How to Go from Poverty to a Harvard MBA

I’m pleased to share with you my interview with a young man who went from poverty to a Harvard MBA. It’s a compelling story that offers hope to anyone who feels they don’t have any.

My friend, Camilo Maldonado, along with his twin brother Francisco, publish the blog The Finance Twins (appropriate name, yes?). Camilo runs the blog full-time while his brother practices medicine as a radiologist.

The twins’ story is a powerful one. They grew up in Colombia as young boys. They lost their father to cancer at an early age. Camilo will tell us about the journey from Colombia to the U.S. and how growing up poor shaped who he is today.

Their mother was the rock that held the family together, working three jobs to keep food on the table and a roof over their heads. It’s a story sure to inspire anyone who feels like they don’t see a way forward in their current situation. Imagine how proud his mother was knowing she supported him through poverty to a Harvard MBA. It’s a remarkable story.

Do you have a story about overcoming a significant obstacle or adversity in your life? If so, I’d love to talk to you for my interview series. Contact me to learn more. Of send an email to fred@moneywithapurpose.com.

Let me introduce you to my friend Camilo and his inspiring story.

How to Go from Poverty to a Harvard MBA

Tell us a little about yourself.

Hi everyone! My name is Camilo, and I am the co-founder of The Finance Twins, a personal finance website I started with my twin brother.

Born in South America, I grew up in Minnesota before settling in the Northeast after leaving home from college. It was a huge change to go from living near the equator to heading up to what felt like the frozen tundra. Now I can’t imagine having been raised anywhere else!

One of the first things we did upon moving to Minnesota was to get ice hockey skates from a used equipment store so that we could learn to skate and play hockey with everyone else.

After high school, I moved to the east coast for college, and my professional career has always revolved around finance, start-ups, and consumer companies. I was fortunate to be able to attend incredible universities and have a master’s degree in business from Harvard.

I now focus on The Finance Twins full-time, which is a lot of work, but it is very gratifying to help other people make solid financial decisions. Teaching someone how to make a budget might seem simple, but the impact it can have on a family is tremendous. I’ve seen it and experienced it first hand.

However, nothing is more important to me than my family. I lost my dad when I was young, so it’s a huge priority for me to be present and highly engaged with my family. At the end of the day, that’s what matters.

I know you lost your father at a very young age when you were in Colombia. That had a huge impact on you and your brothers. Can you tell us that story?

The day after my parents’ wedding, my dad was diagnosed with brain cancer. Shell-shocked, they rushed dad into emergency neurosurgery to eliminate the tumor. A horrific way to start a marriage. Fortunately, the procedure was successful, and my dad was cancer free, for now.

For a few years, my dad’s health was perfect, and he figured his cancer was now in the rear-view mirror. But several years later his cancer returned. He was only given a few months to live. Losing our dad to cancer was easily the most consequential thing that happened to my family.

I was only seven years old, but emotionally, I was gutted. I was barely old enough to understand what was happening. But even then I knew my life would be very different moving forward.

My mom made the courageous decision to keep us in the U.S.  She could have gone back to our native home-country where extended family and emotional support surrounded us. She made that sacrifice so that we’d have more educational and professional opportunities.

Her decision to stay here was the first in a series of thousands of smaller decisions that led me to where I am today.

What financial consequences did those early years have? What did you learn from them?

Losing your dad when you’re only beginning to understand the world is excruciating, both emotionally and financially.

My mom and dad poured every penny they had into his cancer treatments in the hope of extending his life. My mom was left with very little money and three young children. Not exactly the best place you want to find yourself: heartbroken and broke.

As a result, we grew up at or below the poverty line for virtually my entire childhood. But this taught me a few very important lessons.

Lessons learned

The first lesson was that you don’t need to be rich to be happy. Overall, I truly had an incredibly happy childhood. No, I didn’t have the latest gadgets or newest clothes and shoes. But my brothers and I had the absolute best time hanging out with each other and playing soccer.

Our dad’s passing also showed us that nothing is more important than family. Our struggles created a tight-knit family. We knew we’d need each other to make it through the tough times.

Finally, our story highlights the importance of having life insurance. Life insurance was off the table for my dad because he was diagnosed with brain cancer at such a young age. He didn’t have any symptoms until the day after his wedding. It didn’t make sense for him to have life insurance when he was single since he didn’t have any financial dependents. Once he had the pre-existing condition it was impossible for him to get coverage.

If he had carried life insurance, it could have made all of the difference for our family from a financial standpoint. Knowing the difference between term vs. whole life insurance is important so that you make an informed decision.

I still think about and reflect on those lessons, because my brothers and I want to be sure to pass them on to our own kids.

Related:
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Why Money is Not the Most Important Thing in Life

You and your brothers began working at a very young age. How did that change you?

Working as a 15 or 16-year-old to help pay some of the bills at home is pretty humbling. I worked a blue collar job part-time. I worked alongside people who worked the same jobs to support entire families.

It helped me realize that the view that hard work directly translates to professional and financial success is not based on truth. Yes, you need hard work to get those things. But hard work alone doesn’t guarantee it. I’ve worked with extremely hard-working people who barely earned enough to cover their rent and food, let alone save for retirement.

It was that experience that probably helped influence my desire to learn everything I could about personal finance.

You also talked on your blog how hard it was for you to be around all the seemingly wealthy people at your Ivy League school. What was the hardest thing? What did you learn from it?

