In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Ximena Hartsock, Co-founder of Phone2action and builder of tech for social good talks about how growing up in Chile and her father gave birth to her activism at an early age, how she battled injustice and hardship in Chile and as an immigrant to the United States and became successful while pursuing her advocacy as a way of life.
Also mentioned in this episode:
Michelle Ray, Executive Director for The Walter Kaitz Foundation
Adrian Fenty, Former Mayor of District of Columbia
Marion Barry, Former Mayor of District of Columbia
Connect with Ximena Hartsock:
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
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Now, this week I am thrilled to be having a conversation with Ximena Hartsock. Ximena's journey has been magnificent as an immigrant to this country. Starting as a nanny, bartender, teacher, moving on to serving in the administration of D.C. Mayor Adrian Fenty. Eventually, helping start an organization, Phone2Action that has been instrumental in advocacy and at the end of 2020 leaving for new ventures as she's going to continue having an impact and making a difference both on our region, on the nation and globally.
Listen to her episode, be inspired, learn from her leadership journey.
Now here is my conversation with Ximena Hartsock.
Ximena Hartsock, welcome to the Partnering Leadership podcast!
Thank you for having me.
I'm really excited Ximena, knowing a lot about your background and story, and can't wait to share some of that with a broader partnering leadership community.
Now you were born and raised in Santiago, Chile, and I know your father and his reading had a big impact on your childhood.
So how did that childhood impact the kind of person you have become?
Thank you for the question. See my father was indigenous. Mother and father were Mapuche. In Chile, the Mapuche tribe ethnicity is the primary one. And he was born in a sort of type of reservation in the South of Chile. And so, he met my mother and they have like a very interesting love story because my mom had been in a boarding school and he wanted to be a nun. And both of them, they marry and runaway to Santiago. In a way, it wasn't like a hundred percent runaway. They wanted to also look for opportunities, but their marriage wasn't anything that the two families were looking for. So I think that the spirit of immigration came a little bit from them. My mother was very much dedicated to the four of us. We were three girls and one boy and all very close in age, so that was a lot of work. And my father was the main worker in the house. He's the one that provided for all of us, but my father was a very good reader. While my parents were very humble, they had to come to the city without anything, no connections, no money, nothing.
My father’s reading, educated him and prepare him not only to do better over time in his job, but also to guide us through that time because we were born and raised during the dictatorship, where the access to the globalization that we have today, to the news and to pop culture wasn’t accessible for us at the time. And so my father provided a lot of that context with the world because he was a very good reader and he bought at least two newspapers every Sunday and he reads the paper every day. And he loves to read the paper in a very organized way from cover to cover and I will steal pieces of the paper. And that’s where my love for writing came from.
A lot of those you read naturally, were about the United States, because my dad was a very avid history reader. He kept up with the news about the US as well too, he knew every president’s bio of the US ,he knew lots of portions of the constitution of the United States, that he was a very big fan of the process of writing the constitution.
He loved all of the cowboy movies and so we knew, since very young age, about John Wayne and my mother loved Fred Astaire movies. So in a way, in a very accidental way, I will say my childhood gave me context about the United States way before I would even think that I would come and live here.
That's a wonderful story.
And it's interesting that your mother and father weren't rule followers to a certain extent that their love story led them to each other. And I read that at age 11. You tried to save a classmate from getting expelled and even led to a protest in your school to let a nun have long hair.
Oh yes. Actually, we had several advocacies/activities in my school and we were all around 11 and from there we just kind of continue on and they were all kind of one after the other.
And so then the nun stories, that were in a catholic all girls school, but the school was connected to the home of the nuns. And it was this big tree that we will go and climb to. And that's how we learned that the nuns actually had long hair because we thought all of them were bald because they will cover their hair.
