My Journey From English-shy Immigrant To Multilingual Pageant Queen

8 Min Read

I was born in a small country off the west coast of Africa called Cape Verde. Growing up, I was raised to speak Cape Verdean Creole and Portuguese. But at 7 years old, my family and I immigrated to the United States. At the time, I didn't really understand what that even meant. All I knew was that when I arrived the culture, way of life, and language were all absolutely foreign to me in every way. Eventually, I learned English and even Spanish. But learning the languages weren't nearly as hard as accepting myself for who I am as an immigrant.

All I Wanted Was To Be Normal

My fear and shame began on my first day at school in Fall River, MA. No one there spoke my language, so I simply stayed silent.

Apparently I was a little too good at that, because one of my classmates— who I will never forget because he always wore the same Spongebob shirt— told our entire class that I was mute. What did I do about this? Nothing, of course. I didn't even try to sound anything out… I was just so terrified of this new, foreign environment.

Andreia Gibau's Old School Before Immigrating Andreia Gibau's Old School

Within a year, my family and I moved to a new town. And along came a new school for me, as well. In our new home of Brockton, my school had a lot more immigrants attending; it was specifically designed with English language learners in mind. But being around other immigrants didn't change my mindset. In fact, it made me want to hide my true identity even more. Even after getting out of my bilingual classes, there were still bullies.

I thought that learning English would solve all of my problems.

All I wanted was to bring some sense of normalcy to my life. And I was certain that learning English as quickly as I could was the best way to do that. By the time I was 8 or 9 years old, I was secretly staying up late to practice. I didn't want to just know English, I wanted to speak it so "perfectly" that I would lose my accent. Having an accent meant that there was no hiding who I was, an immigrant, and all I wanted to be was "normal."

Even cartoons were a learning experience for me. I spent long nights glued to the screen, watching Spongebob Squarepants, CatDog, or Courage The Cowardly Dog. But not like most other kids, I had to have the subtitles on to glean some form of knowledge for myself from my favorite shows. I would even make flashcards!

Becoming American

I didn't quite learn English until I was in the 4th grade, about 10 years old. I was in a class full of other students whose first languages weren't English. We would have classes that basically just featured index cards with pictures being flipped through by the teacher in front us all, and we would have to say what the picture was. Or the cards would have words written out on them, and we would have to sound the words out.

It was basically a kindergarten class for 3rd and 4th graders. The school was two floors. The top floor only had classes for students who didn't speak English and the bottom floor was for students who did. I was on the top floor, of course.

Every two weeks we would have a test that would measure how well we were learning the language. I remember the day that I found out I would finally be taking English classes in one of the classes downstairs. I was going to be with all the English speaking American kids! Excited wouldn't even begin to do this feeling justice. I was finally getting closer to my idea of normalcy.

Young Andreia Gibau With Her Mother Young Andreia Gibau With Her Mother

I felt like I was truly becoming an American. I would soon be just like all the other kids. I was still taking all my other classes upstairs, but for just 55 minutes everyday I would be amongst English speaking students. Those 55 minutes were the highlight of each and every day. And by the time I was ready for 5th grade, I had become a US citizen, I was fluent in English, and I was at another new school.

I decided to forget about my past. I finally had a chance to be what I thought was normal.

My Not So Secret Shame

I grew up feeling so ashamed of myself, it wasn't just that I was an immigrant, but I couldn't even speak English. It seemed to me that speaking other languages was what made me different, in a bad way.

Now, of course, I know that it would be so silly to be ashamed of being multilingual. But, at the time, I was struggling. I was ashamed of speaking anything other than English for fear of being teased.

And I was teased about it. Whenever my parents would speak to me in Cape Verdean Creole in public, I would always only ever answer back in English. I didn't want anyone I knew overhearing me speak anything… foreign.

I even gave myself the nickname of Nikki, because I thought I thought it sounded more American than my own name. I had all my friends call me that.

I never recognized the amount of self-hatred that I was experiencing at this time. I disowned everything I was to be someone I wasn't… all because I was afraid.

Afraid of being ostracized. Afraid of being different. Afraid of being my true self.

I saw how my friends would make fun of all the other immigrant students who couldn't speak English. Saying comments like "get back on the boat you came from," or calling them "geechee," a derogatory term for someone who recently immigrated to the US. My friends never knew that I was really one of them— the kids they would mock mercilessly.

I knew how it felt to be in that position, and I refused to go through it again.

Pageants Changed Everything

This perspective of myself, my origins, and struggles all changed when I started doing pageants. Most people associate pageants with blonde-haired, blue-eyed, American-born beauty. But as our culture has become more accepting of diversity, pageants have shifted in the same direction. Rather than judging participants within strict molds of Western beauty standards and outdated ideas about women's worth, pageant contestants are held to their own standards.

One of the most popular pieces of pageant advice is to simply "be yourself." It's a cliché, but it works. That is exactly what I had to do. I had to learn to embrace who I was, to become who I am meant to be. The things that make me different are the things that make me, well, me.

