Tristen Coleman has had more setbacks than most 27-year-olds. He witnessed the shooting death of his uncle when he was 5, was hit by a stray bullet as a young man and spent more than three years in prison.
“I chose to do bad things to come across a little money, or what not, and it cost me,” said Coleman. “And I had to pay my debt to society, and I did that.”
Now, the Omaha native is determined to become a force of “positivity” in his northside neighborhood. In December, he graduated from an intensive, 11-week program at Interface Web School. He immediately embarked on a paid internship building websites for Omaha radio stations 95.7 FM and 1690 AM.
It’s a significant step on Coleman’s road back to success, and he has plenty of people pulling for him.
“I love that guy,” said Othello Meadows, who first gave Coleman a job registering voters in 2008. “I just want him to have every opportunity and for his family to have every opportunity that his hard work will provide.”
Tristen has the potential to “show other people that it’s possible, that there are other ways to feel successful,” said Shonna Dorsey, co-founder and managing director of Interface.
The code school trains Web developers and designers. Its aim is to meet the growing technology needs of the Omaha job market. Many Interface students are midcareer professionals looking for additional job training, and Dorsey said that she can’t be sure how many come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Coleman just happens to be open about his history.
Students at Interface build websites for nonprofit organizations as part of the course. It was a coincidence that one of the potential projects for Coleman’s group was a website for 75 North, a community development organization in the neighborhood where he grew up.
Coleman already was working for the organization providing lawn maintenance services for the Highlander, a mixed-income housing development being built by 75 North. Meadows, executive director of 75 North, has known Coleman for years.
“Tristen is a guy that is really difficult not to like, in large part because of his sincerity, his openness about the good, the bad and everything in between,” Meadows said “There’s a vulnerability there to him that is endearing. He worked really hard because I think he saw some purpose or utility to the work we were doing. When he’s really into something, he’s all into it.”
Coleman is quick to point out that he grew up surrounded by a large and loving family. He said they were middle class, but there were some hard times.
Coleman attended the Jesuit Middle School (now Jesuit Academy) and was encouraged by his mother to continue his high school education at Creighton Prep. He said she wanted to show him that, “even in an inner-city community, I could still become something.”
Restless and eager to make money, Coleman tried his hand at being an entrepreneur, but not in the right way. While at Creighton Prep, he said, he got into trouble for re-selling secondhand textbooks that had been swiped from the lost and found or from unattended lockers.
Coleman said that he was given the option to attend Boys Town for a year before returning to Prep. Instead, he decided to go to public school. After being caught stealing again, he was sent to a juvenile detention center, where he completed his GED.
Eventually, he got himself back on track and enrolled at Metro Community College. A lifelong interest in computers and video games led him to information technology classes.
“I loved the program, man, it was good,” he said. “I learned a lot, you know, had a lot of good connections and everything.”
Then, in 2009, he was riding around in a car with friends when he was hit by a stray bullet.
“The only thing on my mind was, ‘Don’t panic.’ My body told me I was shot, but my mind was telling me, ‘Don’t panic,’ ” said Coleman.
The bullet pierced his lung, and he still bears its scar on his upper back. He recovered but said the incident triggered depression. He believes it contributed to his committing armed robbery at a Big Red Keno in May 2010.
“It was pretty much for a fast buck. I was just going in debt. Rent due and I was in school. I couldn’t focus because I had bills. I felt like I had a lot on my plate at that time,” said Coleman. “I just felt like a lot of odds were stacked against me then.”
He was convicted and spent three and half years in prison.
“As I was doing my time, I was like, ‘Instead of trying to hurt people and take from people, what’s a way that I could maybe get paid … what could I do in a more positive manner?’ ” Coleman said.
In prison, he decided not to socialize with other inmates, instead reading books about business, history and spirituality.
Once released, he returned to community college but was frustrated with the pace. Coleman also became a father, and the need to make a living became even more urgent.
Meadows said, “You know, I think when people come home from prison, they’re looking for things that have a short runway, they need to get back to earning money, and they don’t want to do what they were doing before.”
He was surprised to learn that Coleman had been in so much trouble but still wanted to help him get his life in order and start a lawn care business.
“His willingness to own all that — I was like, ‘Well, that’s water under the bridge. How do I help you now?’ ” said Meadows.
Coleman said Meadows “was trying to teach me how to start a business the right way.”
Meadows introduced him to Julia Parker at the Omaha Small Business Network, thinking they would work on a business plan for his lawn care company. Parker introduced him to Dorsey and Interface Web School.
To fund the course, Coleman worked out a payment plan and set up a GoFundMe account.
After graduation, he was promptly hired as a Web developer by William King Jr., CEO of Omaha Community Broadcasting and co-founder of 97.5 FM and 1690 AM. It’s a paid internship funded by Heartland Workforce Solutions and Goodwill Industries.