And it was this nun that we loved and she was just so wonderful to us. And we saw her one day jumping on a swimming pool, moving her hair and waving it around and we just, I guess, intuitively know of or felt that she really loved to share and move her hair around and it was just that, without words, a connection, women to women, all of these girls on that tree watching, spying really on the nuns, that's what we will do on recess. And then seeing this nun waving her hair from left to right in the air, feeling so happy and free that we thought, that's what she wants to do all the time. So we went around the school and I start putting signs and everything, asking the superior nuns to allow this poor nun, to show her hair. And we probably got in trouble. I don't remember that part, but I'm pretty sure we did. We did all kinds of other things.
We had a water protest one day, where we wrote on the signs, they had cut the water. Every year, the junior students, because our school was K-12. They will have the last party. It was a festival of water basically, they will throw water at each other and it was a little bit of a farewell to K-12 education because the next year they would be seniors and they had to be worried about transition to college. And so this was like the very last, say goodbye to be in the K-12 student. And it became a very big tradition in Chile that you will throw in these little bubbles of water to each other, it was just pure fun.
But that year, they didn't allow them to do it. And so we were much younger. I said one day we have to do something. We have to reunite. We need to get them to do something and we organize an entire school, basically that anyone that could, in the classrooms, to come out from the back door while the teacher was teaching at the front, or some of us would sneak out and go to the lab and write posters, come back, sit in class.
All the girls will go out, write more posters and then during recess we all broke out and did this major protest completely simultaneous, completely coordinated with these posters that said they deserve water, they have the right to water, give them anything, wine will work. And it was all very funny and cute. They were able to get their last opportunity to say goodbye to their education in the way that every other school in the country was able to do. And I think after that, they made it a policy that they couldn't do that, but at least that year we were able to get them to do their way.
And we did many other things, to save kids from bullying or save kids from being mistreated by anybody. But I think it was just the fact that being all girls, I felt very free maybe or protected by that community that if we would speak up within ourselves, it was okay. I just never felt worried about it and probably I should have, because my parents were. After all of this, I always got in trouble, but it didn't teach me to stop, so I think it was the beginning of something.
Yeah, absolutely. It's obvious that you started your activism very early on. And your parents were at least supportive enough to educate you and inform you to get involved in all these different activities.
Yes, they were, they were.
So Ximena, what then brought you to United States.
So I was raised in a country that didn't really have, at the time, a lot of culture of not only innovation, but also freedom to work more than the nine to five job. So I felt that men and women, pretty much anyone I knew, they just have the job. And my father was a little bit of an outcast because he loved his job. And I wanted that. I wanted to have a job that I would feel very passionate about it.
So I went to college and I studied Philosophy and Spanish literature. And when I graduated, before I graduate, I do a lot of practicums. I explored, I did this practicum, several practicums to teaching in the classroom which I liked a lot. I love the kids and I love the education portion of it. But then I knew right away that that wasn't going to pay the bills.
So I had to get another job. And that's where I realized the country was very much backwards because I could not get a part-time job anywhere. It was impossible. In my last year of college, I was teaching for six months. Because in Chile, your last year, it's almost just all internships and I couldn't get another job.
And I had been able to work as a bartender before, but not, you couldn't do that while you were working because the country didn't have the structure for that. Like, it didn't seem also to be part of the culture that you can have a day job. And I felt that I had to do all of that if I wanted to make progress in my youth, and especially in the beginning of my career.
So I felt really disillusioned by the workforce too. I didn't find very stimulating anyone that I was talking to. Like even my friends, it was all very much status quo and very complacent. And so I started right away looking for opportunities to go abroad.
And I started with Spain. I applied to the university of Salamanca. And I just couldn't put a scholarship together. All this time, in Spain is very expensive. And those memories of the US from all the movies that I have seen during the childhood came to mind, and I told my dad, how about I go to the US? Would you let me go to the USA?
He say, yes. You know, go. So I went to the embassy, lineup for hours because they had only one person processing visa, at that time, I remember. So I lined up. I lined up for like two or three hours between all of the lines that you have to do. And I got to be calm, I was very happy because at the time to get a visa, you had to prove a lot of things.
