Hispanic Heritage Update: Where are the Latina Leaders in Corporate America?

By Beth Senko

iStock_000008227662XSmallWhere are the Latina Leaders in financial services, in technology and in the Fortune 500 at large in the United States?

At first glance, it is easy to think they are almost entirely absent from the top echelons of business since only 35 women sit in the most senior executive management positions in the whole of the Fortune 1000. The 2012 Fortune 50 Most Powerful Women list includes only Gisele Ruiz, COO of Wal-Mart US.

A slight representation increase can be noted in the Forbes 2014 survey listing the World’s Most Powerful Women (according to them of course) which does include several Latinas or women from Hispanic descent in the last few years. Prominent names such as Dilma Rousseff the current president of Brazil, Maria de Gracas Silva Foster who runs Petrobas, the biggest oil company in the southern hemisphere, and Cristina de Fernandez de Kirshner who is the President of Argentina, all made the list.

Interestingly, however, all three women sit outside of the US in their native countries and two out of the three are politicians, illustrating the struggle to see the media rank Latinas as leaders is still ongoing.

Growth of Latinos in the Investments Business
So where will the change come from? Grassroots efforts are driving progress for Latinos in the investment business space. The New America Alliance was founded in 1999, when Latinos were not an established part of the network for deploying investment capital according to Pilar Avila, Chief Executive Officer of New America Alliance (NAA), a non-profit that works towards increasing the participation of Latinos and Latino-owned financial service firms in the investment sector.

“There has been progress. In private equity, there were three [Latino] firms, with maybe $500 million under management.” By banding together to raise awareness of opportunities in the Hispanic markets, funds under management by Latino-partner firms has grown tremendously. In 2005, Palladium Equity Partners, a Latino-owned firm, raised $780 million for a Hispanic-focused fund, and in 2014 Palladium raised an additional $1.1 billion in a new Hispanic-focused fund. Avila estimates that NAA-member firms currently manage between $8-10 billion and that across the industry Latino-owned firms manage $20 billion in total – a forty-fold jump in 15 years. Proof positive that great change can be made by banding together.

While Avila’s organization advocates for the rise of Hispanics in the financial services world, she doesn’t view the lack of Latina representation at the top of the Fortune 500 Corporate ladder as necessarily negative.

“We [Latinas] have different measures of success [from the traditional corporate world]. We are selective on what we do. The Lean-In concept conflicts with our culture. Hispanics are raised with the concepts of family first, respect for authority and placing the good of the whole ahead of what is good for oneself.”

Cultural Scripts and Imposter Syndrome
While one person cannot speak for every Latina professional in America since everyone is an individual with differing levels of personal ambition and degrees of interest in tradition, there does seem to be cultural pulls on Latina women who tread a fine line of meeting traditional family duties as well as stoking the fire of their ambitions.

Evangelina Holvino from Diversity Best Practices refers to the attitudes as “cultural scripts in the workplace.”

“It is the way that culture permeates the organization and determines its practices – the way things are done formally and informally – which hinder Latinos’ full participation, progress and contributions at work…In the process of addressing this problem, organizations will need to stop demanding total assimilation of Latinos to a one-size fits all organizational model, the same way that feminists are demanding that organizations become less gendered. I believe that for many Latinos in organizations, the issue is ultimately one of “fit” – can they assimilate and should they sacrifice their cultural values and styles in order to succeed in the corporation, even when notions of success are influenced by these very cultural scripts?”

This is certainly something that our resident organizational psychologist and CEO, Nicki Gilmour can attest to as a phenomenon that manifests in gender and only gets stronger when social identities such as ethnicity and sexual orientation are added to the mix to create the “Imposter Syndrome.”

“When we ask ‘where is the Latina professional pipeline?’ folks often reply it is entirely because Latinas don’t want the job due to their own home-life situations. Well that’s just like saying that women who have kids don’t want the job either. The thing is, they usually do, but the job cannot just be designed around straight white men and their available schedule, implicit standards, and game playing rules. It makes it impossible to get out of the same circular conversation that gets us nowhere and bleeds talented people out of the system.”

Latina women leave to become Entrepreneurs
The cultural scripts and phenomena such as the imposter syndrome faced in corporate America could be contributing to the rush of Latinos leaving the finance and Fortune 500 world at large to head up their own businesses. While not at parity, Latinos (and particularly Latinas) are a force in small business ownership. Data from the 2007 Census Bureau Survey of Business Owners found that Hispanics owned 2.3 million businesses, roughly 8.5% of all small businesses surveyed (27.5 million) and nearly 40% of the 5.8 million minority-owned small businesses in the survey. The study notes “Hispanic-owned businesses increased at more than twice the rate of the national average.” If the 7.5% annual growth rate from 2002-2007 holds, there may be an additional one million new Hispanic-owned businesses when data from the 2012 survey is released in July 2015.

Latinas are driving much of the growth in small business ownership. According to a 2011 study by the Center for American Progress, “The strides in business ownership are particularly apparent among Latino women. In fact, Latina entrepreneurs start businesses in the United States at a rate six times the national average and are the fastest-growing segment among women-owned businesses. Across the country, Latina-owned businesses have total receipts of $55.7 billion and total receipts have grown by 57.8 percent since 2002. Currently, 1 in 10 women-owned businesses are owned by Latinas.”

Corporations Work to Engage and Promote Hispanics
Corporations are finally noticing Hispanic success outside the traditional business sector and are looking for ways to attract that diverse talent. The 2013 Corporate Inclusion Index Report by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility (HACR) looks not just at diversity numbers, but also efforts to improve those numbers. In the study’s opening comments, the authors note, “This year marks the fifth year of the HACR CII in its current format. In that time, we have seen a renewed commitment by some corporations to be transparent when it comes to Hispanic inclusion in Corporate America. We have also seen clear dedication on the part of some companies but on the other hand, we have also learned that many companies still have work to do to ensure Hispanics are represented at all levels within their companies.”

The same study confirms the results found by Forbes and Fortune showing that Hispanic (and particularly Latina) representation in the C-suite and on corporate boards is still lacking. HACR’s survey of 60 participants in the Fortune 100 shows 4% of C-suite roles are held by Hispanics and only 1% by Latinas.

However, HACR’s study also points to things that corporations are doing right to bring Hispanics into the c-suite pipeline. Of the 60 companies in its survey, HACR notes that, “nearly all of the respondents indicated that they have an internship program in place geared towards recruiting Hispanics.”

Other efforts toward recruiting and maintaining Hispanic talent in the pipeline include employee resource groups (ERGs). In 2013, HACR published a study to benchmark ERGs for Hispanics at large corporations. The study found that Hispanics are three times as likely to participate in ERGs (30%) than the national average of 10% across all ERGs. Notably, 54% of the Hispanic ERGs studied had more than 500 members. The study also noted the key role Hispanic executives play as ERG sponsors and many use the ERG to identify high potential employees.

Looking Ahead
While HACR has yet to publish a follow-up to its ERG study, there’s reason to be optimistic. Several individuals interviewed as part of the ERG study indicated that these employee groups created a platform to further their corporate careers and resulted in opportunities to be considered for more senior positions in their firms. Combined with high levels of participation and executive sponsorship, it may just be that ERGs create the right structure of community and cultural support for Latinas to increase their presence in the upper echelons of the corporate world.