Conventional wisdom warns new college grads against the expectation that a job opportunity is just going to fall into their lap. But after sharing his story with the world on a popular television show, that’s exactly what happened to Nico Gentry. Now, he’s living and working in Orlando and helping to make the dream of autonomous vehicles a reality.

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It’s no secret that Orlando is a growing tech hub. With more than a dozen colleges and universities in a 100-mile radius and more than 500,000 students living in Central Florida, it’s one of the country’s densest talent pools. But Orlando’s tech corridor also serves as a magnet for outside talent, with the city leading the nation in job growth four years in a row. And each of those transplants has a story. Take, for instance, Nico Gentry.

Nico was born with a congenital disorder called Nystagmus. “It’s basically a neurological misfire between the muscles that control my eyes and my brain,” he explains. “So my eyes vibrate just a tiny little bit. When they move back and forth like that, they’re unable to focus on an image.”

His Nystagmus has rendered him legally blind, but it hasn’t slowed him down. In 2017, Nico competed on the show American Ninja Warrior. He’d just graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in industrial distribution engineering. The experience was great exposure, and helped bring his story to a national audience. When his run aired on television a few weeks later, it turned into an unexpected networking opportunity.

“I’m sitting on my couch with my family watching myself on America Ninja Warrior, and 30 seconds after my run airs I get a message on LinkedIn from Scott Faris, the Chief Business Officer of Luminar Technologies. He saw my story and wanted me to come out to Orlando for a job interview,” says Nico.

Luminar Office
Luminar Technologies employs 250 people at its design and manufacturing headquarters in Orlando, where its innovative work on lidar took place.

Luminar Technologies is one of the foremost producers of sensor technologies for the autonomous vehicle industry. The company uses a technology called LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging. A device sends lasers out into the environment, where they bounce off objects like trees, curbs, and even people. A sensor receives those lasers back and processes the information to create a map of the surrounding area in seconds — similar to the way a human eye and brain process information.

Although headquartered in Silicon Valley, Luminar brought manufacturing operations to Orlando in 2012. Since then, they’ve grown the Orlando branch of the company from just a few technicians to more than 300 employees — including Nico, who currently works as a manufacturing engineer. He sees a lot of parallels between competing on American Ninja Warrior and working in tech. For one, both endeavors required him to step outside his comfort zone and take a risk. In fact, moving to Orlando was a huge step for Nico, both professionally and personally. And although it was scary at first, it’s a leap he would encourage other young professionals to take.

“I was born and raised in Texas,” he says. “I spent my entire life there. When I got the offer to work at Luminar, I dropped everything to move to a city where I didn’t have a single friend or family member. But this community has really welcomed me. It’s filled with so many smart people. I’ve made a lot of contacts in the Orlando Tech Association who are making it their goal to make Orlando the place to be, and it’s been really cool being a part of that.”

Another way competing on American Ninja Warrior is like working in tech? They both require participants to figure out how to overcome obstacles on the fly.

“On my first day at Luminar, there was no training. The brought me out onto an empty production floor and said here are the two units we’ve built. We need to make 1,000 more,” says Nico, who adds that he thrives on the kind of creative problem-solving his job entails. He’s enjoyed watching Luminar grow, partially because the company’s mission is deeply personal to him.

Due to his visual impairment, Nico is unable to drive. Instead, he relies on services like Uber and Lyft to get around. It works — for now — but Nico and his co-workers are looking to democratize safer, more convenient transportation.

“I’ve wanted to drive since I was 16,” says Nico. “I had a 1970 Mustang I built with my dad, and it was my dream to drive that car. It took years to come to terms with the fact that wasn’t going to happen for me because it’s just not safe. But once this technology is widely available, cars will be thousands of times safer not just for me, but for everybody.”

YouTube video
The American Ninja Warrior Helping Make Autonomous Vehicles a Reality