Vanessa Velazques made her way to the White House and isn't looking back
After working as an intern for Amazon and benefiting from the HSF, Vanessa Velasquez shares with us her experience as a fellow in Washington D.C.
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Vanessa Velasquez’s mom immigrated from Colombia pregnant, dreaming about offering her daughter all the best opportunities. Velasquez was born and raised in Vero Beach, Florida, and was always very active. She grew up playing soccer, dancing ballet, doing theater, and volunteering in the community.
As an only child, it was - just Velasquez and her mom. She credits their strong relationship to her being an independent woman today. Her mom kept her busy so she would have as much exposure as possible to find her passion in life.
“My mom is my best friend, from whom I get inspiration and motivation,” Velasquez said.
Selected for the White House Fellowship, Velasquez now works for the U.S. Department of the Navy, something she would never have imagined. Fulfilling her dreams of helping others and making her mom proud, she has been striving towards this her whole life.
“It felt so powerful to know that the daughter of a Colombian immigrant made it to the White House,” she said. “My ancestors never in their wildest dreams would think about it.”
Her way into this role started a few years back when she attended Mississippi State University (MSU) as an undergraduate student. Constantly asked why she — a Latina — went to such a non-diverse environment, Velasquez explains it just felt right for her. She wanted to move out of Florida to experience new opportunities and found-out about the great international business program at MSU.
Although a challenging transition at first, as Velasquez thought she was ready to have full independence; she had to learn to adapt. To her surprise, people were open to learning about her culture and those ended up being the best five years of her life, as she describes it. “Because I was so uncomfortable, it really pushed me to discover who I was at the core,” she said.
Enjoying all opportunities
Velasquez is a Hispanic Scholarship Fund (HSF) recipient, and she credits the organization with being responsible for getting her where she is today.
Playing a special role in Velasquez’s life and career besides the financial help, HSF served as a guidance counselor for her. Growing up in an all white neighborhood with no siblings, she didn’t have people who looked like her to learn from.
Attending HSF conferences allowed her to meet other successful Latinos who eventually became her support system. Velasquez was finally in an environment where she felt she could truly and authentically be herself. “For me, HSF isn’t about the money at all,” she said. “It’s more about the community, network and ability to give back.”
HSF President and CEO Fidel Vargas was the one to share a piece of advice that has stuck with Velasquez throughout her career: to always try new things — “you don’t know if you don’t like it until you try it.”
Under this mantra, she accepted an opportunity to work at Amazon as an intern of operations: a position she knew nothing about.
Fresh out of college and managing a team of 80 people — especially being a minority in the work environment — was a particularly challenging experience. She then transitioned to the company’s corporate headquarters, focusing on engagement with Hispanic businesses. In her portfolios, she generated over $20 million in revenue and led projects worth over $100 million. Velasquez also had a brief experience as Global Supply Manager at Apple helping manage sourcing components for the iPhone.
A fellowship at the White House
Vargas was the one to introduce Velasquez to the fellowship opportunity. At the time, she was working in the private sector but was paying attention to the many events happening in the world — the COVID-19 pandemic, racial inequality, and conflicts.
“I just felt that I wanted to contribute more to the country and have the ability to be a public servant,” she said. “I’ve always felt that my purpose in life is to help other people.”
Applying and going through the fellowship process wasn’t easy. It involved uncountable interview sessions, essays, and a whole lot of getting to know herself.
A journey with a lot of self-doubts, but it allowed her to see all the possibilities of being in this country — something her mom had always worked for. Being accepted was an experience of a lifetime. She was able to give back not only to her family, but also to her community.
The Navy Department wasn’t her first option when she got into the program. She had placement interviews with other agencies and her major interests were the departments of transportation, international affairs, and labor.
It wasn’t until one of the other fellows brought to her attention the amazing experience she could be missing at the Navy that made her give it a try. Besides being one of the biggest budgets in the government, Velasquez realized she could learn valuable lessons working with Carlos Del Toro, Secretary of the U.S. Navy — a Cuban-American who has experience in the private sector as well.
Working in the position for over six months now, Velasquez has helped lead the education initiative related to the department. She has already traveled all over the U.S. and other countries and has participated in important conversations with major leaders of the nation.
“It’s something very special to have someone that sees and values me for who I am and thinks that I have important things to contribute,” she said about working with Del Toro.
Being a leader
Velasquez has always wanted to be an advocate for those who don’t have a voice. At her past jobs, she would always be the one to help other Latina colleagues and ask for pay equality.
Precisely because she always makes sure to say she was raised by a single mother, Velasquez understands the importance of advocating for other women and helping them achieve their full potential.
Fulfilling a circle of Latinos helping Latinos, Velasquez's mom was the one to offer her support and HSF to show her the path to success and now she assists others to do the same as an HSF mentor.
Another aspect of her passion for leadership is the ability to understand where different ideas come from.
Velasquez is grateful for the opportunities of living in Florida, Mississippi, Seattle, and now Washington D.C. They have allowed her to understand people’s perspectives — an indispensable characteristic to become a leader in this country, according to her.
“It [living in different parts of the country] made me a more empathetic leader and helped me understand how people work and how to bring people together from different spaces, communities, and cultures,” she added.