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Courage, endurance, and resilience — these are the ingredients for what’s called “grit.” These words also describe Vanessa Villagomez. Less than a year after discovering Trailhead, Vanessa is sharing her Trailblazer story.

While a student at the University of Iowa, I started to feel sick. I felt tired all the time despite drinking two double shots of espresso daily. For months the campus doctors kept telling me the cause was stress. My mom being my mom, she drove from Chicago to Iowa City to take me to what she called “a real doctor.” I was diagnosed that very same day with cancer. There were tumors all over my CT scan, they told me it “lit up like a Christmas tree.” Later that week we found out it was late-stage cancer. I was devastated. I never went back to class. From that moment on it was chemotherapy, treatments that did not work, more chemotherapy, radiation twice a day, and a month-long stem cell transplant. It was, without hesitation, the worst time of my life.

I beat the cancer into remission but the doctor told me there were permanent side-effects from my treatment, one of which was damage to my hip bones which required a double hip replacement. This whole experience made it clear to me that life is precious and time is limited. These treatments had held me back in school. I made the choice not to go back to college right away and instead to begin working at an organization helping people going through exactly what I just went through, Imerman Angels.

Imerman Angels has the largest 1:1 network of cancer survivors and fighters and where does all of that information for matching, tracking and reporting go? Into Salesforce, of course. My love of data and process quickly came back to me and before long I moved on from simple Salesforce data-entry to working alongside our hired Salesforce consultants, who told my supervisor to make me the org Admin. By 2016 I was the Senior Operations Manager in charge of our Salesforce implementation.

 

2016 was the year I discovered Dreamforce…and Trailhead

 

I was so excited to see how other nonprofits were using Salesforce and to get trained on best practices. Because we were a nonprofit, I paid out of pocket, I just knew I had to be at Dreamforce. While there, I listened to so many nonprofits talk about their work and met other data nerds just like me. In particular, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society session just blew me away. The innovation, the excitement, it was intoxicating. During that session, I realized I wanted to, and could, make a career with Salesforce

Trailhead was everywhere in the air at Dreamforce. I didn’t hop on it right away though, but when I did was surprised by everything I saw. I had delayed getting started for months because I was expecting content like the books and printouts I already had, PDFs with check-off lists to follow along. Instead I got my own Salesforce org to play with and even break if necessary and interactive challenges that validated my work. Some of my favorite are the release badges which explain what the latest release really means and provides tips on communicating the changes out to your company. Prior to Trailhead, I would get the release emails and flag them to read for later…where they would basically go to the land of misfit toys.

In May of 2017, I went on Twitter and announced the creation of my Trailhead account, I knew this learning tool was going to take me to the next level but I had no idea how the community would be a huge part of it. Before I knew it, people from the Trailhead community on Twitter were reaching out to encourage me. It was amazing.

All I wanted to do was to go onto Twitter and follow people who were experienced Salesforce users. Instead, I was welcomed into this amazing Twitter community. Everyone is so helpful and supportive, every little “heart” or retweet is so encouraging. It’s the little things really keep you motivated. I just like popping on to Twitter when I have some downtime and seeing what people are working on and what cool new thing they just learned. The Trailblazer community is a group of people looking to improve themselves, and I love that.

When I knew it was time to move on from Imerman Angels, there comes a time in every late-stage cancer survivor’s life when you just have to close that chapter, I decided to leave with a bang. Using my brand new hips, I walked the entire 26.2 miles of a marathon to raise money for the organization. I announced my goal to finish the marathon on Facebook. It seems I have a passion for publicly declaring my goals on social media.

After starting my job search, I instantly saw a job listing asking for an experienced Salesforce admin. I didn’t have all the requirements they were looking for yet, but as I looked at the list of job duties changing fields, pulling complex reports, and creating dashboards, I realized I knew how to do every one of them from Trailhead and my on-the-job experience. So I did my research, found out who the COO was, and sent her my resume and cover letter directly. The next day I get a call and after a series of interviews, I’m hired.

 

Because of Trailhead

 

Because of Trailhead I’m now the Salesforce expert at my company. When my boss said “we need to clean up the data, what do you suggest?” I was able to put a deck together for my team explaining all of the things we should do to cleanse our data, from simple ways we can ensure data integrity to larger solutions like having Data.com scan our org and give us a data health report.

When I’m in a meeting with the head of IT, I’m able to make informed suggestions based on things I’ve learned on Trailhead. I’m the one that brought up moving to Lightning Experience. I showed my COO a Trailhead Playground (which defaults to Lightning) and demo’d how much more intuitive Lightning Experience is than Classic. I looked into what was keeping us on Classic, made a business proposal for the Lightning roll out, and helped plan our company-wide migration to Lightning.

I’ve even started mentoring our intern. Initially, someone else was in charge of the new hire training but quickly it was declared that “all new employees should go through Vanessa for Salesforce training.” Now I have an intern and I had her sign up for Trailhead so she can get hands-on. My goal with her and other interns is that they have something on their resume they can carry to their next job interview. If they can show that they have in-depth experience with Salesforce, I’m positive they will get jobs.

Everyone has their own personal goals. I hope that by reading my story, people are inspired to realize their own strength. I didn’t always know I had this much strength inside me. I beat cancer, I finished a marathon, and now I’m building an awesome career as a Salesforce consultant. No matter your goals, putting your intentions out there helps you to maintain accountability. Or at the very least, gain a bunch of Trailblazer friends.

No matter where you are on your path to success, share your experience with the hashtag #MyTrailblazerStory on social. The Trailblazer community is waiting for you!

This blog post was originally published on the Trailblazer Medium channel. Check it out for more stories like Vanessa's!