ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — When Charles Ashley was growing up on the South Side of Chicago, he had a choice: join a gang like most of the rest of the neighborhood kids or get beaten up on the way to school.
Ashley chose the latter.
“My mom and my grandmother … were very specific: You are not going to gang-bang; you’re not going to use drugs,” Ashley said. “So my only option was walking to school and defending myself because I would rather get beat up by kids than face my grandmother and mother.”
Ashley – founder of Cultivating Coders, a boot camp that offers training for people in underserved communities – said his mother was so focused on getting a better life for her three children that she uprooted the family and moved to Las Vegas, Nev., when he was in sixth grade.
They moved to a poor neighborhood of recently arrived Mexican immigrants, he said. His mother ended up with two jobs cleaning hotel rooms. “I don’t know if you’ve been to Vegas, but that’s not a job you want,” he said. Ashley, the eldest, helped take care of his brothers and sisters.
“It would be comical because I would go to the laundromat and you’d see all the abuelas … and then me doing the laundry. My wife jokes all the time, ‘You’re the best cook I know,’ because I’ve been cooking since I was, you know, 10 or 11.”
Those skills came in handy as Ashley left home at a young age, lived on his own and made it through high school, winning a basketball scholarship to Adams State University in Alamosa, Colo., and getting a bachelor’s degree in business administration.
Ashley, 38, says he’s had seven careers, from Miami Dolphins marketing intern to University of Nevada, Las Vegas, academic counselor for low-income students, all the while heeding the advice of an Adams State professor who made a huge impression on him.
The professor – “an old white dude with long gray hair and a goatee who rode his Harley to class” – told Ashley, “Don’t be married to a career. Don’t be married to whatever brings you money. The only thing you should be passionate about is what drives you. You are your brand. … Nothing else dictates who you are.”
“That’s the real meaning of business,” Ashley said. “It’s what drives you, what motivates you.”
What was your Chicago neighborhood like?
Chicago is a very segregated city. The neighborhood I grew up in was primarily black, Dominican. I didn’t have my first experience with a white person until I was going into sixth grade. Thankfully, in our neighborhood, since everyone was so close, most of these families grew up together … so you didn’t see a lot of gun violence from one neighborhood kid to the next. But if we ventured to another neighborhood – which every once in a while happened? That’s usually when you’d see gun violence.
What was it like moving to Las Vegas?
It was a really poor neighborhood … all Mexican. I’m talking not second-generation. … I’m talking straight from Chihuahua, Juárez. So if you can imagine, black family, all-Mexican neighborhood, even the signs are in Spanish, you have the mercado. It was culture shock for me.”
What were the schools like?
I remember as clear as I’m looking at the Sandias. My teacher, Mrs. Romero, says, “You’re really good at English, you can write really well, but your math is just terrible.” No sugar-coat. And then she says, “It doesn’t make sense for a kid as bright as you to struggle with math.” I still don’t understand what she saw in me to the point she invested in me because she introduced us to a program called Safe Key. Well, Safe Key was an elementary school program. I wasn’t in elementary school, but she had enough connections. …
I tell the story all the time, because I really feel it changed the trajectory of my life. … a teacher having a vested interest in me enough to say, “I’m going to help you out.” Whatever she saw or witnessed … was enough. I focused on school. I really wanted to do more.
You moved from Las Vegas to Albuquerque. What brought you here?
I had gotten married. We had our first child. We’re in limbo. Her (wife’s) family was here. I sold her on it this way: I said, “I’ve never been to a place where for the most part, people are extremely warm, genuine, hardworking in a place where with all those qualities, the sun shines. But the one thing, people I was meeting in Albuquerque before I moved here, people didn’t have an appreciation for what they were walking on. You have people walking these streets, walking in dust, dirt, that’s what they see, rocks. And all I would see is the gold underneath. That gold to me represents opportunity. There’s so much opportunity here.”
How do you spend your free time?
I hang out with my girls. My free time is driving the car around, dropping kids off at practice, picking them up from practice, making dinner. I love to cook.
What are your quirks?
I’m a routine person. I have to wake up the same time, I have to know what I’m wearing. I have to leave the house at a certain time. I like to go to certain coffee shops. And if it gets out of whack, I feel like my energy’s off. I’m a vibe person. That’s quirky. I have done business with people based off a vibe. I have not worked with people based off a vibe. I could care less about your résumé (if) your aura, whatever it is, doesn’t sit well with me. And I go off of that.
Is it accurate?
If you ask 10 of my friends, they’ll probably tell you it is. I say the Lord, God, Buddha, whoever … gave us something that helps you detect violence, danger, good, bad. A lot of people ignore it.
Do you have any guilty pleasures?
Gummy bears. … So every holiday, birthday or Christmas, my girls know that, so I have – it’s called Daddy’s Gummy Jar. It’s the only sweet stuff I like.
What about pet peeves?
People who say ‘can’t.’ People who make excuses instead of trying to figure out a solution. … If people would really look at the world, or really look at the landscape of Albuquerque or really look at the landscape of New Mexico, I think if you do that, you then can start to come up with solutions. You then can accept things for what they are, or you can challenge things for what they are. The pet peeve is being stuck in the old way. If my mom just settled for what is, if she had lived by that, where would me and my siblings be?