Aug. 29, 2019

Driven by a Passion with Manny Hernandez

Can you take something you're passionate about and make it the focal point of your career? Manny Hernandez did, but it was a tough journey filled with long days and personal sacrifices.

Manny candidly shares why he made the choices he did and the challenges he faced including the one that forced him to leave the organization he built and loved.

Meet the Guest
Manny Hernandez is an internationally recognized health advocate who has lived with diabetes since 2002. He co-founded the Diabetes Hands Foundation (DHF) driven by the belief that no one living with diabetes should feel alone. DHF was a global leader in diabetes social media and diabetes advocacy between 2007 and 2017.
 
In May 2015, he joined Livongo Health, the leading consumer digital health company with the vision to empower all people with chronic conditions to live better and healthier lives as SVP of Member Experience. In October 2017, he became Livongo’s SVP of Culture and Learning.
 
Since 2016, he has been a member of the Editorial Advisory Board of Diabetic Living Magazine. He has held key volunteer roles with International Diabetes Federation, American Diabetes Association, American Association of Diabetes Educators, and other diabetes advocacy groups.
 
Born in Venezuela, he came to the US in 2000 and lives in the Bay Area with his wife and artist Andreina Davila, his musician son Santiago, and their poodle Lucas. Manny holds a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering from Universidad Metropolitana in Venezuela and a Master of Engineering in Electrical Engineering from Cornell University.

Gallup Strengths:
1. Woo
2. Communication
3. Positivity
4. Achiever
5. Includer

Links

If you or someone you know is touched by diabetes, join the online communities founded by Manny and his wife, Andreina Davila.


Transcript

Beth Davies, host:    
Many people wonder if it's possible to take something they're passionate about and make it the focal point of their career. Some decide that they can't and have side hustles or volunteer gigs devoted to their passions while supporting themselves with a day job. Some like our guests today work hard to combine their work and their passion.

Welcome to Career Curves where we talk to people who have had interesting careers and explore how they got to where they are today.

Today we're joined by Manny Hernandez who shares his difficult journey and how he ultimately combined his passion and his career.

Manny is currently the senior vice president of culture and learning at Livongo, a Silicon Valley startup focused on empowering people with chronic conditions to live better and healthier lives. He studied electrical engineering in Venezuela and then started his career at Proctor & Gamble where he held a variety of positions including manager of electricity and instrumentation line, manager for the diaper production line, and education and recruiting manager. He then curved into web development and moved to the US.

We started our conversation about six years into his career when he was the project manager and customer service manager at GrupTech International in Phoenix, Arizona.

I started the interview by asking Manny about the news he received that changed the trajectory of his career

Manny Hernandez, guest:             
In 2002, I was diagnosed with diabetes. It was a shock and it, it kind of set the stage for things to follow. It exposed me to peers, others like myself who would be basically insulin pump users, that I met as part of a support group. And that connection, that sense of belonging, that sense of relating with the people around the table was a very pivotal point in my life. It made me feel like there could be an opportunity in translating that experience into something that others could have and doing so in a virtual manner. So that kind of set the stage for things.

Beth:                
What was it in your background that made you think that that was something you could do?

Manny:             
How far back do you want to go?

Beth:                
As far back as you want?

Manny:             
So, I'm an electrical engineer by training. I went to school for that. So I had a background in technology to begin with. Subsequently, I went into web product development. It equipped me with enough information and training to be dangerous and to realize that there was a possibility to take what was in existence at the time – we're talking the time where MySpace was all the rage, so social media in its early stage – so taking that concept and adapting it to people with diabetes to create a space where people could find virtually what I was able to find in that room, surrounded by my peers in an insulin pump users support group.

Beth:                
And why was that community so important to you that you wanted to recreate that for others?

Manny:            
What I felt and what I learned in a matter of one hour surrounded by my peers in that support group was unlike anything that I've felt in my life before. When you are diagnosed with a chronic condition like diabetes, a lot of things go through your mind and one of them is this sense of, "Am I the only one feeling this? Am I the only one thinking this?"

