About 40 years ago, when he was a teenager in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Enio Ohmaye’s family went bankrupt. Ohmaye had been born with a silver spoon in his mouth, going to school with the country’s elite. But between his 14th and 18th birthdays, one of his father’s businesses after another fell like dominoes. Ohmaye felt like he had gone from a Somebody to a Nobody–and yet he soon found he had further to fall.
A friend had found work at a resort in upstate New York, so Ohmaye, feeling he had nothing to lose, dropped out of high school and bought a plane ticket to America on an installment plan. “The U.S. seemed like the land of opportunity,” he says now. “I could make 10 times more washing dishes than I could have done doing anything else in Brazil.”
Except Ohmaye wasn’t in Brazil any longer. He was in Monticello, New York, working at a resort catering to some of the world’s wealthiest people. If Ohmaye had already felt humbled in Brazil, in Monticello he felt outright downtrodden. He started out in the lowest paid position, cleaning floors. He wanted to be a busboy, but knew no English. His friend taught him to memorize a sentence to pitch the maitre d’. He still remembers the robotic way it came out. “I – heard – from – Robert – my – friend – that – you – think – I – cannot – be – a – busboy – because – I – cannot – speak – English – but – I – think – I – can – do – the – job.” It worked: a little while later, he was promoted to busboy, which paid three times as well, but still paid less than dishwasher (a promotion Ohmaye never did wrangle).
The humblings continued. At the ramshackle, condemned house where Ohmaye stayed, the shower was so decrepit he could see through to the floor below. When he served dessert too early, a customer berated him publicly. And in a country where whiteness comes with privilege, Ohmaye was suddenly self-conscious about the darkness of his skin, tanned by the beaches of Brazil (too, of his imperfect teeth, ridden with 32 cavities he couldn’t afford to treat). “I felt completely outside of that realm, completely uninvited,” he says. “It was such a shock. It was like destroying my identity.”
But Ohmaye would have his day in the sun. He returned to Brazil with strong English, which led to educational opportunities, which in turn led to professional opportunities. He went on to work at Apple and IBM, among other places, settling as CTO of the language-learning company EF Education First. And he’s come to terms with his diverse identity (“I’m genetically Japanese, emotionally Brazilian, and I now live in China.”)
And he says that 40 years later, the memory of that year of being a busboy still motivates much of what he does. Apart from the most obvious gift of that year–his English, which set him on his path–the year generally “changed me,” says Ohmaye.
For one thing, it gave him a tremendous drive to succeed.
But most importantly, Ohmaye carries a kind of “inner busboy” with him today, even through the halls of Fortune 500 companies. “When I interview people,” he says, “I afterwards often ask the receptionist how those people treated them. It’s very telling to me how someone treats someone they perceive to be of a lower rank.” If the candidate was dismissive, then it’s simple: Ohmaye can dismiss the candidate. “When I look for talent, obviously they have to be competitive–but the other half is they have to be a good human being.”
It’s a worldview, and working philosophy, that traces back to that year of leaky showers and verbal abuse. “I think that comes from having been on both sides,” says Ohmaye, “the high and the low.”
“There are roles we play in life,” he says, “and I’m now so grateful to have played so many roles, from busboy to selling chickens to entrepreneur to cofounding a business.” He doesn’t know that he’d go so far as recommending aspiring entrepreneurs to become busboys themselves. But, he says, “I’d advise people to have the courage to try on different roles.”