And I came to the US and that was that. But I came really looking for a place where I could unleash a lot of that desire to do more things. So it wasn't specifically about just having a better jobs and make more money. It was also about doing more things. I felt a little bit trapped in the culture that I was in Chile, it didn't feel that people had a lot of drive and probably I was not hanging out with the right people.
I'm sure there are plenty of Chileans that do have that drive. But at the time I didn't see that in. That was the main reason why I came because I aspire to be in the culture of the US that I saw, I perceived, as one would drive in motivation to do more.
In that statement, Ximena and in that part of your story, you capture the most beautiful part of, one of the strengths of this country, where immigrants that want to contribute more, want to do more, want to be more, come to the US to pursue those ambitions and also contribute to the community.
So that is absolutely beautiful. Now, how was your initial transition here in the US? How did that work out for you?
So I didn't have any friends or family or money. I came with $500, which I thought, at the time, it was so much money. And then I realized really quickly that it was really not a lot, especially because I spent a lot of those in donuts.
But I remember I had been raised Catholic. And so I knew about your Georgetown university. I took a bus to Georgetown. And I remember walking into the campus and you have the library on the left and then you have all the pathways and seeing all the students. And I remember crying, I cried of emotion that I was there and I knew when I walked, and I wasn't a student. I just went in just to check it out like a tourist, but that was one of the very first destinations I had. And I remember thinking, wow, this was a great decision because it felt so right to be here. When I walked through, all of the numbers of young students walking in the campus, and I just felt really happy and emotional there.
My transition, I think, was great because I was so thankful to be here. When I look back, I didn't really have anything. I came in March, I think, or April. I remember the weather being not so great and I was coming from the summer in Chile, so I wasn't very adjusted clothes wise. I probably brought some clothes. I never been in an environment with snow. So I did have to transition.
I probably got a big, bad cold in the beginning, but I did all of those jobs. I started looking for jobs where I could support myself. So I did all of those jobs that immigrants have sometimes when they come here and in my case, I had to have, because I didn't have anything else.
So I worked as a nanny. I was a housekeeper. I was also bartending. I remember I bought the Hispanic newspaper they had you know the jobs portion, it was all in Spanish so I could read it. They have some ads, but I couldn't really see necessarily what jobs were available. But I looked at the restaurant section and in the restaurants section, I noticed that most of the restaurants were all in the same street. So I took a bus one day and I went, this is in Columbia pike in Arlington, Virginia. And I went from top to top of that street knocking restaurant doors. And I got lucky because one of those restaurants, it was called Cecelia's at the time, they gave me a job and I worked there.
I did all of those jobs and then at the same time I was taking English classes. I eventually did register in Georgetown for English first and then I got my credentials for teaching certificates here in the US. So I became a teacher later on after coming here.
Yeah, fabulous. So the $500 evaporated in donuts, you found yourself working really hard to pursue education.
And at the same time that you were working all these different jobs from nanny to the restaurants, You were, obviously, you already had your education and you were pursuing more education and then you eventually ended up becoming a school principal.
Yes. So I started a career in education from the very, very bottom. And I was the aide of an aide of the classroom teacher. And then I was the aide of the teacher. And then I was teaching and doing the project coordination of a federal grant in mathematics.
In that program is where I had the opportunity to work in several schools and one of those schools, Harriet Tubman elementary school in Washington, DC. This was actually an elementary middle school. The principal was becoming the assistant superintendent of the region and she had met me working in the program and she said, I would love to have you apply for the assistant principalship here. So I applied and I got the job.
And then when I was doing that job as an assistant principal, I finished one year and they asked me to apply, to be the principal of another school. So I became the principal of this other school. And during that work is where I met the mayor of the city, because at the time he was a city council member and we had worked very, very hard in this school to increase the proficiency in mathematics and in reading that the school had been suffering for quite a bit.
The school was also very divided. We were on through gentrification. It's a school that is in a historic area, but had traditionally been serving kids that were Hispanic or African-American and with the gentrification, the neighbors that the residents were different type of just background in general. And they were looking for a school that serves their needs.