Until that meeting, as crazy as it may sound, I hadn't met anybody else outside of my family members with diabetes who live with it. So it limited my ability to just ask questions and just be able to relate to what others were going through. I can remember distinctively how going around the room there were some introductions and people were talking about how they were going about their everyday lives, why they came in that day, what were some of the challenges they were experiencing? And almost every single word that came out of their mouth, I though, "I know what you mean. I can relate to that. This is exactly what I go through."

It doesn't really matter how supportive a family or network of friends you have. It's different if you don't have the condition. So to be able to relate to them at that level was hugely important. So I felt there was something there.

Around that time too, I read a book by journalist Thomas Friedman, The World is Flat, and there was a reference in there about exploring the use of social media for more than socializing. Those two elements combined kind of gave birth to what followed, which was our decision to find a suitable platform to create two online communities for people with diabetes, one in English called tudiabetes.org and one in Spanish called estudiabetes.org.

Beth:                
How did you find the space in your life to pursue this passion?

Manny:             
This was the second shift, so to speak. At the time I was working in a college in central Florida called Full Sail University, I was the the web product manager for the entire internal online experience for students and for staff. I would do this during the day and I loved it. I had a great friend as my boss who was also from Venezuela, where I'm from. We talk about these things that I was thinking about.

So when I would get home, I would sit down after dinner and dive in, and spend probably until midnight or 1:00 AM almost every day working on this and thinking in the back of my head, "Wouldn't it be awesome if I could do this, if this were my job?" Fast forward and eventually we made that happen.

And I say we, because my wife became a central part of this along with me. We're Ying and Yang. I'm an engineer by training. She is a designer and architect, an artist by training. So we complement each other very well in that respect. I brought in the thinking in a more structural fashion about how do we build this community, how do we do this, how do we...

Beth:                
What's the technology...

Manny:             
...And she would make it look amazing. So, it was a second shift type of job, something we would do after hours. She half jokes to this day and says that she joined me because otherwise what kind of time would she have to spend with me?

Beth:                
I was gonna ask about that. Tell me about some of the decisions you were making during this point about how you are creating for yourself work-life balance.

Manny:             
I can't save there was much, or almost any, work-life balance to be honest. I think that comes when you find something that you just are so passionate about that just doing it is what you want to do and so you almost have to go out of your way to make sure that doesn't completely take over your life. But I was working and so was my wife, Andreina, crazy hours to bring this to life.

Beth:                
At some point somebody had to say, "We have to rethink this. It's not going to work indefinitely to be working full time on a job and then doing your own thing in the evenings, and then sleeping for a fraction, a small amount of hours, and then doing it all over again." What caused that next wave of change? How did that happen?

Manny:             
I guess deep within me I held on to the dream of turning this into what I could dedicate my life to, but at the same time, as probably most engineers, I was extremely practical. I also enjoyed my day job and was looking at how I could potentially further my career in that space. And so I started exploring opportunities in the west coast, in the Bay Area specifically.

It is not without irony that one of the opportunities that materialized eventually was with the very company that I was using as the platform for the communities that we built. At the time, it was independently owned and called the Ning. It subsequently got acquired, but I came out to interview and it was a great fit because I was an example of what could be done with their platform to grow a community.

So fast forward a few months, we moved to Palo Alto and I took a job with them. This is a startup and as any startup I was working really crazy hours and still doing the second shift thing. This is early 2008 and a friend of ours gave us the opportunity to stand by their booth at the American Diabetes Association Expo in Santa Clara, California. We stand there and we're handing out flyers, promoting the two communities, just grassroots raising awareness. Along comes this guy wearing khaki shorts, so totally not looking like what he was. He was an executive from a firm that was working with Johnson & Johnson who had identified the work that we were doing in these two communities and, in particular, a program that we developed called Word In Your Hand where we had members write on the palm of their hand a word that described how they felt about life with diabetes and then post it. Super simple. Today, of course, there's Instagram and there's an overload of images. Back then, it was Flickr and that was kind of it.

So, this gentleman approached me and tells me that he had been trying to get ahold of me for awhile and he wanted to meet us in their office in San Francisco to show us what they think we could do.

Beth:                
What were you feeling at this moment?

Manny:             
I was in disbelief. I was in complete disbelief. It's like, "You gotta be kidding me." Because at this time, Andrena and I were still going nuts until 1:00 in the morning, with a dream in the back of our heads. We were still pushing, but it wasn't easy and there wasn't necessarily a business plan. There was not a clear end in sight. We just kept pushing.

