Tulio Cardozo’s story is fodder for a novel.
Tulio was born in New Delhi, India, to a Venezuelan father and an Argentinian mother. His father worked at the Venezuelan embassy in New Delhi; his mother—Tulio describes her as “quite the world traveler”—studied Indian classical dance. “He saw her performing,” says Tulio. “And—” He pauses. “Sparks.”
When Tulio was only two years old, his father died. “That kind of flips your life upside-down,” he observes. Tulio and his mother left India for his father’s home country, Venezuela, where they lived for six years. From Venezuela, they moved to Pacifica, California.
Life in the United States was not easy. Tulio and his mother depended on his mother’s marrying her American fiancé to gain legal residency in the US. But the fiancé stole from them and abused Tulio’s mother. For a time, Tulio and his mother lived in a women’s shelter. Their immigration status was uncertain.
In high school, Tulio got into drugs. “Socially, I was dealing with a lot of things I didn’t know how to deal with,” he says. It took him five years to graduate. He studied IT at Heald College, in San Francisco, but dropped out before finishing his degree.
The abortive foray into IT was not just a blip in Tulio’s biography—he’d been interested in computers for a long time. “From the first time that I put my hands on a keyboard,” Tulio says. “I knew it was cool.” In middle and high school, Tulio pursued his interest in computers and technology—he joined his school’s A/V class (“that’s where I learned how to run a camera, how to use a teleprompter…with my bad hair, back then, I would read the announcements on the school’s TV”), and taught himself to build simple websites. While he was at Heald, Tulio worked for Gateway.
And then Tulio went to prison. He and a friend were manufacturing concentrated cannabis, when their lab exploded. Tulio was hospitalized with third-degree burns on 47% of his body. He was arrested and sent to San Quentin State Prison.
In prison, Tulio confronted his lack of direction. “I wanted to do something,” explains Tulio. “I was actively trying to figure out my life—why did I get into this mess?” He took classes through the Prison University Project (full disclosure: I am a volunteer instructor with PUP) and developed his math skills. He wrote several computer applications, to help run the prison’s education programs.
Tulio’s arrest triggered his deportation. From San Quentin, he was sent to an immigration detention center in Arizona. Nevertheless, he continued his education—independently, now. He read programming books. “You read a book,” explains Tulio. “You don’t turn the page until you understand everything on it. When you think you understand what it says, you turn the page…You go to the next book—different subject, maybe. But if it’s a similar subject, sometimes you’ll learn something there that makes that much more sense. When you get to the end of your stack, start over again. Read book one…”
On Tulio’s release from the Arizona facility (his immigration status remains complicated), contacts from San Quentin connected him with the venture capitalist Chris Redlitz. With Beverly Parenti, Redlitz had started an entrepreneurship program at San Quentin, shortly after Tulio left the prison (now, Redlitz’s and Parenti’s program, the Last Mile, includes coding classes). He offered Tulio an internship at his incubator KickLabs.
Tulio’s education “on the inside” gave him a broad grasp of the concepts underpinning computer science but fewer practical skills than he had hoped. But Tulio is accustomed to pushing himself, and he has a clear grasp of his priorities: “family and computers.” From KickLabs, Tulio has proceeded to other jobs in tech—with Launch Podium, the Last Mile, the Last Mile Works, and as a freelance web developer. He’s even starting a business with a former cellmate in Arizona, who was deported to the Philippines.
Does Tulio consider himself successful? Absolutely. “I’m thirty-five,” he says. “I started from nothing at thirty. I feel successful because it’s worked out.”
--Thea De Armond