The Impact Leader: Damian Rivera looks to expand professional horizons for Latinos
As the CEO of the longest-standing organization in the United States, Rivera wants ALPFA to continue to catalyze growth for Latino professionals.
When asked the question, ‘Who is Damian Rivera?’ his response is short and succinct, yet powerful.
“I am someone that is looking for opportunities to make an impact in the world,” Rivera said during a conversation with AL DÍA on Sept. 25.
Growing up in Spanish Harlem for most of his life, Rivera saw various opportunities to discover how to contribute to his immediate community, and the wider world.
That window of opportunity first opened up for him when in high school he went on a trip and visited Rutgers University’s campus. The experience opened his eyes: Rivera recalled it being “such a different type of place than I was used to.”
He almost immediately said, “I want to go there.”
During his senior year, he applied, and was later accepted, becoming a Scarlet Knight.
As a student, Rivera attended a SHPE (Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers) Conference at which he had the privilege to speak on a project he was working on at the time. This would lead him to later land a job with Accenture as a coder in their technology practice.
Accenture is a multinational professional services company that provides services in strategy, consulting, digital, technology and operations.
“I thought I would be there for two years,” recalled Rivera. “The thought was: be there for two years, then leave.”
“Two years turned to 21 years,” he said.
During his more than two-decade long tenure with Accenture, Rivera was a managing director in Accenture’s resource utilities practice, and also spent six years leading Accenture’s Hispanic-American Employee Resource Group for North America.
Unbeknown to him at the time, Rivera’s work leading that ERG would partially lay the foundation for his current role as CEO of the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA).
While Rivera has served as CEO of ALPFA for more than a year, his involvement with the organization started just a few short years earlier.
In 2014, a gas explosion in East Harlem, NY, destroyed the church Rivera often attended as a child. With family living in the area, he was deeply impacted by the situation, and as a result, took time off from his work and began reflecting.
“I realized that as much as I thought I had been doing in the community, I wasn’t doing enough,” he said. “And I started just asking more questions to people that were more involved with impact in communities, ‘What can I do?’”
After reaching out to former ALPFA President Charles P. Garcia, Rivera took on Garcia’s recommendations to attend more board meetings and school meetings. Shortly thereafter, he was asked to give a speech at Lehman College in The Bronx.
Initially believing he’d spend 10 minutes there, Rivera ended up spending several hours talking with students at the college about life, hurdles to jump over, how to make an impact and more.
“When I left there, I said, ‘There’s something special about this organization. I need to really understand how I can get involved with it more,’” he said.
When it was first founded in 1972, ALPFA was focused on creating opportunities for Latinos and Hispanics in finance and accounting. With Rivera’s background in engineering, there wasn’t a direct alignment between his career expertise and the focus of the organization.
However, with the new direction that ALPFA had started to develop over the years, it soon expanded its focus enough to encompass his field of work.
Rivera also saw the level of passion members of the organization had for the mission of the group, coupled with the dedicated goal of engaging the Latinx community as a business imperative, and so Rivera began thinking to himself, “That’s where I need to be.”
But when offered the opportunity to take over as CEO of ALPFA in a full-time capacity, he couldn’t help but think about all he had done at Accenture.
“As you can imagine, it’s hard to leave a career you’d been in for 21 years,” he recalled.
However, after speaking to a few folks, he was encouraged to make the leap. They helped him confirm that this was where his passion lay. In addition, Rivera was told he’d be given a year leave of absence to try it out, leaving his place at Accenture secure in the event he wanted to return.
“It gave me the courage, frankly, to take the risk of jumping into a world that I didn’t really know a lot about,” he said.
“And it has been everything I could ever hope for,” Rivera added.
As the fourth CEO of the long-standing organization, Garcia aims to build on the legacies set by his predecessors.
Past leaders of the organization have grown ALPFA by increasing the number of chapters, creating new platforms, such as Most Powerful Latinas, expanding the Women of ALPFA initiative, continuing its annual convention, and much more.
With more than 90,000 members, 45 professional chapters and 160 university chapters across the nation, the opportunities for further growth are exponential.
“ALPFA, as an organization, I believe has just an amazing opportunity to touch a lot of people and truly make a difference globally,” said Rivera.
Under Rivera’s leadership, ALPFA has implemented a new platform called LEAD, which stands for Leadership, Engagement, Advancement, and Development.
The platform has six areas of focus: domain competency, social engagement, wealth creation, health & wellness, community engagement and entrepreneurship & intrapreneurship.
The goal is to create an impact and build leaders within the organization’s network.
However, while the organization is Latino-focused, it is not Latino-exclusive.
With the increased diversity of the United States, ALPFA aims to embrace that level of diversity both outside of the Latino community and within it.
“We are everything from the two ends and in-between,” Rivera said of the Latino community. “And what that means is: we have an opportunity to help people understand how to engage and talk with each other towards a positive outcome.”
This was one of the messages presented during the 47th Annual Convention in August, which had the theme, Journeys…Past, Present & Future.
“We wanted people to understand how their journey in life, and their background and who they are, is something that they need to be proud of,” Rivera said.
And not only should everyone make sure their voices are heard, said Rivera; it is equally important to listen to other voices as well.
Through having honest and real conversations where people can share their viewpoints and opinions — similar and different — real progress can be made.
As CEO of ALPFA, Rivera believes the organization can be a role model in this, and has taken the lead in this effort of providing the platform necessary for personal engagement and expression.
“I have a responsibility, and I take this responsibility very seriously,” he said. “And I will make sure I am giving everything I’ve got to make sure that I’m helping others find their voice.”
One of the most effective ways to do so, Rivera said, is to remind Latinos to always remember who they are and where they came from.
ALPFA is one of several Latino organizations locally and nationally that are working to build Latino leaders and increase diversity and representation in high-level executive positions of corporate America.
For that reason, some may feel that organizations with like-minded goals are inevitably in competition with one another for the same limited pool of resources.
Rivera, on the other hand, takes a much different view.
With other organizations such as the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA) and the Hispanic Association of Corporate Responsibility (HACR), Rivera sees great opportunity to work alongside those organizations in order to create long-lasting impacts.
“My goal is making sure that we together are demonstrating to the market [that] Latinos are collaborative,” he said. “We’re not looking to fight each other for space, there’s more than enough opportunity for everybody.”
Collaboration creates more networking opportunities, helps build a pipeline, and increases visibility towards the work all of these organizations are doing.
As the leader of the organization, Rivera hopes to continue having conversations with not only ALPFA chapter leaders, members, students and professionals, but also leaders of other organizations who have the same goals and vision for the Latino community.
“The microphone that you get by being the CEO of ALPFA is a big one… And if I do my job correctly and if I give everything I’ve got, when I’m done in this role... I’ll still have my own microphone,” he said. “But then, we’ll have another person with a microphone.”
“Our end product is people feeling good about what they can do, learning new things, making new connections and making an impact in the world. That’s our product,” he added.