Embracing the unplanned path 

Elva Fernandez Sanchez has explored the globe in pursuit of career opportunities, all while staying deeply connected to her Mazatlán roots.

I’ve sort of let life guide me. In Spanish, we call it ”que Dios me muestre.” (In English, it means, “Let God show me the way.”) I was born and raised in Mazatlán, Mexico. It’s a beach town; my mother’s house is just one street away from the beach. I remember going for early morning walks as the sun rose over the horizon and evening walks to watch the sunset. It’s a place where you can smell the salt lingering in the air from the ocean. I have memories of sitting with my paternal grandmother in the afternoons and sipping her cup of coffee and sharing family stories. Even after I left home to study abroad, I would fly miles home just to sit next to her for  our coffee talks. Mazatlán is the place I knew and where I belong, but I always wanted to see what else was out there.

My studies led me to the George Brown Institute of Technology in Toronto, Canada, where I majored in engineering. From there I moved to Dubai for five years to work for a major airline. My plan was always to return to Toronto after Dubai; I had envisioned and imagined my life being established in Canada. But things changed. In 2014, I found myself drawn to the US to be closer to family that was living here and also my career—first to Utah, then to Pennsylvania, and now here in Atlanta.

Starting fresh in uncertain times

I joined Microsoft in the Customer EQ division during the pandemic. I was working remotely from Pennsylvania, but within two months I relocated to Atlanta for the Microsoft ATL launch and transitioned to the Admin Center team. During this, I had met only a few of my colleagues in person. That changed two years later when I joined Microsoft’s 365 Copilot launch project. I remember my very first call on that first day; it was a new technology and a new team, and I didn’t know what to expect. I felt like I was headed straight into the unfamiliar. Because of Copilot’s scale, I had to collaborate with various people across various teams, not just my own—which was new for me.

All of this change and spontaneity has given me an opportunity to really grow. Working on Copilot keeps me on my toes, pushing me to learn new skills and stay up to date on the latest technologies. The exciting thing is that as the tool expands, so does my understanding of our diverse customers’ needs. Making sure that Copilot caters to a wide range of users with many needs, backgrounds, and experiences has further opened my eyes to various perspectives.

The chance to contribute to something this significant is something I deeply value. I remember my mom, dad, and grandparents being very committed to their work when I was growing up in Mexico. If they said they would do something, they followed through. This made an impact on me, and I’ve pulled that commitment through to my own work. I’m dedicated to what I do, and I take my responsibilities seriously, both with my work and with the people I collaborate with. This is a reflection of how my parents and my culture shaped my values. And while my work has taken me around the globe, this is a constant that I will never leave behind.

Paying it forward

On my team, I’m able to voice my opinions, make decisions, and define the direction. Recently during a Copilot early access preview, I was able to take customer feedback and suggest improvements to the product. Hearing that customers are engaged and invested in the product or that it solves a critical problem for their company is incredibly rewarding.

This sense of empowerment extends beyond my work. I’m part of an organization called Customer Success Experiences (CSE), a worldwide group across Microsoft. The leaders within CSE have supported my career and community service since the very beginning, and that’s been vital to my professional growth. I also serve as the chief of staff for the HOLA Atlanta Employee Resource Group. My involvement has given me the chance to give back to my community. Through our back-to-school event in collaboration with the Latin American Association last August, we provided 200 to 300 school bags with supplies for mostly low-income elementary school students. This initiative and others like it remind me of the efforts my parents made to support my education.

My parents didn’t have the funds to send me to university. In Mexico to study certain degrees like engineering or medicine, one often needs to move to major cities. This puts an additional financial burden on families. I eventually got a scholarship to study in Canada. Thanks to contributions from many people, including events like back-to-school initiatives and book donations and mentors who believed in me, I had the opportunity to get my degree and be where I am today. And now, I want to pay it forward. Someone did it for me, and I took that opportunity, so how can I not do it for someone else? When I speak to students at community events, my hope is that they seize those opportunities as I did and make the most of them.

Breaking barriers

As a Hispanic woman from Mexico, I didn’t initially see myself in the tech industry because of perceived challenges. I didn’t see many Hispanic women in certain positions, which sometimes made me question if I could succeed. It wasn’t just about gender; it was about seeing people who I could relate to in those positions. Early on, I didn’t see that I had role models who shared my background and journey. I was also unsure if I could meet the standards or if the industry would be welcoming.

The language barrier was also a challenge. Initially, I’d sometimes hesitate to ask questions. But over the years, with mentorship and feedback from leaders, I’ve become more confident in seeking clarification. I now openly ask if we’re on the same page and rephrase things to ensure mutual understanding. I’ve also learned to embrace my accent; it’s part of who I am.

Over time, as opportunities presented themselves, my perspective on belonging here in this industry and how I can make an impact has changed dramatically. I started to believe that I could indeed contribute to the tech industry. I’m proud of who I am and where I come from. It’s become a sort of branding for me. Now I embrace my cultural identity fully and don’t try to hide it. It’s something I’m proud to represent.