American Latinas: Leadership and Economic Force

Ana Maria Fernandez Haar
Chair of the Board, NAA Institute; Managing Partner, Victoriana, LLC 

The assertion that Latinas have come a long way — which is not to say that there isn’t a long way to go — is informed by meta-analysis and thoughtful observation of women’s participation in the fullness of American life, over time. In assessing our progress as it relates to the New America Alliance‘s (NAA) founding pillars of growing human capital, economic capital, political capital and the capacity for strategic philanthropy, the evidence suggests not only tangible achievements on all these fronts, but also a powerful momentum, the full effects of which are yet to be measured and felt by the country as a whole. Yet felt it will be.

We must not allow our currently dismal under-representation in corporate and political life to weaken our resolve, for the indicators are moving in the right direction and clearly point to opportunities unimaginable just a few generations ago. Our foremothers knew that bending the arc of the moral universe toward equality was not a short-term endeavor. It took nearly 100 years for Congress to pass — and for the states to ratify — the 19th Amendment to the Constitution: Women’s Right to Vote (1920). They would be amazed at the speed of today’s communications, knowledge-based economy and its ability to accelerate societal change at all levels.

Ours is an age of complex inter-dependent networks where concerted, strategic actions on multiple fronts tend to work best. The United Nations said as much when it merged four of the organization’s agencies in 2011 to create UN SWAP, the United Nations System-wide Action Plan on gender equality and women’s empowerment, now operating as UN Women. It addressed a broad range of issues including the “reaffirmation that women’s rights were human rights and that gender equality was an issue of universal concern, benefiting all”. This UN Action Plan serves as an inspirational blueprint for countless women-focused initiatives throughout the globe. The New America Alliance American Latina Caucus has drawn its own inspiration from their approach.

Consumer research — from reputable sources such as the Census Bureau, Pew Center, HACU, Amerédia and others — invariably foretell potential outcomes before they become self-evident in the greater marketplace. Nielsen, one of the most respected leaders in the field, recently published “Latina Power Shift“ as part of their Diverse Intelligence Series. To quote the study’s Executive Summary:

“Latinas are outpacing Latino males in their educational pursuits and career development, are overwhelmingly the decision-makers in household spending, have surpassed the proportion of non-Hispanic white families with children, and through their youth and increased incomes have become an attractive consumer segment who is being actively courted by marketers.”

This report, which we consider required reading for anyone interested in the Latinas of today and tomorrow — concurs with other sources that cite Latina gains in higher education, earnings, entrepreneurship and political engagement. And while the data-driven insights are critical to any discussion, there is another major “shift” impacting the national arena. In addition to broadcast media, the democratization of information (Internet, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and other social media platforms) has created countless new ways to communicate and connect. All the messages and images out there are constantly shaping the very perceptions that ultimately make our society. The NAA women aim to increase those positive representations for we agree with Marie Wilson of The White House Project, who said “you can’t be what you can’t see”.

Many of our NAA female founding members broke glass ceilings of their own. Yet then, in 1999, a Latina Supreme Justice seemed but a dream. Justice Sonia Sotomayor has since inspired legions of American Latinas to see themselves in law careers, full of possibilities. This is but one example among thousands.

Seeing role models of “women like me” is the first way most of our young women feel validated and inspired to consider what may be possible for them to achieve. Yes, what is possible for one is possible for others.

In our quest for increased Latino participation in small business creation and expansion, the NAA has always advocated for diverse leadership at the U.S. Small Business Administration. Today, an NAA member, Maria Contreras-Sweet is the Administrator of that agency.

Dr. Antonia Novello, the first Latina Surgeon General was a rarity in 1990. Today, Elena Rios, MD is the President and CEO of the National Hispanic Medical Association, surrounded by many other Latina physicians.

On a personal note, when I was twelve years old I couldn’t even begin to imagine an Anna Maria Chavez leading the Girl Scouts.

Nely Galan, founder of the Adelante Movement, is making a huge difference. She is business, leadership and service in action.

Look to our own Women’s Panel at the upcoming Wall Street Summit. From Lorraine Cortés-Vázquez serving as the first Latina Secretary of State in New York and now leading at AARP, to Jackie Cacho breaking barriers in entertainment/production, Alice Rodríguez rising at Chase, Alejandra Castillo at Commerce and Alejandra Ceja at the White House, these extraordinary women are opening doors, moving through them and leaving them open for others to follow. NAA CEO Pilar Avila together with Carmen Ortiz McGhee, another NAA alumna, is destined to open even more doors. As accomplished as they are already, these women are just at the starting gate of what they will ultimately achieve and the contributions they will make to our country.

Beyond sharing stories of what is possible, the NAA American Latina Leadership Caucus will illustrate the different roads toward achievement, and its members will mentor, support, encourage, introduce and do whatever is possible to make certain that legions of “hermanas” get through the big doors. It’s the smart — and also right — thing to do for our country.