Four Cornerstones That Shaped My Childhood
Louis Hernandez Jr. (far-left) with his family in Los Angeles
They say you have to know where you came from in order to know where you are going. Today, I’m known as a successful CEO working in private equity and tech, as well as the founder of a nonprofit organization but I come from humble roots that have greatly influenced my success. As a child, my parents instilled in me and my siblings deep values that have become the four main cornerstones of my life — family, education, hard work, and community — the guiding principles I live by to this day and which I strive to instill in my own children.
Cornerstone 1: Family
Some of my fondest memories are of watching my sisters covering for each other to avoid getting into trouble with our Mom, a disciplinarian. To me, that’s what family is all about — the comfort and security of knowing that your loved ones have your back no matter what. I grew up in a sizable family, with an even larger extended family — over 100 cousins — and we have always been a close-knit group. Perhaps part of the reason for that was our challenging environment: inner-city Los Angeles.
Neither of my parents are native to Los Angeles. My father, Louis Sr., grew up near Detroit, Michigan surrounded by factories in a tiny home with four siblings. Yet, there was a lot of love, fun, and joy in that house, and my father’s family nurtured his love of music and creativity. After his career in the Navy, my father became both an entrepreneur and a college professor of computer science, settling in Compton. There, he met my mother, an immigrant from Mexico with little formal education (at that time) who worked with a dance troupe.
Living in Compton and later Watts was a daily struggle. Inner-city Los Angeles is an impoverished, gang-infested area with a great deal of crime, and so people rely heavily on their families for support. Our family has always been exceptionally close, supporting each other by sharing necessities, and I spent most of my weekends with my grandparents and cousins. I learned invaluable lessons — the importance of family and of sharing what you have with others.
I also learned to appreciate diversity. It’s always struck me as remarkable that my cousins and I could share such a similar upbringing, yet develop a wide range of different viewpoints and colorful personalities. I learned to appreciate each and every one of them, as everyone — no matter their circumstances — has something of value to share.
“I learned to appreciate each and every one of them, as everyone — no matter their circumstances — has something of value to share.” — Louis Hernandez Jr.
Cornerstone 2: Education
Although I spent most of my early years in dangerous inner-city Los Angeles, my parents were determined to move us to a safer neighborhood, and they knew that education was the path out of poverty. My father earned his MBA and worked at high-profile computer companies before becoming a college professor. My mother, despite having to juggle the many demands of a large family, worked day and night to earn her GED and then go to college. She went on to earn her Ph.D. in education and turned her love of learning into a career in teaching and school administration.
I know it wasn’t easy for them to balance their work, family, and educational goals. But thanks to my parent’s commitment to education, they were able to move us out of the inner-city and into the suburbs. They passed down their love of education to me; early on, it fueled my desire to be a lifelong learner. When I was just five years old, my Mom sparked my love of math by having me count food stamps and figure out how to get the most value out of them. Meanwhile, my Dad let me work in his computer lab on weekends, igniting my passion for technology. Because of their emphasis on learning, I became a computer tutor in high school. And of course, in my adult life, I have focused my career on building companies within the technology and private equity spheres.
I attribute much of my success to the cornerstone of education. I believe you must be a student of what you want to be good at. You have to understand the business you’re investing in, and that comes from education.
Cornerstone 3: Hard Work
It’s true that education establishes a foundation for success. However, education combined with a sound work ethic enables you to apply what you’ve learned and lift yourself above your circumstances. I saw that clearly in my parents. Their drive and determination, coupled with their commitment to education allowed them to provide a different life for me and my siblings. It also built a foundation for me to pursue my own dreams and taught me how important it is to not let perceived obstacles get in my way.
Growing up, my parents assumed that if their kids didn’t get straight As in school, they weren’t working hard enough. Knowing that my parents valued hard work, I not only excelled in school but also took on odd jobs as a kid — washing cars, mowing lawns, and so on. I was active in our church, my school, and participated in team sports, including soccer, football, track, and baseball. Today, my wife and our seven children love watching baseball games together; we’ve visited every single MLB stadium.
Louis Hernandez Jr. playing soccer as a child.
Growing up surrounded by hard-working family members is inspirational because you can clearly see the end reward of a strong work ethic. I could see this example in my paternal grandfather, who worked the production line at Ford for 45 years to create a better life for his family. I could also see examples in my cousins, many of whom were able to rise above their circumstances with hard work and education to become doctors, attorneys, or entrepreneurs. This influenced my later commitment to creating a diverse workforce at my companies, including my latest entrepreneurial endeavor — Black Dragon Capital, of which I am the founder, Managing Director, and CEO.
Cornerstone 4: Community
The fourth cornerstone my parents instilled in me is community. Before we moved to the suburbs and experienced a dramatically improved lifestyle, we struggled. We received a great deal of support from our community, church, and government assistance programs, and remain forever grateful for it. Without that help, I might still be stuck in gang-infested Watts.
We were active in our church, and this helped inspire us to give back. When my mom began her career as a teacher’s assistant, she would bring kids who also had food insecurity into our home. She’d feed them a good dinner and then help them select an item of clothing from our own closets. Since I was the only boy, my closet was the only one the boys could select from. This troubled me at the time considering we didn’t have much, but looking back, I realize that Mom was teaching us all a very valuable lesson in humanitarianism.
I carry these lessons with me to this day, making a point of prioritizing giving back to the community. My parents’ commitment to giving back inspired me to launch my nonprofit organization, For a Bright Future. I’m proud of my nonprofit’s many initiatives to support children and families in low-income neighborhoods, and I always enjoy seeing how these kids have used the support they’ve received to build a foundation for success in their own lives.
Family, Education, Hard Work, and Community
As I’ve continued my life’s journey, I’ve learned that there are many other guiding principles that are helpful for living a successful life in service to others. Yet, the cornerstones of family, education, hard work, and community have certainly been the primary influencers in my life, and my wife and I strive to pass these lessons down to our own seven children. I enjoy telling our kids stories of my childhood, and I try to help them understand the harsh realities of life in low-income neighborhoods so that they may be inspired to one day give back to their own communities.