The next day, we show up at their office and we were just blown away. These guys had really done their homework and they had a vision for a cause marketing campaign leveraging this particular program. It took several months, but essentially that seed money allowed us to launch a nonprofit which became Diabetes Hands Foundation.

We then subsequently plugged the two communities as the first programs of the foundation and that gave us our start.

Beth:                
Was that enough money for you to be able to leave Ning?

Manny:             
Yes, that was effectively the time. It was a very short stint there, only four months.

Beth:                
I think one of the challenges that people sometimes have is they take a job and then they feel like they are beholden to it for a certain amount of time. How did you manage that exit from Ning?

Manny:             
The story with Ning is interesting. For us to succeed meant that they had a great success story to tell as well, so they were very supportive. In fact, following my exit, which was very above board, very transparent and super respectful, they connected me with the folks from the For Dummies series. I ended up authoring the Ning for Dummies book, which sold a stunning few copies.

I am a firm believer, no matter where you are and why you leave, about the importance of always being very transparent and always being very professional because you never know who you could run into next. And that stays with you. If you burn those bridges, that stays with you...

Beth:                
Or if nothing else, your dignity stays intact.

Manny:             
Absolutely.

Beth:             
So now you're a year that you were doing the foundation and still at your home. Did it get to a point where you moved it out of the kitchen, dining room and every other room of your house?

Manny:             
With the money we got, we were able to launch the foundation. It was our seed money, but there was a clear leap of faith. There was clarity about the fact that we were not gonna have enough money to take us through the year so we were going to have to beg and borrow, not steal, to bridge the gap because it was a multi year agreement. The next January and the following January, there would be a fresh amount that would be received.

I cannot describe it in any other way than a belief that it was just the right thing to do. It was kind of like now or never. And this is 2008, so it was not the best time to quit a secure job, but nevertheless, at least knowing that there would be this cushion that we could rely on. Then get as sharp as we could and do it as fast as we could, start to diversify our funding sources became our priority along with continuing to develop the communities.

Beth:                
I want to talk just a little bit more about the leap of faith that you mentioned because I think it's important for people to understand when you would advise a leap of faith and when you wouldn't.

Manny:             
What I would say about leaps of faith is that it is super important for you to be attentive to the signs around you. What do I mean by that? I went to school for a challenging degree. Electrical engineering is not easy. I didn't close the doors to opportunities I could explore. If I saw something that was interesting or attractive, I would try it. For example, I was involved with the school newspaper. I was involved with the student council. I was involved with a short lived science and technology publication. Some of those were me just trying things. And I found things that I liked and things that I didn't like.

I've kept that as almost a norm that I follow. I stick just always stay open. And that began honestly with even my choice of major. I didn't really know exactly what I wanted to do and I think probably most of your listeners can relate to that. This is like – I'm dating myself – 1988, 1989 and I didn't know what to do.

My dad got me a big catalog from McMaster University in Canada and I started just browsing through it to see what speaks to me. I saw some classes in the biomedical engineering degree that sounded interesting. I guess there was a little bit of the seed of doing something ultimately with a goal of helping others or enabling others. We didn't have biomedical engineering inVenezuela back then (I don't think we have now either), so the closest thing was electrical engineering. So it's kind of that like, "Okay, keep yourself open and don't box yourself in."

I guess you could say, "Okay, after all the effort and time you put into getting a degree in electrical engineering, you might as well do it." Right?

But in my first job out of Grad school, my first three years were doing engineering or industrial or production engineering work and then my last year was doing HR. I discovered I had this passion for people and people development, like identifying the right talent and bringing them in and then helping them grow and shine and excel. The head of HR at that location saw that in me and said, "Do you want to join?" I said, "Sure."

I guess the counter side of that is, "Do I have this grand vision of that next step?" Sometimes not. Sometimes I do, like in the case of the leap of faith, there was always that driving force of "this is what I would really like to do if I could." So we were afforded the opportunity and it wasn't perfect.  

I think that's the other piece of advice: if you wait for the perfect time, you may never do it. That is not just with career changes but with decisions at work. You're going to have to operate under circumstances where you don't have all the elements and you have to make the absolute best decision you can with what you have in front of you.