Against all the odds, I was able to attend the Wharton School of Business to study finance after high school. It was not a likely step for someone with my background, so I feel extremely fortunate. But the transition wasn’t easy.

One of the hardest things that humans can experience is the feeling of loneliness. The sense of isolation that someone might experience in a new environment with seemingly no one who can relate to them can be tough.

I always knew how big of a blessing it was to attend the incredible schools I got into, so that also contributed to a feeling of guilt. In a way, I had won the jackpot by working hard and being accepted to my dream job. That left me confused about the shame I felt.

Lessons learned

Overnight, I was suddenly surrounded by peers who grew up in wealthy families and never had to worry or struggle financially. I felt like I was the only person who wasn’t rich. I knew it wasn’t actually the case. But it seemed like the other people who didn’t have money tried to hide it, and it was very isolating.

But that experience also taught me powerful lessons. For one, I learned that no amount of money could buy you happiness. I had friends whose parents were multi-millionaires, yet they still couldn’t seem to find happiness. They struggled with the same fears and worries that I had. It was a shock to my system to realize that since I thought that once I had money I’d be set for life.

This realization was so powerful for me because it fundamentally shaped my personal finance philosophy. In high school, I would work so that I could buy things to make it appear that I wasn’t poor. Now, I prefer to invest and save my money, knowing that others’ perception of me is irrelevant. True happiness comes from within.

That’s a powerful lesson to learn at a young age. Can you tell us a little about your career path?

As I mentioned, stepping onto that Ivy League campus, I felt like a fish out of water. Some of those years were hard. However, going to Wharton and Harvard opened up so many doors for me. It allowed me to intern on Wall Street as a 20-year-old.

I went from wondering if I would have a job after college to an understanding I could get nearly any job I wanted if I worked hard enough for it. That’s a huge privilege offered by attending a top-tier university. Virtually overnight, my life was on a different trajectory.

Upon graduation, I joined JPMorgan in their investment banking divisions. I wanted to join a large company where I could learn from talented colleagues and get paid well so that I could help my mom financially.

During my time on Wall Street, my colleagues and I worked around the clock (working between 80-95 hours per week on average) to offer our corporate clients advisory services. Large companies would hire our group to help them buy other businesses or raise money in the stock market by going public.

After leaving JPMorgan, I jumped into the start-up world. I also went back to graduate school for an MBA at Harvard. After graduation, I jumped back into another start-up before leaving to pursue my dream of starting a personal finance website to help everyday people make solid financial decisions. That’s how The Finance Twins was born.

What encouragement would you give others who grew up or are currently living in poverty?

The first thing I’d say is that anything is possible. If you would’ve told me when I was ten years old that I would one day live and work in NYC on Wall Street, or that I’d have an MBA from Harvard I’d never believe you. Not in a million years. Yet here we are!

So don’t give up or lose hope.

The 2nd thing is that if you are living in poverty, there is a good chance that you never learned anything about personal finance at home. If you are working, you might even have a 401K plan at work that you aren’t taking advantage of. If you don’t know what a 401K is, you’ll want to get up to speed. The same thing goes for learning about what an IRA is.

Finally, the 3rd thing is that you shouldn’t let your financial situation define you or your self-worth. I’ve met a lot of people who aren’t where they want to be financially at no fault of their own. All you can do is focus on growing, and doing your best. As long as you focus on doing your best you will be fine. Even if you don’t reach all of your goals, you’ll still end up a lot better than if you would have just given up hope and stagnated.

Worst case, you’ll still end up better than most of your peers who come from a similar place. Best case, you’ll overcome all of the roadblocks and hurdles to doing amazing things.

Just do your best!

Photo of Camilo in his cap and gown at Harvard graduation
Camilo at his Harvard Graduation

Final thoughts

Thanks, Camilo for sharing your story. Going from poverty to a Harvard MBA is a huge accomplishment that not many achieve. I love what you shared about the lessons you learned along the way. Learning the importance of family and making that your top priority is one of the best. It’s a credit to your mom for working so hard for so long to make sure you and your brothers had opportunities.

It’s a credit you and your brothers for taking advantage of those opportunities and using them to become the men you are today.

I do these interviews to offer hope and inspiration. Camilo and Francisco’s story offer both. These stories are not uncommon ones. They just don’t get told enough.

Life is hard at times. We all go through adversity and trials. How we deal with them shapes who we are.

I’m grateful to Camilo and all those who have told their stories here. The human spirit is strong. These stories remind me of that time and time again. I hope they do you as well.

Now it’s your turn. What inspired you about Camilo’s story? How can you use the lessons in your own life? How can you encourage someone struggling with something? Let us know in the comments. 

8 thoughts on “How to Go from Poverty to a Harvard MBA

  1. Great story Camilo! Congratulations. I work with people whose sudden cancer diagnosis throws them into a spiral financially and emotionally all the time. A terrible situation.

    You and your brother overcame it. That picture is fantastic of you graduating at Harvard. Well done! Keep up the great work on your website.e

  2. It is inspiring that you can achieve one of the loftiest goals in education and get a degree from Harvard. Both your brother and yourself have done incredibly well and shows that drive and determination can overcome a lot of adversity.

    Losing your father at that early age could have set you completely on another course and no one would have faulted you. I too lost my father early (I was 14) from Pancreatic cancer. He was a physician and I got the inspiration to become one myself from him.

  3. Xray – so sorry to hear about your father. Our dad’s passing was definitely a huge motivator for my twin to become a physician.

    Our outcome was definitely not the most likely, and we are grateful we were able to overcome it.

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