“If we don’t (employ past offenders), there’s no alternative, they’ll repeat the same behaviors that they’re trying to change,” said King, a former probation officer. “It’s very important to practice the principles of Christianity, to forgive.”
Coleman’s willingness to reach out for help and guidance has impressed his new boss.
Dorsey said she has visited Coleman at work, and “he’s always trying to figure out how to do other things and stretch his knowledge.”
Coleman’s pride in his newfound career is evident. He is co-parenting his two young sons and hopes to create educational games for children.
“I’m building websites so I feel good,” he said. “But now I know I’m not done learning. Before I’m 40, I want to have some kind of concept of a video game.”
The internship ends in a few weeks, and King said he is planning to hire Coleman as a part-time Web developer for the station. Coleman is also pursuing freelance work, and he is excited about building websites for small businesses and local musical artists.
“It’s great motivation to wake up every morning to know that you’re actually making a change and doing something good for the community,” he said.
Coleman said “being more family bound” is one way he stays focused on his goals. “On the weekends I try not to work too much. I try to have a personal life because I missed out on my life (in prison). I just took my kids to the Children’s Museum and the circus.”
He’ll also be able to tap into services at Goodwill Industries for at least another three and a half years if he needs support. Regina Bell is the business outreach manager for Goodwill Industries, and she’s known Coleman for about five years.
“The motivation is there to be a provider for his family, the motivation to have a career that’s going to be a lucrative career,” Bell said. “He’s doing exactly what we need him to do to be successful.”
I came from a family where money was always an issue. My father was a union electrician who brought in a nice, but not exceptional, living. My mom was a stay at-home mom turned jobbie-entrepreneur (as I talked about here). But, money was always tight.
When my parents separated in my early teen years (and ultimately divorced), that put further pressure on their financials and assured that they wouldn’t be able to pay for my college education.
When I graduated from arguably the best undergraduate business school in the country, The Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania in 1995, I had an Ivy League education and $40,000 of college debt. I was determined that in less than eight years, I would go from being in that financial hole to having a net worth of one million dollars.
Related: How to Become a Millionaire in Under 5 Years
And I did it. Here’s how.
1. Set the goal.
Probably the most important but overlooked part of attaining a goal is having one to begin with. A goal means a very specific, desired outcome, with a specific date of completion and a plan of steps to help complete it.
My specific goal was to make my first million by age 30. I chose that because of the stress that not having a lot of savings put on my family, and I didn’t want to have to deal with a constant state of financial chaos. I figured having a cool million in the bank would allow me to be able to take more risks, have more flexibility and lessen my stress.
Age 30 seemed like a good challenging goal but still reasonable. While the tech world makes some folks billionaires at a young age now, back in 1995, I didn’t have a beeper, let alone a cell phone or a smart phone. I didn’t own my own computer (I went to the school’s lab) and the only thing resembling the internet was one email list-serve that I was on until I was introduced to Netscape (look it up if you are too young to remember it) after I started my first job. So, a million dollars was a good stretch.
Having the goal was something to continue to work towards and provided a benchmark of sorts to evaluate different activities to see if they would further me reaching that goal.
2. Take a high-pay, big opportunity job.
My next step was to find a job that would pay me the most amount of money (legally), while giving me a strong skill set that I could leverage down the road. I choose to go into the corporate finance side of investment banking, which paid me somewhere in the neighborhood of $85,000 my first year and well into the mid-to-high six-figures in subsequent years.
Not only did I pick the right job, I picked the right company to work for. While I could have gone the prestige route and taken a job at a company like Goldman Sachs, I picked a more boutique firm that had a meritocracy environment. I thought that there was a better shot at getting promoted and earning more in the out years in that type of company — which proved to be true.
3. Work your butt off.
I worked like crazy. I would say that most weeks, I worked 16 to 18 hours a day, six to seven days a week. I pulled many all-nighters. I got on as many deal teams and live transactions as possible and learned as much as I could.
4. Advocate on your own behalf.
I didn’t let my hard work go unnoticed. I would remind our senior team and department members of all that I was doing and what my expectations were. When I thought that I was working at a higher level, I asked early and often for promotions. I was called a self-promoter, but I was also rapidly promoted. That increased my earnings substantially, especially having become a vice president by age 25 — a good six years ahead of schedule.
Related: The Only 5 Ways You Can Become Rich
5. Keep overhead to a bare minimum.
My dad had a saying, “keep your nut low,” which meant to keep overhead expenses to as little as possible. While my colleagues got two- and three-bedroom apartments, I stayed in a studio apartment (I was barely ever there, since I was usually at work). My nightstand was a cardboard box with a sheet over it. I didn’t have cable television. I took the bus to work. I tried to eat at work whenever it was possible. When I went out, I calculated menu costs carefully and ordered accordingly.