Andreia Gibau Being Crowned Miss NY USA 2020 Andreia Gibau Being Crowned Miss NY USA 2020

Pageants gave me the opportunity to be out in society meeting all types of people from different backgrounds, which helped me come to terms with my own differences. As soon as I started competing in pageants, I realized that I wasn't being authentic to who I was.

In my second ever pageant, I was asked the question: "What makes you unique?" I was 19 years old at the time, and I remember thinking long and hard about this question afterwards. I wanted so badly to come up with the perfect answer. And my mom goes, "Well you speak four languages. Not every 19 year old can say that."

I was a little hesitant. Because I had never thought that was something to be proud of, let alone brag about on a stage.

But I went with it. And when I started to see it on paper, I naturally started to own it and embrace it as part of who I am in my everyday life.

I realized that not only does my skill with language mean a lot to me personally. But it's also helped me to develop some of my other most notable traits. Speaking these languages that are both oddly similar and completely unique brings up some unusual challenges.

But it is our challenges that make us who we are.

When switching between languages so often in my everyday life, I have to be extremely thoughtful in my word choice. I don't want to say "gracias," when someone gives me a compliment in Portugese. (Which I have done before!) Because of this, I've had to become a quick-thinking multitasker, so I can block out distractions and stay focused on what's important in the moment. This skill has been crucial both on and off the pageant stage!

From Miss NY USA To Miss USA

It was only after winning my first competition while being 100% true to myself, that I realized… I am worthy of that crown. But even moreso, I realized how good it felt to see someone like me, an immigrant, a polyglot, a non-native English speaker, win such a prestigious title.

As a pageant titleholder, you are a public figure. I am constantly meeting new people, going out to events, and representing my state wherever I go. Sometimes I catch a person's accent or I hear them speak their home language, and I speak it back to them. It's amazing how quickly someone's face will light up when I say something in their language. Within an instant, they're comfortable with me, because they know that we are connected in a special way.

I believe I am a reflection of not only New York but also the entire USA. Because we are a country where every race, color, religion, and language is represented.

Andreia Gibau Representing As Miss New York USA Andreia Gibau Representing As Miss New York USA

For years, I felt that this talent of mine was really something to be ashamed of, and I don't want anyone else to make that mistake. The things that make you different are the things that make you powerful. It's time to embrace our differences, shout them out to the world, be proud.

If you're interested in joining me on my journey to Miss USA, keep your eyes out for my forthcoming biweekly column on SWAAY, where I'll be continuing to share my personal experiences, discussing everything from pageant prep to my work with inner city youth.

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Dear VCs: Making Pledges Won't Close The Funding Gap

Amid the mainstream conversation about inclusion and justice in the workplace, otherwise known as #MeToo, a Silicon Valley venture capital fund considered how they can be more inclusive of the women, minority, and LGBTQ entrepreneurial communities.

Their solution? Ask the CEOs they currently fund to promise to hire senior-level employees from diverse backgrounds.

Lightspeed Venture Partners, a venture capital fund that has investments with blockbuster startups such as The Honest Company, Affirm, and HQ Trivia, has asked its portfolio company CEOs to sign a “side letter" affirming their commitment to consider women and other underrepresented groups for senior jobs and new spots on their board of directors.

Can making pledges— or even hiring a C-Suite level employee to manage diversity efforts— really make an impact on the funding gap for multicultural women-led companies?

Many experts say it's going to take systemic change, not letters of intent.

It is well reported that the amount of investment going to multicultural women-led companies is incongruous to the entrepreneurial landscape and the performance of their businesses. Between 2007 and 2016, there was an increase of 2.8 million companies owned by women of color. Nearly eight out of every 10 new women-owned firms launched since 2007 has been started by a woman of color yet, these businesses receive an abysmal 0.2 percent of all funding. Amanda Johnson and KJ Miller, founders of Mented cosmetics, were just the 15th and 16th Black women in history to raise $1M in the fall of 2017.

The multicultural women who do defeat the odds to get funded receive significantly less than male founders. The average startup founded by a Black woman raises only $36,000 in venture funding, while the average failed startup founded by a White man raises $1.3M before going out of business.

The implicit and explicit bias not only impacts individual multicultural female founders, it could be stifling innovation. For example, companies with above-average diversity on their management teams reported innovation revenue as 45 percent of total revenue compared to just 26 percent of total revenue at companies with below-average management diversity. That means nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years.

In our economy today, venture capital is responsible for funding the work of our most innovative companies. Venture capital-backed U.S. companies include some of the most innovative companies in the world. In 2013, VC-backed companies account for a 42 percent of the R&D spending by U.S. public companies.

With a wealth of multicultural women entrepreneurs and evidence to support the performance of diverse companies, why does this funding gap persist?

According to Kristin Hull, founder of Oakland-based Nia Impact Capital and Nia Community, many traditional investors consider women or minority-led businesses as a category in their portfolio, like gaming tech or consumer packaged good. Hull, who focuses on building portfolios where financial returns and social impact work hand-in-hand, argues gender and ethnicity are not a business category and investors who dedicate a specific percent of their portfolio to diverse companies are the ones missing out.

“We are doing this backwards," says Hull. “Adding diverse, women-run companies actually de-risks an investment portfolio."

