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Varsovia Fernandez is the executive director of the Pennsylvania CDFI Network. Photo: AL DÍA Archives.
Varsovia Fernandez is the executive director of the Pennsylvania CDFI Network. Photo: AL DÍA Archives.

Varsovia Fernandez, on a Mission to do Right

Whether it’s in nonprofit, business, or higher education, Varsovia Fernandez has left a positive impact on the entire region.

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Varsovia Fernandez is very proud of her Latin-American heritage. 

It’s something she carries with her in everything she does, in every room she enters, and in every role she’s filled throughout her executive career.

Across the different fields she has worked in — which includes banking, tech, venture funding, and the nonprofit sector — Fernandez has committed herself to a specific purpose.

That is doing what’s right, making a positive impact and leaving her mark.

In many respects, she has done that and it’s a passion that has driven her throughout her entire career. 

From DR to PR

Fernandez was born and raised in the Dominican Republic. 

The youngest of seven children, she said she was often protected by her parents, siblings and the elders in her life.

Growing up, Fernandez really enjoyed horseback riding, going to the river, and riding her bicycle, all of which, she noted, are very popular in Latin America.

The young Fernandez was always interested in watching her older brother, who used to rally, work on his car. The more she was pushed away due to the idea that motorsports were “not for girls,” the more interested she became in getting involved. 

It was there that she developed one of her first passions for cars.  

While in the Dominican Republic, Fernandez also became very involved in sports. She began playing volleyball in the third grade. 

At the age of 12, she and her family moved to Puerto Rico. 

While there, she continued to play volleyball all the way through her first year of college, and also ran marathons during high school. 

After finishing middle and high school in Puerto Rico, Fernandez came to Philadelphia for college, originally at Temple University.

A New Country

When Fernandez arrived in the United States, it didn’t take long to see some of the differences between U.S. culture and her home on the islands. 

“My first impression was that people did whatever they wanted to do,” said Fernandez.

In college, she remembers seeing everyone wear shorts and flip-flops to school while she showed up with jeans, high heels and makeup on her first day. 

In Puerto Rico, she learned to read and write in English in school, but the opportunities to speak it weren’t there. 

In addition to the fact that her sister was already living in the U.S., Fernandez credited her ability to build relationships as a big reason for her ability to adapt to a new country. 

However, she understood that not every immigrant has that access or ability. 

“I think the hardest thing as an immigrant when you come here is to not know and understand the systems,” said Fernandez. “Whether it is the higher education system, or the Social Security system, or the medical system, it’s very different.” 

When Fernandez first came to Philadelphia in 1981, she noted that many people in the city didn’t have much exposure to immigrants. 

She recalls people asking her if she was Italian or Middle Eastern, often having to tell people she was Hispanic, and explain where the Dominican Republic was.

“I have seen Philadelphia evolve as an immigrant city,” she said. 

During her second year in college, Fernandez settled in the suburbs — where she found even less Hispanics and other immigrants.

“This made it even harder because there was nobody speaking Spanish,” she said. “But what it did do for me was teach me English.”

“And I always tell my immigrant friends and people who I have worked with, ‘you have to learn English,’” Fernandez added, noting that the ability to communicate is among the most basic and essential skills to getting the things you want and need. 

Representing Hispanics in Philadelphia

With her background in business and banking, Fernandez developed a keen interest and understanding of economic development and its value.

“I understood that economic development was the way to get out of poverty, and where I could make a difference,” she said.  

This mindset and subsequent search for a career opportunity in economic development eventually led Fernandez to join Congreso de Latinos Unidos as its vice president of external affairs. 

“When I got to Congreso, it became extremely important because I had such a wealth of knowledge in building relationships and also in what was available to the community,” she said. 

During her time with the organization, she also became nationally involved in the immigration reform bill during the Bush administration.

“My immigrant experience was very helpful during my work at Congreso,” she said. 

Through those experiences, Fernandez noted that she “fell into leadership” due to a group of men and women who believed in her and her abilities. However, she also understood that not every immigrant are provided those opportunities.

As someone who has navigated the U.S. without having to deal with being undocumented, Fernandez understands the difference it makes, noting that being documented has been very helpful in blending into a corporate setting. 

“I’ve done with a lot of work with the undocumented and it feels unsafe, the way I understand it from their story, to not have that legal status,” said Fernandez. 

After nearly three years with Congreso, that leadership transitioned to her becoming the President & CEO of the Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. 

There, she helped represent and grow the region’s Hispanic-owned businesses. It was an endeavor that was very important to her because she felt she could relate to the Hispanic business community.

And it paid dividends. 

“We created the Hispanic market,” said Fernandez, about her time with the Chamber. “We had a lot of Latino businesses and a lot of Latino professionals, but there was no market, it was not being acknowledged.” 

Today, Philadelphia has among the most thriving Latino business communities in the nation. That was in large part due to Fernandez’s dedication to increasing that visibility.  

The Latina in the Room

Beyond her work with Congreso and the Chamber, Fernandez has also worked in white, male-dominated industries, as well. 

In some instances, she was the only woman, Latina or people of color in the room. 

In those settings, she always aims to be a representative for those who are not in the room. 

“I always walk in a place knowing who I was and what I could do,” said Fernandez.

However, doing so was not always easy.

“I had a couple of experiences where I was treated like a woman, not like a person,” she said. “I was treated like a Hispanic, not like an American.”

While she navigated through those challenges, it also became clear that she wanted to do something about it. 

Fernandez would then share resources and provide the region’s Latino community with the information needed to excel in their careers, and ultimately, their lives.

Breaking Barriers in Higher Education

Fernandez is very passionate about community colleges. 

During her own educational journey, community college served as a lifetime for her.

“One of the reasons why I love community colleges is because it’s a great place for women, for single moms to go part-time or full-time. They’re able to work and spend time with their children while they get an education without being judged and getting a support system through wellness services that allows them to actually become more educated and get better jobs,” said Fernandez. 

“It’s very difficult to accomplish that in a four-year school,” she added. 

When Fernandez was forced to drop out of Temple, the opportunity to take some classes part-time at a community college, as a single mother herself, was crucial as a bridge to eventually returning full-time student and ultimately earning her degree at Rosemont College, and later continue to further her education. 

Therefore, it was important for her to get involved and be a voice for promoting the value of community colleges in providing an affordable path to higher education, particularly for students of color like herself.

This led Fernandez to joining the Board of Trustees for the Community College of Philadelphia.

During her time on the Board, Fernandez became one of the main catalysts for the College having its first-ever celebration for Hispanic Heritage Month — now the Hispanic Heritage Month Annual Luncheon.

“It’s pretty amazing,” noted Fernandez. 

Years later, Fernandez joined the Board of the Montgomery County Community College.  In January 2022, she became the first Latina board chair for the College.

While her focus always remains on doing what is right and best for the students and not too much about being “the first,” it’s still a distinction she had great pride in. 

“It means a lot,” she said. “in that I have to live up to being a role model. And I hope it serves as inspiration.”

An Evolving Legacy

When Fernandez reflects on her legacy, she noted that it can change at times.

However, what remains is her desire to do the right thing, and making a mark in the world. 

“I think I’ve done that already in many respects,” she said.

However, the work is far from over in Fernandez’s eyes. 

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