The Journey Towards Becoming CEO
At the 2021 AL DÍA Women of Merit, three esteemed women CEOs detailed the significance women and Latinas have in the corporate America.
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As AL DÍA celebrated National Women’s History Month at the 2021 AL DÍA Women of Merit on March 31, we were honored to welcome three women who serve as CEOs in successful national organizations.
They are Nina Vaca, Chairperson and CEO of Pinnacle Group, based in Dallas; Esther Aguilera, President & CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association, based in Washington D.C.,; and Carolina DiGiorgio, President and CEO of Congreso de Latinos Unidos, based in Philadelphia.
All three women discussed their journeys and experiences that have led them to become the prominent leaders and CEOs they are today. While each of their journeys are unique, a common theme detailing what influenced their success related to their upbringing, a strong education and a healthy dose of fearlessness.
In Vaca’s case, she is the founder of the largest Latina-owned workforce solutions provider in the U.S.
A daughter of immigrants from Ecuador, she witnessed the path her parents took towards the American Dream.
“All I ever saw in my immediate family was entrepreneurship,” said Vaca.
With that, she felt she was “born to be an entrepreneur,” and learned valuable lessons from her family that helped later launch her professional career and grow the success of Pinnacle Group.
For Aguilera, her family arrived in the U.S. from Mexico when she was four years old.
Seeing her parents work so hard with a limited education and limited financial means had an indelible impact on her.
Through her older siblings, Aguilera was able to see the value of a quality education, and how that could be a vital path towards being lifted out of poverty, especially for people of color.
While studying public policy at Occidental College, she noticed the leaders of this country did not look like her or have her shared experiences.
“These were people who were charting the course of a nation without this important voice,” Aguilera said, referring to the Latino voice.
That realization eventually led her to Washington D.C., where she soon became executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and worked with members of Congress on tackling the biggest issues that faced her community. Fast forward years later, and she now leads LCDA in helping increase Latino representation across corporate America.
From the moment she was a child, DiGiorgio has been surrounded by people who believed in her.
“Confidence was always part of my upbringing,” said DiGiorgio.
That instilled confidence eventually led her to law school, where she studied and practiced corporate law for a decade. However, DiGiorgio reached a point where she wanted to be in more of a service role for her community, helping tackle many of its challenges. She found that path by serving on Congreso’s board, and then was board chair.
“When the CEO role opportunity opened up, I thought to myself, ‘I can do this,’” she said.
In their roles as CEO, all three women lead through encouragement, influence and empowerment.
It was those qualities that went a long way towards helping them reach CEO status, as well.
While DiGiorgio, Aguilera and Vaca represent Latina women who have reached CEO status and the number is higher than ever before, the amount of Latinos and women in those positions within Corporate America are very scarce.
“We can be proud of our accomplishments, but still expect more,” said Vaca.
“I have seen the advancement of women grow in the last decade, but it’s not enough. I’m not satisfied,” she later added.
The reasoning for the underrepresentation is often not due to a lack of talent, knowledge or ability, but rather a lack of promotion, advancement and opportunity.
There are about 5 million Latino-owned businesses in the U.S., but only 3% of those businesses earn at least $1 million in annual revenue. Latinas are starting more than 80% of those businesses.
With Pinnacle Group being one of those Latina-owned businesses, Vaca credits the opportunities and support she received from Corporate America for helping grow her company into the global workforce provider it is today.
For DiGiorgio, changing career paths from law to government to now the nonprofit sector, she has learned that leadership skills are very transferable, and having a network is extremely important.
“I think for CEOs that currently hold those titles, it’s extremely important for them to share their stories… and be vulnerable to the challenges that they’ve faced along the way,” she said.
“Authenticity is an incredible part of leadership,” DiGiorgio added.
Struggling and facing obstacles does not mean success isn’t achievable.
Vaca indicated that the way to bring in more women into the highest executive levels in Corporate America comes down to sincerity and seriousness.
“In Corporate America, I feel like there’s been a lot of sincerity, but now it’s time to shift into that seriousness of putting action plans in place to make those things happen,” she said.
The women agreed that part of the reason Latinas can make great CEOs and candidates for high level corporate positions is because of their heritage.
“We are uniquely positioned to bring out those traits that are part of our culture and our ethnicity… and I think that it directly complements leadership qualities,” said DiGiorgio.
With LDCA’s mission of specifically increased Latina representation on boards and within corporate America, Aguilera said that it’s important to be clear and direct when working on tackling this reality.
“Latinas are invisible,” she said, noting that while there has been an increase of women on boards, Latinas are being left behind.
“We need to call on the companies and tell them what the scenario is… The bottom line is, diversity without Latinos, and Latinas especially, is not complete,” said Aguilera.
With the amount of influence that Latinas, and women overall, have on our entire society, in the workforce, very few companies can truly succeed or excel without that very important representation.