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Rivera’s role at ALPFA is to shape the next generation of Latino professionals across the U.S.  Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.
Rivera’s role at ALPFA is to shape the next generation of Latino professionals across the U.S.  Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.

A Purpose Found

Damian Rivera’s journey to leading ALPFA had plenty of ups and downs, but out of tragedy came the path he’s always searched for

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Damian Rivera, CEO of the Association of Latino Professionals For America (ALPFA), is no stranger to life-shaping events. Like most successful leaders, he’s learned from his life experiences and used the knowledge to serve his community.

As young as nine years old, Rivera witnessed a traumatic event while living in Harlem, New York City with his family. The police once showed up at Rivera’s door, alerting his father that someone was pushed off the roof of their apartment building, and asked the family if they had heard anything. 

A friend named Paul

This deeply impacted Rivera, causing him to have anxiety issues. He was constantly worried that something bad would happen to his parents and that they wouldn’t come home. He was so emotionally distressed that he couldn’t focus during school, and wasn’t able to make any close friends to support him. 

One day, he asked his teacher to borrow the bathroom pass, but instead of going to the bathroom and coming back to the classroom, he left the building and didn’t come back. This only worsened his social status, as his peers were mad at him for taking the only bathroom pass. 

Things weren’t looking good for Rivera until he was fortunate enough to meet a classmate named Paul, who quickly became his friend and vowed to be there for him. 

Rivera was taken aback by this act of compassion from a person who had no incentive to help him. 

“I vividly remember Paul saying to my mom, ‘it’s okay. I’ll take care of him.’ And he did. He made it okay for me to be able to focus on learning in school,” Rivera told AL DÍA. 

“I vividly remember Paul saying to my mom, ‘it’s okay. I’ll take care of him.’ And he did. He made it okay for me to be able to focus on learning in school,” Rivera told AL DÍA. 

One of the reasons this friendship was so vital for Rivera that year in fourth grade was because his class went through about five, six or seven different teachers. The class was considered so disruptive that no teacher could handle it. Rivera and many of his peers started to internalize this experience, feeling unwanted and unworthy.

Halfway through the school year, a teacher who was a childhood friend of Rivera’s mom came to the school and took over. She understood the neighborhood, the children and was able to control the classroom and motivate the students to succeed. 

Meanwhile, Rivera was hearing negative things on the news about his neighborhood, such as the drug epidemic and how horrible the community was. But instead of feeling stuck or hopeless, he turned to his family for support, and they were able to motivate him to do his best and reach his potential. 

Rivera spent 20 years at Accenture before taking the top role at ALPFA.    Harrison Brink/AL DÍA News.
Engineering dreams to reality

In high school, Rivera’s grandfather passed away, and at the funeral, his dad pointed Rivera to a man in the corner of the procession with a beard and a leather jacket and jeans on. The man was an engineer, and Rivera’s father said “that’s what you want to be.” The young Damian took that inspiration and ran with it. 

Because he was able to see someone who looked like him in that career, he pursued it with vigor and went on to receive a bachelor’s degree in science and chemical and biochemical engineering from Rutgers University. Later, he earned an MBA from Columbia University, where he specialized in social entrepreneurship.

Rivera then spent 21 years at the multi-national consulting giant, Accenture, eventually becoming managing director of their resources utilities practice. While there, he also led the company’s Hispanic American Employee Resource Group. 

Rivera’s entire career path was very clear cut and planned out, and for a long time, he felt he was in the right place. However, everything changed in 2014 when there was a gas explosion at a church back in his hometown of Harlem, causing the building to collapse. 

Back to Harlem

Rivera immediately went back to the city, feeling a strong obligation to do as much as he could to help. Several of his co-workers at Accenture rallied around him and set up a GoFundMe page to raise money for the community. 

