NextGen Collective spotlights MIT graduate student Cindy Heredia. Read on about the very interesting project she’s leading, the importance of “unplugging,” her art goals, and more.
Where are you from?
I am originally from Laredo, Texas. My mother’s side of the family is from Tamaulipas, Mexico and my father’s is from Michoacán, Mexico. Living on the border meant that I had the privilege of spending time in both countries!
What do you do today?
Currently I am a grad student at MIT. The project I am leading right now is the MIT-Pitt-RW Autonomous Racing team. I inherited the team in late 2021 as the general manager, which is kind of like a team principal if you follow Formula 1. Our team participates in the Indy Autonomous Challenge, which is a competition that brings together various universities around the world to develop self-driving race cars. We are also the only student-led team participating.
The experience on the team has been like that of a startup, where you’re starting with a blank canvas and really trying to put something together. You’re thinking not just about the technical development, but the operations, fundraising, and team development.
Since embarking on this journey, we’ve put in a ton of work to ensure that our vehicle is safe and robust enough to hit competitive behavior and speeds. We are fortunate to be one of nine global finalists in the Indy Autonomous Challenge – and that is something we have been incredibly proud of. It’s been a great experience and has affirmed my passion for the self-driving industry.
Who inspired you the most in your life growing up?
My parents! I’ve been blessed to have an incredibly supportive family. Both immigrated to the US in search of a better life, and made immense sacrifices to ensure that my two brothers and I could have access to opportunity.
My mother would always tell me: “Don’t let anyone’s expectations dictate your own path in life. You’re in the driver’s seat, so keep on moving forward.” My father, despite having to work long hours to support us, always found time to make sure we were okay and provide any guidance if we needed it. Both also always prioritized experiences over things, which has influenced what I value in life today.
Whose career really inspires you?
It’s so difficult to point to one person because there’s always so many. But recently, I’ve been incredibly inspired by Jenny Larios Berlin, who was the co-founder of Optimus Ride, a self-driving vehicle startup. It’s been incredible hearing the story of how she built the company and was able to combine her passion for tech with her passion for expanding access to mobility.
At MIT, she’s also doing an incredible amount of work to get underrepresented students access to entrepreneurial resources. She’s always thinking of ways of paying it forward, which is something I really value and hope to also do over the course of my career.
What lesson did you learn early in your career that still serves you today?
Don’t be afraid to use your voice, even if it initially feels extremely uncomfortable. As humans, our voices are an essential part of our identity – of who we are. It is easier said than done, but if you think about your comfort with it as a muscle – you can only improve with practice!
The more I learned about myself and my voice, the more I understood that in order to make an impact in the spaces I’m in I had to let go of the expectation that “calladita te ves más bonita” (“you’re prettier when you’re quiet”). I needed to take up space and not apologize for it.
What are some of the biggest challenges you see for Latinx professionals early in their careers?
A challenge I’ve faced, and sometimes still struggle with, is imposter syndrome. There have been many moments in the past where I’ve been guilty of undervaluing myself and attributing our successes to just luck. Sadly, it’s a phenomenon that too many women of color relate to. Combined with a general lack of representation, this often can feel very isolating.
My advice to this is to try to find community – whether it be at your workplace or outside of it. Knowing that there are others who share similar experiences and feelings can be incredibly comforting and help reduce those feelings of isolation. In Boston, I met and connected with many Latinx young professionals through ALPFA and, at a later point, through my previous company’s Latinx employee resource group. The relationships and support system I built helped put me on a path towards building confidence in myself.
What is part of your daily routine that you look forward to every day?
“Unplugging” time. To me, this is sitting down with a good book, going on a long hike or run, or taking in the fresh air at a park. Disconnecting from the demands of everyday life allows me to reset and refocus appreciation and gratitude for the life we have been given. It also forces me to go through periods of reflection that are often easily pushed off to another day.
Which causes are you passionate about?
I’m very passionate about using emerging technologies to improve societal issues, especially those that affect underserved communities, such as the one I grew up in. I believe autonomous vehicles, if introduced intentionally and with care, will reshape our cities and redefine socioeconomic mobility.
What is one non-work related goal that you would like to achieve in the next five years?
I’d love to be able to take an arts course abroad before beginning my post-graduation role. It’s been a dream of mine for a long time, and there’s definitely an opportunity for it this summer.
What’s one thing we’d never be able to guess from your LinkedIn profile?
One of the ways I weave that into my work with MIT-Pitt-RW is by designing all of our team swag and gear. It allows me to have those moments where I can express my creativity a bit.