And so I had to come in, to work with the community to reconcile all the differences and build a school that would work for everybody and that would still be inclusive and still serve poor kids. And that's very difficult because it's very difficult to get everyone to agree that all is going to be okay.
And living and coexisting with each other, especially if in the mix, you have kids that are poor and often of color or kids that are from same gender parents. And we had all of that in our school.
I will never say, “I”, here ever, because it was definitely not an “I”, it was a “we”. Together, we improved the standardized testing, by 20 points percentage for both reading and math.
And the student council member at the time, Adrian Fenty, when he came to the school. And because we were all celebrating, we had a festival about it, and the city was really excited about the progress of the school. And that's how I met him when he was a city council member and eventually became the Mayor, And that's what the story changes a little bit.
Yes. And obviously, you had different positions and with more and more success, eventually, the mayor wanted you to serve, appointed you to serve as districts, department of parks and recreation director. And it broke my heart as a father of two girls to read the quotes of one of the individuals at that point, Marion Barry was serving on the council. He was no longer the mayor. That he opposed your nomination. And I quote said, “women don't care about sports as much as men do.”
Yes. So when the city council member Fenty became the mayor, he wanted to improve the city, in many areas. One of them was education. So he did an education reform, a very famous one with Michelle Ray.
I became assistant superintendent of schools under Michelle Ree. When I was doing that job is when the mayor asked me to join the cabinet and become the director of parks and rec. And the vision that he had for the city is one where kids were safe and protected from 8 to 3:00 PM during the school day and then they had a place to go to be safe and protected in the afternoon and during the weekends.
And so his vision for the department of parks and recreation, was a lot more than the traditional. We have a rec center, you can come if you want, we have a very rich set of offerings and solid constructions in new barracks and better tour fields and everything. Because we want the kids to want to be there.
And so that's why he asked me, that he selected someone with a career in education. By then, I had been principal assistant superintendent of school. Like I was a happy part of major initiatives. And so he wanted to bring some of the same set of skills to the department of parks and rec.
He was trying something a little bit new. And, you know, I did that job with so much passion and I brought in some of the best and brightest in the city that many of them followed me from schools to try to improve the services that at the time were very much just very, very bad.
And the city council at the time, Marion Barry was, was alive and he was part of it. And he didn't agree with some of the politics of the mayor had, in a way he decided with others that they will use the opportunity to not confirming, in a way to show the mayor that they had power and that they could do that. And so it's very interesting that this happened in the same decade where we have the “me too movement”, where we have so much outrage against women mistreatment that a city council member not only will say that as a woman, I didn't have any knowledge of a sports, because he said, that’s what you said, but he also said Hispanic women were not prepared to do a job like that.
It's unfortunate. It's a good thing that he has not witnessed the revolution now because he probably will be embarrassed for his words, but that was quite accepted and acceptable at the time, because all others, within the same city council, didn’t raise an eyebrow about it, and you didn't see any protests or any anybody saying anything. And in fact, after that, I had to, in a way, re-invent my career, because that doesn’t look good when you are not confirmed by the city council and I had to do it by myself and on my own, it was a very difficult process that left a lot of people in pain, the people on my team and everything. But it happened without really any consequences for them or anyone that were actors for the matter.
It's obviously a hard thing to go through, and I am glad that you referenced the timing of it. This is not early 19 hundreds. We're talking about, obviously, you're a young woman yourself. This is pretty recent in terms of the way you were treated in this.
But I imagine both your activism from your childhood, your father, reading to you and you being active in his school and experiences like this led to your desire to get people together, to have a voice in their governments leading to starting Phone2Action.
It's interesting. The question that you ask me about what happened with the situation with the city council, because every time people ask me about Phone2Action, I always talk about Phone2Action, being the product of my last job, where I was the education advocacy, organized it in my work, travel from state to state, organizing parents and teachers to talk to the lawmakers about education reform.
And so I did that after I left the government. But now that you mentioned, you asked me this question, after the other question, I think, I remember during that time feeling pretty powerless. I remember feeling voiceless and I remember not knowing how to defend myself or talk about it. It was so new to me.