Hull points to research that has found women are more likely to seek outside help when a company is headed for trouble and operate businesses with less debt on average. What's more, a study conducted by First Round Capital concluded that founding teams including a woman outperform their all-male peers by 63 percent.

Ximena Hardstock, a 43-year-old immigrant from Chile experienced this bias first hand before she raised $5.1M for her tech startup. “How do you get an investor to notice you and take you seriously?" says Hardstock. “White men from Harvard have a track record and investors are all looking for entrepreneurs that fit the Zuckerberg mold. But a woman from Chile with an accent who started a technology company? There is no track record for that and this is a problem so many women of color face."

Hardstock came to the U.S. from the suburbs of Santiago when she was just 20-years-old. Alone with no family or connections in the U.S., Hardstock worked as a cleaning lady, a bartender, and a nanny before she began teaching and working in education. “I had a lot of ideas and Chile is still a very conservative country," she says. “Most women become housewives but I wanted to do something different. So, I moved to the U.S."

Hardstock went on to earn a Ph.D. in policy studies, served as vice president of Advocacy for National StudentsFirst and worked as a member of Washington DC mayor Adrian Fenty's cabinet. Her experience working in both education and government exposed her to a need to simplify the process of connecting lawmakers with their constituents. As a result, Hardstock founded Phone2Action, a digital advocacy company that enables organizations and individual citizens to connect with policymakers via email, Twitter, Alexa and Facebook using their mobile phones.

Because venture capital and private equity are not necessarily meritocracies, Hardstock initially struggled to get in an audience with the right investors despite her company's growth potential, her experience, and her education. In fact, it wasn't until she won a competition at SXSW in 2015 that she could get an audience with a serious venture capitalist.

While it may seem like symptoms of a bygone era, both Hardstock and Hull say the path to investor relationships is forged in places where many women of diverse backgrounds are not – ivy league organizations, golf courses and late night post-board meeting cocktails attended mostly by White men of means.

The history of venture capital has never been very balanced, according to Aubrey Blanche, global head of diversity at Atlassian software development company and co-founder of Sycamore, an organization aiming to fix the VC funding gap for underrepresented founders. “White and Asian men have built the venture system and for generations have been seeking out people like themselves to invest in."

Personal and professional networks are critical for founders to connect with investors, but many multicultural women don't have access to the networks their White peers have. According to a study conducted by PRRI, the average White person has one friend who is Black, Latino, Asian, mixed race, and other races. This common situation makes getting that all important warm introduction to established VCs very challenging for multicultural women founders.

“Is the ecosystem of your network equivalent to your net worth? Absolutely," says Hardstock. “For us, we have to build our own ecosystem and recreate what happens on the golf courses and at the Harvard reunions."

To Hardstock's point, most multicultural women with entrepreneurial aspirations lack that Ivy League network. According to reporting published in The New York Times, Black students make up just nine percent of the freshmen at Ivy League schools but 15 percent of college-age Americans. This gap has been largely unchanged since 1980.

While notable female investors such as Arlan Hamilton, Joanne Wilson, and Kathryn Finney are actively working to close the funding gap for women of color, only seven percent of current senior investing partners at the top 100 venture firms are women. Less than three percent of VC funds have Black and Latinx investment partners. Without an influential network, Hardstock and entrepreneurs like her are left screaming for a seat at the table.

When Black, Latina, and Asian women founders do get in the room with the right investors, they have to work harder to get the investors to relate to their products and services. “Entrepreneurs solve problems they understand," says Blanche. “When multicultural women entrepreneurs present their businesses to a homogenous group of male investors who may not be equipped to understand the idea, they may pass on an amazing business."

Take, for example, the founders of Haute Hijab or LOLA. Founders of both successful startups would have to explain the market for their services to a table occupied mostly by men who may never have considered that Muslim women want more convenient access to fashion and have never considered women might prefer to purchase organic tampons.

This lack of familiarity typically means reduced funding for women and a host of other consequences.

As one recent study pointed out, even the way investors frame questions to women can impact funding. According to the Harvard Business Review, female founders are often asked “prevention-oriented" questions focused on safety, responsibility, security, and vigilance. Male founders, on the other hand, are often asked questions focused on hopes, achievement, advancement, and ideals.

When all of these factors are considered, a side letter may not be enough to begin to close the funding gap.

Both Blanche and Hull say real change can be made by democratizing information and education on impact investing. Both women say educating investors and MBA candidates about impact investing is the best way to overcome current bias.

Blanche's organization, Sycamore, produces a newsletter for new angel investors who want to help close the funding gap while making money in the process. Hull's firm has an internship program for multicultural girls from Oakland to expose them to the worlds of investing, entrepreneurship, business leadership, and financial literacy.

“I'm excited about the changes I see," says Blanche. “I see more firm employing the Rooney Law on an institutional level, an increase in smaller firms looking at underserved communities, and the democratization of institutional funding."

Hull adds that as long as multi-cultural women-led firms continue to show returns and outperform or perform on par with companies founded by White men, the investor community will rethink their portfolio strategies.

This piece was originally published in 2018.