Jesús Terrones exudes a calm that commands attention. His voice has a quiet resonance. His eyes are a brown that border on black, at once intense and kind.
In a recent interview at the expansive Spangler Center, Terrones reflected on his childhood, a world away from Harvard Business School’s striking campus where he has spent the past two years in pursuit of a master’s of business administration.
“My earliest memory is of waking up in the back of a station wagon,” he said, “I would get out of the car and look for my parents.”
His mother and father were in a nearby field, working, from sunrise to sunset, as migrant farmers. Terrones spent his summers the same way. During school vacations, he worked in the field as well, traveling from his home in Texas to Idaho, Florida, North Carolina, or Virginia to harvest a range of crops.
“Sometimes we left before school was over because they have labor camps and if you don’t get there in time, you don’t get housing; that’s how we ended up living in our little station wagon for months.”
For Terrones, a first-generation American whose parents came to the United States from Mexico, the life was a normal one. As a kid, he said, “that’s all you know.”
But later, he knew differently, when his father began helping take care of the home of an inspiring couple who lived in a Houston suburb. Terrones acted as the interpreter. Over time he considered them family, and they responded in kind, taking him under their wing.
“To me I always saw them as my grandparents.”
The generous couple would help them out with finances, even allowing Terrones and his father and brother to stay with them when they needed a place to live. But it was their empowering message that left the greatest impression.
“They always believed that I could do something,” he said. “They were some of the few people that said, ‘You can do it.’”
Instead of joining a gang in high school, he turned to the United States Army Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps. The experience, the sense of a code, and the discipline, inspired him. He went on to attend the United States Military Academy at West Point. After taking and passing a pilot’s test on a whim, he became an army attack helicopter pilot and served in Afghanistan.
Terrones appreciated the structure of the armed services and had always envisioned himself a lifelong military man. But when he started his own family, he knew that the job’s frequent weeks away from home meant something needed to change.
“Part of being a good father and a good husband was to be there,” said Terrones, whose parents divorced when he was young. “You have to look at your priorities, [and decide] what’s more important, so I put [my family] first.”
He knew his leadership skills, honed in the service, would translate well to the world of business. And he knew he wanted the best. He applied to five business schools and was accepted by them all, but Harvard topped the list.
“If I was going to leave the military, I was going to something good if not better.”
In his time at HBS he has striven to give back. He took an internship in Houston, between his first and second year, helping a local grocery chain connect to the Latino community. He was also the co-president of the Latino Student Organization of HBS, the student-led club for the School’s Hispanic community. He helped boost the club’s membership, develop a variety of programs, and raise $25,000 for the group.
“I said that if I ever made it I wouldn’t forget where I come from and who I was; I am just very proud to be part of the Latino community … [and] feel a responsibility to represent our community.”
He has been at Harvard for the past two years with his wife Janie, whom he met when they were both young migrant farmers in Florida. Terrones was there picking oranges for the season, but a sudden decision by his father to relocate abruptly ended their romance.
“It was Valentine’s Day of our eighth-grade year and within three hours we were on our way back to Houston. I never said goodbye to her,” he recalled. “I always wondered what happened to her, and five years later I went back to look for her.”
He found her, and they have been part of each other’s lives ever since. Today they have two young sons, and after graduation will move back to Houston where Terrones has a job waiting for him in mergers and acquisitions at Cameron, an international manufacturer of oil and gas pressure control equipment.
When he receives his diploma today, he will have his sons, David and Alejandro, by his side. It’s for them, he said, that he has made the effort to get the best education possible.
“So when I look them in the face,” said Terrones, “I don’t have to lie and say, ‘Yes, you can make it to Harvard.’ I did it.”