Beth:   
You've already shared that you're an engineer, so very pragmatic. But still you recognize that even as an engineer, I'm not going to have all the facts and there's a time that I'm going to have to make a leap of faith.

What I'm hearing also in your story, Manny, that I think is really interesting is when you talk about opening up a lot of doors and exploring a lot, that that gave you a versatility so that when there were some different opportunities – whether it was the HR person early in your career saying, "I see something in you," or just some other shifts you're making – there's probably an ability to walk through some of those opportunities because you can say, "I've got a lot of doors open and and I now have a comfort. Would you say that that's true?

Manny:             
Yeah, and I think also it's the comfort and the excitement that comes from having to learn something new: learn a new job, learn a new space. You know, all I had when I had my first HR role with Proctor & Gamble in Venezuela, was a profound belief in the importance of people and developing them – helping recruit the best talent, train them, etc, etc. That was it. I didn't have any background in HR, so I set out on a journey to learn how to best do this, but it was always fueled by this passion for the topic.

Beth:                
So when you haven't known how to do something, but you've had the passion, how have you convinced others that you will learn whatever the pieces are and that you can succeed even though you don't have those pieces?

Manny:             
Today at age 47, at least I can refer back to the times that I've done it. I've had to learn so many jobs or so many opportunities from scratch because there was no book about it or, if there was, I just hadn't read it.

Another instance where this also holds true was when we started the nonprofit. I had absolutely zero experience in this and so did my wife. There's a publisher called Nolo that writes extraordinarily accessible books on a variety of legal topics. The book we got literally as we were forming a nonprofit, (we did get actual proper legal advice too, I should say) just to know what we were talking about was like How to Form a Nonprofit in California, which is where we were residing and we just devoured it.

So I would say, in general, just seeing it as something fun, interesting, and unknown territory. But, you're probably not the first person doing it. Finding someone you can talk to, learn from, ask questions to, seeing if they are willing. We did a lot of that early on. For example, with a nonprofit and built a our network grew in two areas: the diabetes sector, which was the sector we were serving, but also the nonprofit sector, learning from our peers and finding best practices, going to conferences where you can listen to other people that have been there, done that.

Beth:                
So you have this passion around building this community, particularly around diabetes. You get the chance to form the foundation. How long were you able to keep the foundation going? Is it still going now? Take me through some more of the story. Fast forward a little bit.

Manny:             
The dissolution came in 2017. I left the foundation a couple of years prior and that was certainly one of those career curves; I guess more of a life curve that was thrown.

A few years earlier, my mother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer's and as we learned more about this disease, we realized that what lies ahead is not an easy journey and it's certainly a journey that regardless of where you live, but certainly in California with the cost of living, was not going to be one that we could afford. I had my salary from the foundation and it was a salary that we could live on along with my wife's income (at that point, she had moved on from the foundation, so we had grown the team, so it was all good), but it was not enough. Furthermore, I had visibility into my mother's finances – I was her only child, – so I knew how much she had in terms of savings that we could put towards her care. So I knew exactly my runway and I knew that by no later than March or April of 2015, I was going to have to leave the foundation.

Now that transition has been one of the toughest ones in my life because for the better part of a year or year and a half, I was looking for a way to make it work. Literally finding out a way where I could stay in the foundation, which I loved and wanting to continue doing, while being in a position that I could afford my mother's care. At some point, mid-July or mid-August 2014, I hit a wall. Literally, I woke up to what looked like just about any day – the typical back-to-back type meeting packed day – and I looked at it and I froze. I told my wife, "I don't know what I'm going to do. I can't do any of this." It was like I was paralyzed and I had one particularly important call I had to do.

And she said, "You're gonna tell everyone that you've had an emergency and you have to cancel everything. You're not lying, it's true. And you're gonna rest and we're gonna talk about this." That evening, we came to the conclusion that I just had to move on. So, to the point of not burning bridges, of course this was perhaps one of the most precious bridges to us. The following board meeting was one of the most intense and passionate I had ever been in. I had already talked to the executive committee, they knew about the fact that I had to do this and a lot of time was spent trying to figure out how to make it work. In fact, they went as far as to say, "What if we increase your salary?" But, the foundation couldn't pay me enough for me to stay. What I'm going to need to make, it's not right for the foundation pay me.

