Moving the Needle for Latinos on Boards
In 2021, nearly 400 Latinos were appointed onto corporate boards nationwide, thanks in large part to Esther Aguilera and her team at LCDA. She is AL DÍA's Person of the Year.
Throughout her career, Esther Aguilera has had the opportunity to work with some of the nation’s most powerful leaders.
From members of Congress, to cabinet executives, and U.S. presidents to nonprofit and business leaders, she has worked alongside them all.
However, her path to reach there wasn’t the most common.
Aguilera was born in Jalisco, a state in western Mexico, where she lived until she was four years old.
She is the daughter of two very hard-working parents. Her father was a landscape laborer, while her mother was a garment worker.
Her father came to the United States through the bracero program, and her mother — wanting to unite the family — saved up every penny to make that a reality.
Upon reuniting in San Fernando, a region in Southern California, it was often tough for Aguilera’s parents to make ends meet, as the family lived undocumented in the states for 10 years.
While they worked hard to provide for all six of their children, Aguilera’s parents made sure that each of them focused on their schooling.
“We saw early on that school was a pathway to success and out of poverty,” said Aguilera during an interview with AL DÍA.
With all six children having the desire to help support their parents, each of them made the commitment to their education and succeeded in the process.
When going through her educational journey, Aguilera noticed an unfortunate and striking reality.
“I remember, even in elementary school, I would learn about history and the nation’s leaders, I would often wonder and say, ‘no one looks like me,’” she said.
That feeling where she felt she could not relate to the prominent leaders throughout U.S. history and present, followed her all throughout college, as well.
As a result, Aguilera decided to switch from math and science to public policy as her field of study.
“It really connects real people with real actions that policies and governments can do,” said Aguilera on her decision to study public policy.
Throughout her collegiate journey, Aguilera found valuable internships that really opened her eyes to potential opportunities down the road.
After earning her bachelor’s degree in public policy from Occidental College in Los Angeles, she took a trip to Washington, D.C. to visit a friend.
While there, Aguilera called some of her mentors and asked who were some people she should meet in D.C. — all with the intention of eventually returning to California and looking for a job there.
While in D.C., she met with Charles Kamasaki of the former National Council of La Raza (NCLR), now UnidosUS.
About a week later, she was offered a job opening as a junior policy analyst at NCLR.
“I was really shocked. I wasn’t expecting to move. I didn’t know a lot of people in the area,” Aguilera reflected.
However, she called the decision to accept the job offer “a pivotal moment that really changed my trajectory.”
“Studying public policy, making that pivot not knowing exactly where that would lead me, to moving to Washington, DC, to work precisely on research and policy matters,” she added.
Living in D.C. has helped Aguilera tremendous opportunities to work in a number of leadership roles and make real change.
After NCLR, Aguilera became the executive and legislative director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC).
There, she organized member meetings and committed to making an impact on legislative matters and any other topics that were of importance to the community.
In short, Aguilera said, her role was to leverage the clout of the powerful leaders she worked with and improve opportunities for other Latinos.
The transition to D.C. presented a learning curve for Aguilera, as talking about topics such as policy, politics and economics never happened in her household growing up.
“What I find is that we as Latinos — growing up in a bilingual, bicultural environment where you strive to succeed — we are resilient, we are resourceful. We observe, learn, listen and then adapt to our environment and find new ways to contribute that didn’t exist before.”
In Capitol Hill, Aguilera worked as senior advisor for then-Secretary of the Department of Energy Bill Richardson, where she was in charge of the Small Business Office.
In that role, she was tasked with making sure that more women, Latinos, and people of color in the procurement space.
Aguilera was instrumental in establishing the first Small Business Conference at the Department of Energy and provided many great procurement opportunities for those who sought them.
“It’s about bringing in ideas, launching new initiatives and empowering a team that can lead and feel that they’re contributing to something,” she said.
It was that same mindset that guided her 11 years as President and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI).
Under her leadership, the CHCI tripled its size and spearheaded various programs that transformed the life trajectory of hundreds of young Latinos across the country.
“This has been my passion, to focus on promoting and developing Latinos to positions of power and to take our seat at the table,” said Aguilera.
In 2016, Aguilera became the president & CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA), an organization of U.S. Latinos at the highest levels of corporate leadership committed to developing, supporting, and increasing the number of U.S. Latinos on corporate boards.
The organization was formed by a pioneering group of Latino directors who wanted to do something about the low number of Latinos on corporate boards and wanted to eliminate the excuse that qualified Latinos couldn’t be found.
While it had existed for a few years prior, Aguilera joining the organization was critical to the implementation of its strategic framework, advancement of its mission and growth.
“I was focused on growing our capacity,” she said, noting the organization’s three key pillars of growing supply, growing demand and raising awareness.
Aguilera noted that the main reason she was interested in joining LCDA was because it is so action-oriented.
“We can’t just point fingers and complain about a situation, we have to ask ourselves, what are we doing about it?” said Aguilera.
Upon joining LCDA, she felt right at home in creating avenues for more Latinos to be appointed to high-level executive roles.
As a result of this goal, Aguilera launched the LCDEF BoardReady Institute, an initiative to prepare and position Latinos executives, national leaders and aspiring directors for success in the corporate boardroom.
“Our goal is to make sure there’s ample talent for these opportunities,” said Aguilera.
“We want to take the excuse away that they can’t find Latinos for the boardroom.”
2021 marked a very significant year for LCDA, and Latino corporate leadership nationwide.
Latinos are the least-represented demographic on corporate boards, despite being the second largest population group. While the Latino population has grown 3% in the last decade, the percentage of Latinos on boards has only increased 1%.
In addition, Latinas have historically been the least represented of any gender or ethnic group, with 1% of board seats on Fortune 500 companies.
However, in large part due to LCDA’s work, some measurable progress is being made.
In September, LCDA published the “2021 Latino Board Monitor” to track the performances of public company boards across the country.
Latinos have experienced a four-fold increase in public board appointments in the first six months of 2021, compared to the same period in 2020.
In addition, a decade ago, 87% of Fortune 1000 companies lacked U.S. Latino directors, while today that number is at approximately 69%.
“We are moving the needle,” said Aguilera.
In 2021 alone, LCDA appointed more than 350 Latinos onto public company boards nationwide, compared to just 93 in the previous year.
Of those roughly 350 appointments, 40% of which are Latinas and 47% are first-time directors.
“Overall, we’ve never seen that number increase historically,” said Aguilera. “But even with that increase, we have a long way to go because we have the largest gap to close.”
In addition, LCDA has seen its membership numbers triple just this year alone.
Each year, AL DÍA honors one individual as the Person of the Year for their contributions in changing the narrative on the Latino community in the U.S.
With more Latinos being appointed onto boards across the country, the narrative that Latinos are simply “not board material,” is proving to be far from the truth.
LCDA is furthering its mission to increase Latino representation in corporate boards.
“It’s been my personal and professional passion to really elevate Latinos to positions of power,” said Aguilera.
As she looks ahead to 2022, it’s her belief that she and LCDA are just getting started.
“We have built, for the first time, the largest network of Latinos at the highest levels of corporate leadership and corporate governance,” said Aguilera.
With her at the helm, LCDA will continue its momentum in playing a prominent role in the appointment of qualified Latinos on boardrooms all across the nation, proving that the Latino community is filled with individuals who are absolutely boardroom material.