And now that I look back when the mayor asked me to take that on to that position, I should have known that that was a little bit of a political move, but I didn't at the time. And I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we don't really talk about all of the implications sometimes of the moves that we make in our careers, because for women, many times that journey is very lonely.
And so that for men and for women, I think change is difficult for men and for women today, that is a little bit of dissolution with establishment, in general, whether you are a Republican or you're a Democrat.
I think that is a sense of what, as the way I wanted, that there is a little bit of a nostalgia of the past and that there is definitely a lack of connection with lawmakers. And Phone2action as a technology for a digital grassroots build that connection, but I think it's also the creation of that tool is probably in my unconscious thinking, I probably was a little bit influenced by all of these experiences together to create Phone2action.
You're marrying the activism that again has been running throughout your life with some of your own experiences to bring power to the people.
So you start co-found Phone2action. It's been growing really fast, doing really well. Where do you see the trajectory and the impact of this business that you have started?
When I have Phone2action, it was late 2011, 2012, the adoption of smartphones was much, much lower than it is now, especially for minorities. And at the time I remember I was moving from town to town and talking to people and they will say, I don't know who my lawmakers are and I don't know how to contact them.
So Phone2action started as a response to the question that I had is how can we not have any technology that makes it easier for people to connect with the lawmakers easily from whatever device that they have on their hands or on their desktop. So granted it's going to work on a desktop is going to be a set of technology that is accessible on a computer, but it should also be accessible on a phone or an iPad or any device that exists. And so that has been the mantra of Phone2action since the inception.
And our first platform was launched in 2013. And since then it has become one, if not the pioneer leader and leader at technology solution for grassroots advocacy. And for the listeners that never heard of Phone2action, you have seen Phone2action in action, perhaps even you have taken action on it in many of the campaigns that are out there to mobilize people on an issue.
For example, this year after COVID, a national nurses association, national restaurants association, farmers association have used Phone2action to advocate on issues. Expedia, Ben and Jerry's, Hall Mark are all companies that use Phone2action for advocacy, and now also for elections. So if you are a fan of Billie Eilish or Ariana Grande or Taylor Swift, you probably have used Phone2action to identify whether you're registered to vote or to find your polling locations or to register to vote.
So Phone2action, this is a long answer to your question, but Phone2action really has to stay very close to the vision that it had from the very beginning. But now it's definitely a more mature company. We had several rounds of venture capital. We were getting good funding around last year from a private equity firm.
And we started a process of acquisitions and the good of they use it today with the company. We are in the US, in all the States of the US, we’re in Canada and Australia and in Europe and their vision of democratizing policymaking and giving people tools to call the lawmakers into talk to them in the manner that they prefer at, anytime. That vision continues as strong to be, but the technology is even more empowering than ever was.
It's a powerful tool and a powerful story and a powerful system for giving power to the people that are responsible for making change happen in the society. And you're doing a fabulous job with that.
So now Ximena, you've had a pretty unique experience when you were growing up and then as an immigrant to the States. Now, as a successful founder of an organization that is having an impact. If you were to give advice to your younger self, with respect to how to approach the future to become as successful as you've become, what advice would you give to your younger self?
So, I never made a plan. I think life took me with life and I never said, I want to do this, this, this. And I think because of that, my instincts were always very ready to go. And they've got sharper over time because I continue to make decisions based on those things. And while I made mistakes, like the one I referred to earlier being a little bit naive when I took a political job, not knowing it was a political job, I did make mistakes like that. I think that I'd rather have gone that way and follow my instincts than not because then today I wouldn't have the intuition and the guts that I have, that makes everything's so much easier.
So the advice that I will give to me as a younger self, it probably would be to look a little bit for more fun in the picture. I think I have had my set of fun, but I did the work a tremendous amount of hours, 14 to 16 hours a day, for years is sometimes unsustainable. And today I realize that I could have done it with less.