This allowed me to save the greater majority of each paycheck and pursue the next step.
6. Relentlessly pay down debt.
Back in the day, interest rates were substantially higher than they are now. While I don’t remember the exact rates that I paid, they were probably in the 6- to 9-percent range. That’s a lot of return to make up, so I took each paycheck to pay down my college loans after taking care of overhead.
I cleared those out by December of 1996, about a year and a half after graduating college.
7. Make investments and take a back end.
With my debt cleared, my earnings increasing and my overhead very low, I was able to start saving. And, a portion of that savings I started investing in retirement accounts, stocks and bonds (and related mutual funds).
As my career progressed, and my net worth started to substantially climb, then I was able to make additional investments. This included leaving my investment banking job after five years to start my own firm and taking equity stakes in companies. Had I stayed in my job, I probably would have hit the million-mark a year or two sooner, but I wanted to try to be more entrepreneurial — and I felt I could still hit the goal.
One of my equity stakes had a nice payday that helped to compensate for the loss in guaranteed salary and bonus from going a more entrepreneurial route.
8. Keep setbacks in stride.
Not everything worked perfectly along the route. One of my biggest setbacks was loaning nearly $40,000 to someone close to our family in 1997, just as I was starting to ramp my savings. He took off without repaying most of it. But, I decided to not focus on the loss and focus on the future and what I could control.
And that was it. By age 30, my self-made net worth reached and surpassed the million-dollar mark.
What that bought me was the flexibility I so desired. It allowed me and my husband — who was pursuing his own financial success story — to map a plan for our future. It allowed me to take more professional risks. It allowed me to not have to worry about financial issues that plagued my parents when they were alive.
Monetary benchmarks weren’t — and still aren’t — my only goals, but this type of formulaic approach should work well for you, no matter what types of goals you are pursuing.
My first question is, what made you decide to get into tech?
Like many people I had a little bit of exposure to tech when I was younger through blogging. I wanted to know everything I could about HTML and CSS to make the blog look exactly how I wanted. As time went on, I moved a little bit deeper into tech.
I went to University and studied Philosophy and Politics. I loved what I was learning, but it felt overly theory-based. I realized that I was the kind of person who wanted to make things rather than talk about things that already existed or how things could be. So I started coding. When I left university, I met someone at a house party who happened to work at ARM. I interviewed, and two weeks later I was working at ARM, so it all happened very quickly and spontaneously.
What was your journey from ARM to Co-founding ‘Nuanced’
So, I was at ARM for under two years and loved it. I learnt tonnes about how the tech industry works from the ground up. Being a semiconductor company it gave me a real technical grounding in understanding both hardware and software. When I came back to London, I felt like I wanted to try making things outside of a corporate environment. So I started freelancing, taking on clients here and there, and then met my co-founder at a hackathon. It’s been really exciting ever since.
Are you guys a product based company or do you primarily do client work?
It varies, so we have a few products in the pipeline which we will probably be launching in Q2 and Q3 this year. We probably spend twenty-five to thirty percent of our time on those, and then the rest is client work.
I think that mix makes us better at both. Building something for yourself makes you really good at helping other people create what they want.
What was your perception of tech before you entered it and how has that changed since partaking in it?
I didn’t have a perception per se. I think it was just space for me to make things. Once I started [at ARM] working as a graduate, I felt like I had a lot of freedom to implement ideas. It was a flat hierarchy.
As my first foray into tech, I was almost spoiled, reading now from other people’s experiences because I didn’t face a lot of the things that other people seem to have experienced. It was chilled; my manager was amazing. I learned lots quickly; I was given big projects to hit the ground running there. So, I don’t have a perception other than ‘I want to learn as much as I can from this experience’, and I think I did.
It sounds almost too good to be true, why did you leave? Was it the entrepreneurial bug that got you or….?
Yeah, I think it was. I felt like now’s the time to go and try to make it happen.
So, are there any tips that you would give someone, perhaps yourself five/six/seven years ago?
Make things, make things and make things. Things that you’ll need in the future or that you need right now, that’s probably the main piece of advice that I would give.
The other thing is to try to do things with other people, talk about your ideas and collaborate on what you are doing. I think isolation is one of the biggest things that makes products bad or makes the user experiences terrible. So, I would recommend a collaborative approach in anything that you’re doing. Also, surround yourself with people who are smarter, you can learn from them and that will up your game as well.
We have our dinners coming up, which you can find out about on our website thenuanced.com/community. We host dinners for underrepresented groups in technology who are interested in sharing their experiences in the tech industry. We usually have a panel of speakers who have been there and done that. So yeah, we’d love for you to come along and join us. It will be in Central London later on this quarter.