Have you ever wondered why you are here? That was the question I asked my mom as we were heading to the grocery store in Spanish Harlem. This was ‘80s Harlem, the height of the “war on drugs” Harlem, not the trendy Harlem you see and hear about today.
My mom gave me a look and a simple answer: “yes.” In that “yes,” she gave me the freedom to wonder. She gave me the ability and permission to believe that it was OK to dream and chase the dream.
It did not matter that I had holes in my shoes or that we were buying groceries with food stamps. What mattered from then on was having a belief that anything could be possible if I allowed myself to dream, believe, and work hard for my goals.
For most of my career, the world was perfect. I was able to get a chemical engineering degree from Rutgers University. Through the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers (SHPE), I found a great job at Accenture. Over a 21-year career, I progressed up the ladder, became a managing director (partner).
Along the way, I married my high school sweetheart (Idanis), had two children — a boy (Damian, 19) and a girl (Ilanis, 16) — and we adopted a dog from Puerto Rico and brought her home to New York. The world was perfect … until it wasn’t.
On March 12, 2014, life changed. The church I went to as a little boy, the same one my parents got married in, had a gas explosion. Our lives changed in an instant. One family member died. Another who was highly active in the church was trying to figure things out.
I took time off work to help in the community, I believed that I could help “fix” things because that is what I always did as a consultant for companies — I helped fix things. But soon I realized that as much as I had been giving back to the Hispanic community at work, I really did not know how to truly make an impact and help the very community I grew up in.
So, I did what I could, everything from helping provide food and clothes, and driving people around. But as I was doing these things, I could hear my 11-year-old self once again asking, “Have you ever wondered why you are here?”
Suddenly, I felt there was something else I was meant to do. I started to think about how to make a bigger impact in my community. That is why I put my corporate career on hold to move into the non-profit sector focused on inclusion and diversity, specifically within the professional Latino community.
The transition into my role as CEO of the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) was made easier by the amazing network ALPFA has, called the ALPFAmilia. I am extremely honored and humbled to be able to work with so many talented Latino leaders, both student and professional, across the country who are focused on building knowledge and expanding networks so Latinos can take action to achieve their aspirations, and give back to the next generation.
There has never been a more critical moment in my life to give back, and I am proud to be able to help the Latino community as we focus on taking action for a better tomorrow.
That is where I want to focus this message, on knowledge, network, and action. As the Latinx community continues to grow in influence across the country, serving in leadership roles in corporations and social movements, we need to make sure we are consistently focused on these three areas: knowledge, network, and action.
The phrase “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is often thrown around. I do not subscribe to that. I believe it’s what you know (knowledge), who you know (network), and what you do with the two of those (action).
Knowledge is power
Let us start with knowledge. We need to continue to equip ourselves with the empowering knowledge of the impact we have in society, and the impact we have made through history. Look at the facts: The Latino buying power (projected to be $2.3T by 2024) is a driving force of the entire U.S. economy. The U.S. Latino GDP would be the eighth largest economy in the world ahead of Brazil, Italy, and Canada.
The current COVID environment will no doubt affect these numbers, however, make no mistake — the Latinx community will be a significant driving force behind our country’s recovery.
When I learned this last year, it made me feel taller, stronger, and more empowered. But that is not all of it. It’s also important to understand our history.
Learn about all the Latino sheroes and heroes of the past. Like Sylvia Mendez (and her parents), an American civil rights activist of Mexican-Puerto Rican heritage who paved the way for desegregation in schools, and whose case served as a predecessor to Brown v. Board of Ed.
With each piece of additional knowledge of our history and our current impact, we gain strength to dream for something bigger, and move beyond just the dream and into a new reality that we have the power to create.
According to a recent report by Nielsen (Staying Connected Through COVID), 57 percent of the Latinx community spends more than one hour per day on social networks compared to 48 percent for the total population.
This is a place where you can see the impact of our community as social media has been used to engage in everything from increasing Census reporting, engaging in action toward impacting DACA, immigration, #BLM, and other social issues. And that is just a piece of it.
From a professional perspective, we are seeing Latino professionals leveraging networks to take action on everything from increasing boardroom representation (Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA)), to increasing capital to Latino startups with groups like Chingona Ventures and Angeles Investors, both early stage investment groups leveraging their knowledge and network to make capital accessible to early-stage businesses.
The final piece is action. I will leave you all with a challenge on this one. What action will you take?
If you have read this far, then I believe you will be motivated to continue learning to build your knowledge and continue to expand your network. But neither of those are enough. Action is required to make it work. For many of us, me included, impostor syndrome may sneak in at this stage. That little doubt that may come up and freeze you in the moment.
When that happens, take a deep breath, say the word that describes how you are feeling (“I’m feeling scared” or “I’m feeling nervous”), then remember your name. Remember your name and remember YOUR history. Remember that with all the challenges that you and your family has ever faced, you have always made it through.
The strength already lives in you. Allow your past to fuel your courage in the present and compel you to take action to build a brighter future that takes you beyond the dream.