s acceptable applies in other spheres. The difference now is I have a voice to call it out and provide alternative solutions to re-frame and influence organizations.

I’m a leader with the power to create a culture of belonging!


Sharing Your Gift

I encourage parents to check in with their kids daily. Ask them about their day and struggles from a young age so it’s the norm. If you don’t have children, check in with the important people in your life. Ask them how they’re doing; be there for them during their struggles.

For others going through something similar to my experience that day at school:

You’re beautiful the way you are. Tell the *Angelas of the world: I’m beautiful and you are too. Use your voice to say what you feel. And remember, you have the choice to walk away!


Looking Forward

After undergrad, grad school, 13 years of corporate experience, starting a YouTube channel, side business, outreach work, investments, and globe-trotting… I slowed in down in January 2019.

My gift of balancing my career ambitions and a foundation of belonging catapulted my career. For the past nine months during my sabbatical, I’ve reflected and expanded my own mindset and intentionally moved towards work in the innovation space in Public Policy + Human Centered Design + Technology as the Sr. Innovation Program Manager for Alluma in Oakland, CA.

I pay it forward by mentoring those around me. I’ve worked with underrepresented youth in various school districts in the Bay Area and led career workshops at the National Conference for the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers. It feels good to connect with others and help them on their journey.

If you’re struggling, remember you’re not alone. And if you see someone struggling, reach out; you never know what impact it will make.




  1. Michael Mott

    Wonderful story and so great to know that you are working toward aligning your passion and professional experience. What schools are you working with in the Bay area?


    • Arlene Mendoza

      Thank you Michael. I had volunteered with an elementary school in South San Jose as well as with the Level Playing Field Institute, re-branded as SMASH, non-profit out of Oakland.


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