I remember the attorneys that helped us early on in the foundation said, "You can pay yourself whatever you want. There's no law forbidding that. But what you have to think, as a president your salary is going to be public because as a public charity, it appears in your tax returns for your organization. So just consider how would you feel if that got disclosed in the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle. If you feel it's fine with it, then great." And that stuck with me.

Beth:               
Especially because, as you shared earlier, you value transparency.

Manny:             
Yes.

Beth:                
And so here you're saying like, "Alright, I value transparency. This is going to require transparency and..."

Manny:
Yeah. At the end of the day, what I told my board was, "This is my problem. This is my life. This is my situation. The foundation should not have to bend over backward to help me solve it." And at the end of the day, it was super hard to stay my ground because I really had already made the decision, so I was not negotiating. But it was very touching, very humbling to see them try.

The next several months, it was a very long notice. This was in October and I ended up leaving in April of the following year. They were spent working on the communication to make sure that the transition did not undermine the foundation's position.

We had partnerships at this point. We were working with everyone in the Pharma and medical device space. So, we wanted to make sure that those partners had the confidence in the continuity of the foundation. We went onto identify an interim CEO to replace me. I overlapped with her about three months; I was introducing her to everyone. So, it was a very intentional and very thorough process that we went through in an attempt to protect the foundation and allow me the liberty to move on.

Beth:                
There were a couple of plates that you were spinning in that proverbial Vaudeville plate spinning routine. You're spinning the plate that says, "How do I wind down my involvement in the foundation in a way that preserves it?" Another plate, "How do I ramp up the new replacement?" Another plate, "How do I take care of my mother?" who during these months was probably continuing to decline because, unfortunately, that's the nature of the condition. And there's another plate that you haven't yet mentioned, which was you had to find your next job.

Manny:             
Yes.

Beth:                
How were you doing that? How were you spinning that plate? Did you segment it off and go, "I'm just going to wind this down before I look for the next job?" It doesn't sound like you had that kind of opportunity. What did you do?

Manny:             
Those moments were very interesting. I learned a lot. I grew a lot as a person, as a professional. This was one of the times where I actually did put on my engineering hat and thought this through a lot in terms of what's going to happen next. I did the math as to how much I needed to make to begin with. I then started thinking about, okay, so I have to move on from the foundation, but what are going to be the parameters that I'm going to have for myself for this job search coming up?

First off, I wanted the next thing to not be just a job. I wanted it to be something that I could really hang my hat on and say, "I believe in this. I can get behind this. This is part of something bigger than myself." And to be completely candid, for some time prior to this moment in my life, having been several years this point in the nonprofit sector, I struggled with the idea that I could find that outside of the nonprofit sector. I now know that that's not the case, but that meant that part of my initial search included some of the larger nonprofits.

The next parameter was recognizing what is one of the biggest assets I can bring to any future employer? And part of it had to do with the relationships I had built in the diabetes space. So, the non-compromised thing was it can't be just a job. And now the softer constraints, one of them is, ideally, I should stay in diabetes or chronic conditions. It makes sense. I can continue to build on that strength.

The other parameter which was very practical and had a lot to do with family, was trying to minimize the need for uprooting. So at a high level, try to stay in California and limit changes for my mother. I learned subsequently that when you live with dementia or Alzheimer's changes trigger deterioration. So, I tried to keep things as stable and unchanged as possible for her.

With those parameters in place, I came up with a laundry list of places where I could see myself working, if there was an opportunity that could afford me the salary I needed to make. Also, for many years, I was like the president of the Diabetes Hands Foundation, but it was a smaller organization. Prior to that I'd had had senior titles. Thinking through "What does my next title look like? What does my next responsibilities look like?"

Beth:                
It wasn't necessarily that title was that important to you because you had made these other moves, but if you're going to command the salary that you had identified you needed, you recognized that title was going to be a part of it.

Manny:             
Yep. I started having confidential but candid conversations with a number of groups. On the nonprofit front, I was super transparent and would tell people, "This is what I need to make, just tell me if it's realistic or not." And it became very apparent that it was not gonna happen unless I was like the CEO of some of the larger groups.

