Bay Area native Peter Zaballos attended Diablo Valley College from 1976 to 1979. After transferring to University of California, Berkeley, he earned a B.S. in electrical engineering and computer science, began a career in technology spanning Silicon Valley, Boston, Seattle and the Midwest. He earned an MBA at MIT’s Sloan School of Business in 1990. He spent his subsequent career in high-growth technology startups as a senior marketing executive, and as a venture capitalist. He did all this against a backdrop of poor grades and test scores in high school and college.
As his career was winding down in 2018 and he reflected on the path he had taken,
he contacted DVC with an idea to reach high-potential, low-performing high school
students who might not otherwise find their way to college. After lengthy conversations
with DVC, Peter and his wife Kristine made a donation to kick-start what became the
Diamante Scholars program. The program, which enrolled its first cohort in 2020, engages high school students
who have the potential to go to college but may have been told they aren’t college
material or whose grades or test scores make college seem unlikely. The program shapes
students’ skills and provides them the support they need to find a path either to
transfer to a four-year college and or to a professional role — or both.
We sat down with Peter to ask him about his path and how the program came to be.
Q: Peter, tell us about your background.
Well, I’m a typical second-generation American. My grandparents, Pedro and Juana Zaballos, emigrated from a little town called Macotera in Spain in the 1920s. When they got to the Bay Area, they first worked in the fields and then eventually achieved middle-class status by working in the Del Monte canneries. Like most immigrants, they placed a great deal of emphasis on education and managed to send their only child — my dad, Frank Zaballos — to UC Berkeley. He became a pharmacist and went on to co-own a small chain of pharmacies in the East Bay. He and my mom expected that each of their four kids would go to college and pick a traditional high-paying career.
The trouble is, I was a terrible student. My grades in high school in particular were horrible — I may have gotten the lowest math score the school had ever seen! And my poor grades in high school followed my poor grades in middle school. Pretty much my entire academic experience leading up to college had been one of struggling with my grades. And hearing along the way that “you will never go to college” and “you just aren’t college material.”
When it came time to graduate from high school, every single other student in my (admittedly small) class were going to four-year universities, some of them Ivy League schools. Me? I had a new job as a grocery bagger at Safeway to look forward to. I was also enrolled at DVC, although I had absolutely no idea about what I was good at or what I wanted to do with my life.
It took some time, but at DVC I started to believe I could learn. Deep down I knew I really liked solving hard problems and technology. And I liked to write. So I started taking the core classes for engineering and discovered that not only could I do math, but it was fun. The big turning point for me was differential equations — a notoriously difficult class that taught you how to figure out, for example, if you started heating a bar of metal, how the temperature of the bar would change over time. I loved it. It wasn’t just that a light went off in my head, but I finally felt I had permission to be good at math — the secret was that I had given myself permission.
Equally empowering was my first English class at DVC. We had to keep a journal, and while I had always enjoyed writing, now I found a new purpose for it. In hindsight, this class helped hone the skills that became critical in my career — being able to communicate effectively.
And although none of my classmates and I really socialized with one another — aside from our study groups — because most of us had jobs, I saw that a lot of them were first-generation college students, trying to find their own paths, and attending DVC to make something of themselves. In that sense I felt like I fit in.
After a couple of years taking math, English and computer science courses, I was able to transfer to UC Berkeley.
Q: How did it go for you at Berkeley?
Well, sometimes it was rough. I was admitted directly into the engineering school and the pace was fast and the students were all super smart. I ended up on academic probation five times. I managed to graduate with a 2.31 GPA, and there was this one electrical engineering class (EECS 104b -Circuit Theory) I took three times and still never managed to pass. (Luckily, once I graduated no one ever asked me to design circuits!) But even though my grades were modest, I was learning tons, and focused my major on digital signal processing, which is essentially applied math. And I discovered that I really cared about understanding how and why things work the way they do. That curiosity, and my proximity to the very early days of the growth of Silicon Valley, led me to want to work in high tech.
Q: And where did that lead?
