by Christin Ayers and Jennifer Mistrot

(KPIX 5) — For two decades Students Rising Above has been helping young people like Veronica Toscano get into college and find careers. At a recent panel discussion hosted by Autodesk, Toscano took to the stage and told a story from her childhood that shocked the room, and drew audible gasps from the audience.

“My dad’s behavior started changing. He became a violent, abusive alcoholic,” recalled Toscano. “One night him and my brother were arguing and my dad brought out a gun and he shot my brother five times. He then turned to shoot at my mom but missed.”

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Toscano explained to the crowd that it was in spite of her tragic childhood that she made it to where she is now, working in cyber-security for the company Duo Security. Her deep commitment to family also drove her career success.

“Part of it was, yes, I wanted to be successful,” said Toscano. “But I also wanted to take care of my mom.”

Students Rising Above board member Stephen Thompson says it’s precisely because of their unconventional backgrounds that young people like Toscano succeed in high tech careers.

“These types of students’ transition into technology companies really well,” said Thompson.

Thompson should know. He grew up in the foster care system before landing jobs at tech giants such as Google, Facebook, LinkedIn and now Amazon.

“When you’ve lived below the poverty line for many years, when you’ve had to struggle to get to school and get through school, when you go to work in a work environment you know how to get around obstacles,” explained Thompson. “You know how to work with others to influence, to make and build things that will really change the world.”

Danny Guillory, head of Global Diversity and Inclusion at Autodesk also was a panel guest. Guillory says his takeaway is when diversity is not a top priority, tech companies can suffer.

“Without involvement of underrepresented groups and women in technology, there’s a risk and that risk is that they will become irrelevant,” explained Guillory.

For Toscano, diversity in the workplace is a goal she strives for everyday at her employer. And she is quick to recognize the value of the support she’s received from fellow panelists, co-workers, and SRA in that endeavor.

“It makes me feel like I belong,” said Toscano. “It makes me feel like I’m enough. And I feel like I have a family.”

The panel discussion is part of an on-going dialogue between job seekers and Bay Area employers. The goal is to increase diversity in high tech companies and beyond.