By Donna Loughlin

Mercedes Soria arrived in the U.S. from Ecuador in 1991 armed with a scholarship to study engineering. Six months later, her student exchange program was canceled, leaving Mercedes and her twin sister with a gut-wrenching decision: go home without their degrees or stay and finish on their own dime.

They stayed.

This wasn’t the first tough decision Mercedes had to make in her life—nor would it be the last. But it was certainly the most consequential. She and her sister spoke little English and worked low-paying jobs that barely covered tuition, leaving little extra for basic necessities, including food.

“The only reason we did well in school is because every night we would stay up until three in the morning and memorize every single book that was covered that day,” she told me. “We had no idea what the instructors were saying, so we never knew if there would be a quiz the next day. So we had to overprepare every single day.”

After receiving both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in computer engineering, Mercedes embarked on her career in the U.S. American guitar maker Gibson Brands offered to sponsor her and she joined the company as an IT specialist. Mercedes later spent several years at global accounting and business consulting firm, Deloitte, where she worked her way into management. Deloitte is also where she first began mentoring her colleagues, which would lay the groundwork for the next phase of her career.

Mercedes met her future husband William Santana Li during a work trip to Atlanta and in 2013 joined the founding team of his AI-powered, robotic security company, Knightscope. She remains the company’s chief intelligence officer to this day. Knightscope would eventually take Mercedes to Silicon Valley where she leveraged her mentoring skills, as well as her own personal experiences with discrimination, to become a leading voice for women in tech and other STEM fields.

“Silicon Valley is a boys club and it always has been,” she says. “I’ve been here since 2013 and It hasn’t changed. I’ve seen more women come in, more women starting companies and I now know a lot more women who are working in C-level positions, which is great. We’re improving, but it is still a boys club and it will be until we change it… one person at a time.”

Today, Mercedes is a speaker for the U.S. State Department, advocating for women in tech and STEM, and has traveled the world mentoring the next generation of female engineers, entrepreneurs and innovators.

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