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Diversity, Equity & Inclusion

Breaking New Ground as a Latina Leader

Esther Aguilera has a clear purpose: to help Latino leaders rise to the top. She reflects on how her upbringing, early education, and public policy career shaped her outlook on leadership.

  • 13 October 2022

Editor's note: This article is part of our Hispanic Heritage Month Q&A series highlighting leaders of Latino and Hispanic heritage.

Esther Aguilera is President & CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA), the largest national network of Latinos at the pinnacle of corporate leadership and governance. She built LCDA, a premier and consequential organization focused on advancing inclusion of Latinos in the boardroom. She is executive producer of the LCDA Annual Board Leaders Convening and launched the BoardReady Institute (BRI) to advance top Latino executives for the boardroom. She is a corporate governance expert and contributes on tropics related to the S&G of ESG, as well as DE&I. She serves on the Advisory Council of the NACD Center for Inclusive Governance and on the Board of Directors of the Thirty Percent Coalition. She is a recipient of the 2022 Modern Governance 100 by Diligent in the category of ESG and Diversity Trailblazer. She was named among the 2022 50 Most Powerful Latinas, recognized by Bloomberg Linea among the 500 Most Influential in Latin America in 2022, and 2021 Person of the Year by Al Dia News Media.

How did you approach your readiness to lead? Was there a defining moment that led you to this point in your career?

I noticed very early, while still in elementary school, that the government or business leaders we learned about never looked like me. Later on, I decided to pursue an education in public policy and did a deep dive on leadership and who leaders were at different levels of government. I realized that not only did they not look like me, but I wondered how they could possibly reflect this deeply diverse country we are. 

A key moment for me was in 1990, when I got a job offer with the Latino Civil Rights and Advocacy Organization (UNIDOS US), in Washington D.C., through a mentor connection. That experience built my policy acumen in a way nothing else had before. But when you’re driven and work hard, you can break new ground in spaces where your family or community have never been. 

My experiences and persistence opened even bigger doors that led to an offer as executive director of the U.S. Congressional Hispanic Caucus, handling every major issue affecting our community. This was another pivotal point in my career. 

Have you faced any specific difficulties during that process? What have you learned from that?  

It’s challenging when you are in brand new in positions or roles you haven’t had any early exposure to. Imagine being an immigrant from Mexico with humble parents who never discussed politics or economy at the kitchen table. But I came to realize that Latinos in the U.S. are very resilient. We bring two cultures, two languages, our mindset, and willingness to explore simply because we are immigrants. 

That was the strength I brought with me. This open mind, resilience, taking opportunities, and being a quick learner. There certainly was a lot of self-doubt along the way. “What is this young immigrant doing running this important work with members of Congress and the White House and top leaders of the country?” I would ask myself. 

There’s one important moment. The Caucus Chair, congressman Becerra and I were meeting with then President Clinton as usual to focus on key policy issues. This time, we raised the fact that neither his cabinet nor political appointees reflected how diverse America was. But the President wanted a cabinet that looked like America, so we agreed on a pledge to foster diversity, in particular Latinos, in senior positions. I led the effort together with the White House Chief of Staff to look not only at appointees but to find out what positions were becoming available to proactively bring potential candidates fourth to members of Congress. That had never happened before. As a result, we reached the highest levels of Latino representation in government we ever had.

That’s when it hit me that I could focus on the grassroots work, but representation at the top levels mattered a lot because it has a trickledown effect. 

What lights your fire as a leader? 

It goes back to my early education and college experience realizing I didn’t see Latinos in leadership roles. At the end of the day, that matters. My personal and professional pursuit in the different roles I’ve had is positioning Latinos to take a seat at the table, take on more leadership roles, take more risk, because we need more Latino leaders in every sector. That has been the common thread throughout my career.

How have your experiences in so many leadership roles impacted your professional journey?

I’ve been lucky that my early experience, coming from low-income roots, enabled me to hone my strategic growth approach with every opportunity I’ve had. After the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, I was asked by U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Bill Richardson to work for him in a senior executive position in the business office at the DOE. He brought me in to create change and fully supported me along the ride. My approach then was to build buy-in from within the DOE, engaging people on how they could be part of this change with me. We accomplished many things, among which a procurement conference aimed at promoting businesses from women and underrepresented groups.  

Now, when joining LCDA, I was able to land my background and knowledge very differently in building the organization, the operations, expanding and increasing the capacity for our leaders to be on boards. All those building blocks helped me become successful at what I do today.

What advice you could offer other professionals of Latino/Hispanic heritage to tap into their full potential and become their full selves as leaders? 

Seize those opportunities as leaders, right? When opportunities come up, raise your hand, don’t wait to be asked to do the next challenge or role. Volunteer. Not everybody goes into their next role having that single skillset required. That’s part of growing. You grow when you do well in one role, by doing a larger position to explore.

You already have a good foundation by having a strategic approach and knowledge. Now, raise your hand to new roles and challenges. Reach for the stars. Say, “I can be CEO.” While you might not get there, you may end up in the C-suite and that’s great. Latinos often put their heads down on the desk and do the work and hope to be noticed. 

And then network and build meaningful relationships beyond networking. Be there for others like you’d want folks to be there for you. And promote one another—if we don’t, who else will?

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