I was hired through an on-campus interview to be a product marketing engineer at Fairchild Semiconductor — literally the founding semiconductor company of Silicon Valley. I had barely studied semiconductors and had never studied marketing, so this was the first of many jobs where I had to learn a lot, fast. More important, the CEO of Fairchild left to form a startup — LSI Logic — and exactly a year after joining Fairchild he asked me to join him at LSI, where I spent the next seven years. LSI created a new category of semiconductors that made the PC, cell phones, game consoles and many more products possible.
It was crazy. Our business just exploded. Along the way I had roles in marketing and sales but I felt like I needed to get some perspective on my career. So, I applied to business schools. With my undergraduate grades, MIT only admitted me to their waitlist. I had to fly out to Boston to plead my case. But I made it in, again had modest academic success but a great learning experience, graduated, and then continued down the bleeding-edge-of-technology path. You can read about that path on my LinkedIn profile.
I also hit a lot of walls and failed more than a few times. Including being fired. But it turns out that failure is a great teacher, if you are open to the lessons it has for you. I actually started a blog called Meaningful Failure where I talk about that. To me, failure is data — what is it trying to tell me, and what can I learn from it? In fact, I only hit my stride professionally when I finally understood that failure is inevitable and I started to embrace it, own it, and get meaning out of it.
Q: And you recently retired?
I did. And when I did, I wrote a blog post called What I’ve Learned Over a Career where I looked back at the supposed path I took — like Steve Jobs said in his infamous Stanford commencement speech, I believe there is no path, or rather you can only see the path in retrospect — and thought about what led to the path I had taken.
Well, it sure wasn’t getting good grades! It also had nothing to do with what my major was or the schools I went to, because I never worked in a job related to my major or got a job as a result of the people I met at UC Berkeley or MIT. The path I took had everything to do with being curious, learning how to learn, and solving problems. More important, my path was formed from building real relationships with the people I worked with. Literally every job I got after leaving Cal was the result of knowing someone who knew someone who was looking for a person with my experience and talent. To me the real lesson of careers is that their foundation is formed on the relationships you make along the way.
Q: I can see some of the ideas the Diamante Scholars program is based on. What made you reach out to DVC?
I was listening to a Malcolm Gladwell podcast called Revisionist History. There was this one segment called “My Little Hundred Million” where he talks about higher education and how donations can make an impact — or not. MIT had been very effectively courting me to make a modest donation, but the podcast helped me realize that whatever my wife and I could give would barely make a difference to MIT and the students at Sloan. It was then that I realized the school that literally made my career possible, where I was able to see and feel my potential myself, was DVC.
My wife and I compared notes on the real factors underlying what success we’ve had in life and started to sketch out the underpinnings of a curriculum based on that. And we had another data point: all of our now-adult kids are smart, but one really struggled in school because of some learning challenges. As a result, few of his teachers or other students treated him like he was smart. Despite that, he made his way to college, after taking some classes at a community college. He’s thriving and excelling in college. But if it had been up to his high school teachers and guidance counselors, he probably never would have even tried college.
We know that he and I are not the only ones out there who’ve had this experience. So we thought, can DVC help us figure out a way to identify, reach out to, and support some students like me and my son were and help them find their true path? Turns out Rosa Armendiaz’s team at DVC had some great ideas on how to do that. That’s how the program got started and we’ve spent loads and loads of time together bringing this to life.
Q: And I understand you are actively involved in the program, including the speakers series?
Yes, that’s the part I am really excited about. I get to reach into a network of people I really enjoyed working with and learning from and invite them to come and tell their stories and share internship and mentoring opportunities they may have. And I get to share the books and articles and other resources that have really shaped who I am personally and professionally. And Kristine and I especially look forward to meeting the students and being personally invested in their paths. We hope that the program will be successful and that it will grow and possibly spread to other two-year colleges. But if the data doesn’t support that? That will be another meaningful failure — and I am sure I’ll write about what we learned as a result.
Q: Tell us about why you named this program Diamante Scholars
Diamante is the Spanish term for diamonds, and we feel strongly that we are here to help find the diamonds-in-the-rough who are out in high schools. The overlooked, the unseen. And we chose the Spanish term, diamante, as a way to also honor the immigrant heritage of my family.