“Now I’m in the city trying to figure out how to fix things. Because I was a consultant for 20 years, that’s what I do. I fix things that are wrong. And I’m realizing that I have no idea how to fix this. So I did what I could do. I got a rental car to transport people around, helped transfer funds, gave money to help with things. I took a couple of weeks off from work to help,” Rivera said. 

It was this event that made Rivera realize that life was really short and really fragile, and it made him start to reflect on his career so far, and whether or not he is fulfilling his purpose. 

Shortly after, Accenture was preparing to launch the first product that would have Rivera’s name on it, but the opportunity fell through. It seemed as if everything was falling apart in front of his eyes and again, started to question his life path. 

Finding ALPFA

During this time of self-reflection and contemplation, a co-worker from Accenture informed Rivera about ALPFA, the Association of Latino Professionals for America, and suggested he check it out. 

“He was like ‘hey there’s a program in New York that combines government with nonprofits and corporate to solve societal problems, why don’t you do this program?’ So I did it, and I got into this phenomenal program and it started helping me see how I could use what I’ve learned towards something that was more impactful and aligned with me and my voice,” Rivera said. 

He was then introduced to the former CEO of ALPFA, who encouraged him to join the company as his successor. Rivera was hesitant at first, and decided to feel out the organization, but it immediately felt like the right place to be. 

A few months later, Rivera was met with another life-altering event when he lost his aunt (his didi) to melanoma when she was only in her 50s. 

Rivera’s dad was the brave one who said what no one else wanted to say. “It’s time,” and the family moved forward with her wishes and took her off life support.

The last conversation Rivera had with his beloved didi was the one that led him to take the position as CEO of ALPFA. He told her about the new opportunity facing him to make a difference in his community and support Latino professionals. 

“Do it all, and enjoy it all,” she told him. 

“Do it all, and enjoy it all,” she told him. 

There were no longer any doubts in Rivera’s mind about his next step. 

Rivera credits the time professionals dedicate to the next generation at ALPFA to the nonprofit’s success.   Harrison Brink/AL DÍA 
Enjoying Every Stepstep

Not long after Rivera jumped into his new role as CEO, while walking from his hotel to his first board meeting, he sees a huge sign that reads “enjoy it,” mirroring what his didi had said. 

Rivera was convinced it was a sign that he was headed in the right direction. He was ready to help people, and his community, “especially at a time where we need people stepping in, speaking up and taking action.”

“God willing, I live a long, long time. I want to tell my grandkids and great grandkids that when things were difficult, and I had an opportunity to do something, I did. That’s why I do what I can. I love what I do,” Rivera said. 

When the pandemic began, Rivera was receiving calls from students about losing their internships, and within a few weeks, ALPFA was able to create a program that allowed students to get paid, get connections to companies and learn skills they could apply at their jobs in the following years. 

“It’s special. It is amazing because [ALPFA] is a group of people that always look to be able to make an impact together,” Rivera said. 

The organization is currently investing in a technology platform that will provide Latinos across the country with learning opportunities, organic networking skills and other resources such as wealth creation, health and wellness, and business mastery. 

“For example, a student over in Utah who may want to do something in finance, but doesn’t necessarily know what, is able to connect with a private equity leader that happens to be Latino,” Rivera said. 

These connections then lead students to be able to see themselves in positions or careers they didn’t believe were possible before because they had no connections, knowledge or even a role model that looked like them. 

“ALPFA is not the hero in this story, it is the individuals coming together, and the professionals giving up their time to the students, and the students that are giving their time to each other,” he said. 

As of 2019, Hispanics are the largest racial group in the U.S at 18.3%, but they only occupy about 4.3% of executive positions. ALPFA is also working hard to bridge this gap by offering aspiring professionals the tools and connections they need to rise up in the ranks in their industries. 

“I believe the Latino community has amazing diversity and we have amazing ways that we are able to come together and move things forward. And with all that, we need to help teach others how to be better at that. We have to make sure we’re continuously moving forward, and I look at our community as leaders that can do that,” Rivera said.  

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