So, okay, fine. I then pivoted and focused solely on this other search. Earlier that summer I had met Glen Tullman. Glen founded Livongo, where I am today, and Amar Kendale, who eventually became the chief product officer and my first boss at Livongo. We met for lunch actually before I even made the decision about moving on. I really liked them as people, as leaders. I was very inspired by what I heard Glen say.

Beth:                
What did they tell you at the time they were thinking of doing.

Manny:             
Already, the vision was crystal clear. In short, it was a platform to empower people – back then with diabetes, today with a variety of chronic conditions – to live better and healthier lives. Even the way they talked about it, the language they used, the words they did not use, the focus on the person living with a condition as opposed to the clinical environment surrounding them. All of that appealed to me. It's like, "I get it." But again, I wasn't looking at that point yet. It was a great conversation, but, let's keep in touch.

I subsequently contacted them and we initiated a dialogue. A few months later, in May 2015, I ended up joining the company, which met absolutely all the criteria, fortunately. There was definitely the kind of environment, the kind of product and the kind of mission that I saw myself getting behind and believing in deeply, supporting and telling others about proudly. But but I could also put to great use that strength, that network, those relationships I had built early on.

So that's where I've been since May of 2015.

Beth:                
So you make the move to Livongo. How was your mother's health during this time?

Manny:             
Unfortunately, as expected, her condition continued to deteriorate. The same summer that we had to dissolve the Diabetes Hands Foundation, so in August of 2017, she had a fall. While she was in the hospital recovering from the surgery she underwent was the last time I heard her voice. The next few months were just a very slow but steady slope where she deteriorated and she passed away in early February of 2018.

Beth:                
Sorry to hear that.

Manny:             
Thank you.

Beth:                
How did you manage your career at the same time that all of this was going on? 

Manny:             
It wasn't an easy.

The bright side was in October of 2017, I started a new role at Livongo. I had been doing initially business development, subsequently product work, and I loved everything I had done so far. There was an opportunity and a need to enter the People function. So, since October 2017, I became the senior vice president for culture and learning. It was, again, one of those learning opportunities, but again, an opportunity to have a tremendous impact in the company. Then the people working there were nothing short of amazing. They gave me the space, the time I needed to do what I needed to do to heal.

Beth:               
That's really quite a story, Manny, and I'm really thankful for you sharing it and being so candid.

Couple of last questions. What would you say is the smartest career move you made, whether it was intentional or accidental?

Manny:             
I would say there's a tie, honestly, between the decision to leave Ning to start the foundation with my wife and the decision to join Livongo.

Beth:               
If there was anything in your career that you could get a do-over for, what would it be? 

Manny:             
I don't think I would have studied electrical engineering. I think I might have studied systems engineering or nowadays I would even say organizational psychology.

Beth:                
Yes, as you're sitting in the HR / People space.

Manny:             
Yeah. I think it was a decision based on the best information I had at hand, but I'm pretty sure that if I knew what I know now, if I had perhaps a bit more information, I would have gone a slightly different route.

Beth:                
What's one piece of career advice that you'd give your younger self?

Manny:             
Don't be afraid. You might not see the light at the end of the tunnel. Make the most complete picture you can with the information at hand and move into a direction that feels right based on that.

Beth:                
Last question. How do you define success?

Manny:             
Being able to go to sleep at the end of the day and feel like you did your best, you gave it your all. I think a perfect day is one where where you did something where you helped someone else do the same. If you can do that every day, I think that's success to me. That makes me very happy. 

Beth:                
I love that. Manny, thank you so much.

Manny:             
Thank you for having me. This is great. I really appreciate the opportunity. 

Beth:              
Hey listeners, before you go, I've got a quick epilogue for you.

The Diabetes Hands Foundation Manny and his wife started dissolved in 2017, however, the online communities they created live on. You can find the English language community at tudiabetes.org, that's t-u-diabetes.org, and the Spanish language community at estudiabetes.org, that's e-s-t-u-diabetes.org. Links to both sites can be found on our website, CareerCurves.com, where you can find this episode, past episodes and resources to help you in your career.

As always, thanks for listening.