Diaz hopes to use finance career to help those who are underprivileged

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

The winter weather was picture perfect, the University of Iowa campus covered by a layer of new snow, when José Diaz visited for the first time in 2013. He knew immediately it was the place for him.

“Everything was pristine and when I walked through the Pentacrest, it was just perfect,” says Diaz. “I knew nothing about the university but I still felt comfortable, that there were opportunities in the unknown.”

José Diaz

Hometown: Melrose Park, Illinois

Area of study: Finance

Graduation: May 2017

Plans after graduation: Diaz will go to work as a financial analyst in the Chicago office of JPMorgan & Chase Co.

Now set to graduate with the Tippie College of Business Class of 2017, Diaz looks back on the years that have passed since that snowy day and realizes how much he’s changed. He switched majors, altered his career goals, publicly acknowledged that he’s gay, and embraced a leadership role on campus.

“I’m really not the same person I was when I came here,” he says.

Diaz, who will graduate with a degree in finance, came from humble beginnings in the Chicago suburb of Melrose Park. His father, José Sr., grew up in the Mexican village of Tepehuanes and moved to Chicago at 18, working at a record store and learning English by listening to rock and roll lyrics. José Sr. saved up enough money to return to Mexico for his wife, Irma, and they lived an American dream. They bought a house, started a successful landscaping firm, and raised four kids. Still, their finances were not flush, so when Diaz wanted to go to college—especially out of state—his parents weren’t sure they could afford it.

The UI came through with a significant financial aid package, though, allowing Diaz to attend the school that so captured his imagination that snowy day in 2013. He was interested in graphic design and planned to major in marketing with the goal of becoming an executive in a public relations or advertising firm that helps gay or Latino populations.

“But after I took courses that forced me to think critically about how vast and complex the meaning of life is, I decided to switch my major to finance,” he says. “I learned that many of the world’s most influential leaders come from political or economic realms, so if I wanted to positively change the world one day, I needed to become affluent in order to have a stronger voice.”

One course in particular that brought his future into sharper focus was Entrepreneurship and Innovation, for which he had to come up with a business idea and develop a plan to get it off the ground. His thoughts kept bringing him back to Mexico, where he visited family in Tepehuanes every summer, and how he could help the people who lived there. Eventually, he wrote a plan for a renewable energy business in Mexico that was so strong that class instructor Bob Walker encouraged him to consider starting a business.

“José always came to class with an open mind, wanting to apply his new knowledge and always thinking of the possibilities for changing the world,” says Walker, a faculty member in the UI’s John Pappajohn Entrepreneurial Center (JPEC). “He’s intellectually curious, worked great with his team, and is able to communicate his vision to others.”

Changing his major to finance ultimately landed Diaz a job at JPMorgan Chase & Co., where he will work after graduation as a corporate analyst. He’ll be based in the firm’s Chicago office, after a trip to New York City for his job interview brought him to another important self-discovery.

“I realized I was a Midwestern person, so I asked to work in Chicago,” he says. “It’s really neurotic in New York. Everything is go-go-go.”

“I can undoubtedly say that choosing Iowa has been the best decision of my life.” —José Diaz

Diaz hopes to eventually pursue either an MBA or a Master’s in Public Administration and combine that education with the entrepreneurial skills Walker so admired in order to start a public service nonprofit organization. His idea: a nonprofit that focuses on providing mental health services to poor people in rural Mexico, or to help children there get involved in art.

“I noticed on my visits to Mexico every summer that children have no resources to express themselves,” he says. “They have no musical instruments, nothing to make art with. I thought that was something I could provide.”

But Diaz wanted his time at the UI to be about more than preparing for a career and helping disadvantaged people around the world.

“Ever since I made the decision to attend the University of Iowa, a predominantly white institution, I knew my purpose at school, in addition to academics, was to advance cultural understanding and competence,” he says.

First, he says he had to publicly admit he is gay because he knew it would be difficult for him to talk with others about being true to who they are if he wasn’t being true to himself. It wasn’t easy, but he says he’s the type of person who pushes himself out of his comfort zone. The environment at the UI encouraged and supported him to publicly acknowledge who he is, he says, so he finally did.

“Iowa City’s climate made it easier to make that step and become an open book,” he says.

As a student, Diaz has been involved with Iowa Edge, volunteered as an orientation leader for new students, and was elected to Tippie Senate with a platform for providing a voice for minority students. He’s been instrumental in starting the college’s Dia de los Muertos celebration, and this year laid the foundation for an LGBTQ student group for business majors.

He also co-chaired the IC Red Week for HIV/AIDS awareness and lobbied members of Congress in Washington, D.C., as treasurer of ONE, an advocacy group working to eliminate poverty in Sub-Saharan Africa. He has spoken at numerous UI Foundation events to thank donors for gifts that helped fund scholarships, especially for first-generation students like himself.

Ken Brown, Diaz’s Tippie faculty mentor, says he’s learned so much from Diaz that he considers himself as much his protégé as his mentor.

“José has taught me a great deal about culture and cultural identities, and he has been a quiet voice in my ear reminding me about underrepresented students and a powerful leader within Tippie Senate,” says Brown, Tippie’s associate dean for undergraduate programs and a professor of management and organization. “My relationship with him is one of my most valued friendships with a student.”

Diaz says he’s ready to move on to the next chapter in his life, but he’ll miss everything that comes with being a UI student: his friends, Hawkeye football and basketball games, Iowa City’s eclecticism and walkability.

And the Pentacrest under a layer of fresh snow.

“I can undoubtedly say that choosing Iowa has been the best decision of my life,” he says.