And I could've spent a little bit more time in other things and maybe spending more time with my father before he passed away. I remember when he passed away, I was so close to him and it was crushing, crushing for me that I didn't stay with him his last month of life. And I didn't because my work ethics were a little bit to the extreme.
And I came back to the US after seeing him sick in January and then my dad passed away in February. I wish I would have stayed with him and spend of all of those weeks with him, it would have been nothing. It would make no harm to anyone. It didn't really need me here for those three, four weeks, they didn't make a difference in my job in a dramatic way. And I could have done that. And I didn't.
So I think the advice is, family is always first. It has to be always be first. And job is going to be there tomorrow and being smart about the hours. I don't talk about balance because I don't think there’s a good word for it because I think everyone's schedule is different and people have to make the best of it and everything in my life, in my opinion is sort of blurry, all the lines blur. But I do think that you do want to think about regrets and trying not to have regrets. And I do have that regret about my father and I hope not to have it again with anyone I love.
Yes, absolutely. And Ximena, now, I know your child is a little too young for you to have seen Coco, but the movie is about the Mexican day of the dead. And one of the most magnificent parts of it is that as long as people are remembered, they stay in this other universe, they are totally lost when they are forgotten.
And one of the most beautiful things in your story, is that the impact that your father, his reading is sharing insights with you from early on, had on you, retelling that story to a certain extent, keeps him and his memory alive. Which is wonderful to see and hear because he is represented therefore in you and through you.
Now, one final thought. I was wondering if there are any leadership resources that you find yourself recommending to others and say, this might be a good thing for you to think about as you look to improve your own leadership and leading your organizations.
So leadership to me is an act of love in every way. And I think the more you give to other people, and I'm not trying to be self promoter here or cheesy, I generally, I think the more giving we do, the better leaders we become and our sphere of influence becomes wider. And so memberships to any communities where there are voluntary opportunities.
Those are very important. I'm a member of the Washington economic lab, where I try to participate in this scholars effort. Has several efforts for entrepreneurs and for people in need, especially people of color. And I am very close to a lot of people. So a lot of those, my friends that were waitresses and house cleaners 20 years ago, they're still my friends.
And so that is an opportunity for me also to help and that's a lot that I learned from them as well. In terms of resources, there are three books that I can think of. The first one is actually a book in education, it’s called Schools that learn and it was written by Peter Senge, which is an MIT professor that wrote their fifth discipline. And this book is not a book about education. This is a book about leadership because it talks about the five principles of leadership and mental models, personal mastery, etcetera. But it's a very good progression on how to achieve all of those and personal mastery. Why personal mastery is important for leadership because through personal mastery, you learn about yourself.
So you can help others. If you don't know your own weaknesses. So you can check yourself when you are making a mistake, you can check yourself. And that is so extremely important in mental model so you know the assumptions that we make about people.
Learning how to find those are important. So we have an open eye, because we're people of color, I'm a person of color, but that doesn't mean that I'm not going to have bias. I can have bias too against others. So it's as important to check ourselves.
And then the other book that I really like is Ninja innovation. It was written by Gary Shapiro. This book is all about technology and consumer electronics, innovation, and also the journey of it. And it's very interesting. It was a good crash for me into technology. And I appreciate everything that Gary has there because he has a lot of vignettes about times with Bill Gates and stuck up in the same room. And it's just very interesting.
The last one is this one or you have probably seen it, Mahan, is the How to lead book. I'm actually just reading this book and it was written by David Rubinstein. It just came out a couple of months ago. It's about the wisdom from the world's greatest CEOs. You have here people like Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos, but also RGB is in it. And I'm really looking forward to read the way that they exercised and learn to become better leaders.
Fabulous. What great recommendations of resources and more importantly, what a magnificent life story, where you have pursued your aspirations have been impactful, have worked at all levels within the society, moved yourself up, educated yourself, started an impactful organization. So I am sure you are going to accomplish many more great things.
And I look forward in the future catching up again with you, Ximena, but thank you so much for sharing your story, your passion and your vision with the audience of the partnering leadership podcast.
Thank you so much for having me and thanks everyone for listening.