Esther Aguilera is an avid advocate for Latinos in positions of power
For 11 years, she was the President and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, creating programs that transformed the lives of many young Latinos.
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If anyone had told the young and undocumented immigrant Esther Aguilera that one day she would be working with some of the nation’s most powerful leaders, she wouldn’t have believed it.
At four years old, she moved to California from Mexico with her family. Daughter of a landscape laborer and a garment-worker, their family of six struggled to make ends meet, but Aguilera was fortunate enough to go to college, she said.
After studying public policy analysis at Occidental College, she landed her first job in Washington D.C., where she has resided now for more than 30 years ago — and hasn’t left ever since. Back in 1990, she was just trying to gain her space and make her voice heard. Today, with a successful career, she is committed to helping other Latinos achieve positions of power.
Aguilera is currently the President and CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA), where she works with the most accomplished and respected Latinos in corporate leadership in the country. As a growing community, the association aims to increase the representation of Latinos on corporate boards.
“The role of a board member is so important,” she said. “There are so many decisions that corporate directors influence for the company and so many that reverberate to corporate’s communities and individuals.”
When the LCDA founders got together to address the small number of Latino directors in the country, they barely represented 3%. Latinos have always been big contributors to society, but corporations would constantly say they couldn’t find qualified ones. LCDA came to once and for all end this excuse.
In order to serve as a resource and a part of the solution, LCDA addresses the issue of Latinos falling behind in terms of equity. As a full circle that prevents this community from reaching their potential, the lack of Latinos being considered to important employment roles that can help them advance even more, contributes to a stagnation.
“IF YOU AREN’T AT THE TABLE, YOU DON’T MATTER”
Aguilera heard this from a mentor, and she hasn’t forgotten it ever since.
“With so many important decisions, this is not just about a nice thing to do. It is about business,” Aguilera said. “It is important for business to have a larger and growing customer base, but even more so is to have an ample supply of quality candidates that can bring a lot of value.”
Early on in her career, Aguilera was placed in positions with a great deal of responsibility and impact. In her late 20s, she worked as an executive director at Capitol Hill, and at the age of 37 she was tapped as CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute (CHCI). Always motivated and passionate about making a difference, it was quite a place for her to influence legislation and policy making at the congressional level.
“What drove me to this work was when learning about the individuals who govern the country and have a say over our livelihood, I didn’t see people who looked like me or shared my experience and struggles,” she said.
An eye opening experience happened to Aguilera while she was working at Capitol Hill. It was when President Bill Clinton, who was in the office, made an announcement saying he wanted his government to look like America — and CHCI challenged him to do so.
President Clinton and CHCI discussed Latino appointments on his cabinet, as well as senior roles in the government; positions of influence, from which Latinos have been vastly underrepresented. Latino immigration, education and health care were also brought to the table and the President agreed to make changes.
“All of this work that I do on influencing legislation in positions of power and implementing policies that influence and impact people’s everyday lives, is because those leadership roles matter,” Aguilera said.
UNDERREPRESENTATION OF LATINOS
As a Latina, Aguilera knows the different needs of the multi generations in her community, and that what was really missing was representation in key roles.
“My other passion that I have is to elevate Latinos to positions of power and take our seats at the table, to prepare other leaders for this role,” she said.
As the President and CEO of CHCI, she supported the Latino youth mainly in high schools and colleges, with scholarships and programs targeting their needs. By also sponsoring paid internships and fellowships on Capitol Hill, the goal was to have young people working in a house of power — and surround them with a network that helps them succeed.
“That’s how you line up our community to step into those roles as they are building their future,” Aguilera added.
It doesn't matter if those experiences happen for a week for high schoolers or three months for college students, the impact of these programs on their lives is undeniable as it elevates their potential as leaders.
WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE
Even in Aguilera’s childhood home in California — a state with 40% of Latinos, according to the 2020 U.S. Census — Latinos aren’t in many positions of power. Sometimes having an accent or just being from a different background can make Latinos not be selected for certain positions. Latinas especially, who besides the cultural aspect, also have to deal with gender tabus; face hard challenges trying to advance in corporate America.
Committed to ending this cycle of exclusion, Aguilera has been working hard to promote internships and other opportunities for Latinos to have their voices heard. Her advice for students is for them to put themselves out there and apply to as many opportunities as they can. Never forgetting the importance of networking and meeting the right people that will help them grow, sooner or later, doors will open.
“Don’t be afraid to say you are ready for the next step,” Aguilera added.