Reflecting on the Hispanic American Experience

by J.C. Lopez, MD and Erica SunkinOct 14, 2021

In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month, NEA recently hosted a panel exploring the Latino experience within the U.S. innovation ecosystem titled, The Latin/Hispanic American Experience: Embracing a Mosaic of Diversity. The latest in a series of educational programs and content spearheaded by the firm’s Diversity, Inclusion and Belonging (DIB) initiative, the panel aimed to illuminate the breadth of backgrounds, experiences and challenges among Latino leaders. Participants included Lalo Flores, CEO, Century Therapeutics; Elena Gomez, CFO, Toast; Vanessa Larco, Partner, NEA; with NEA Principal J.C. Lopez, MD, moderating the discussion.

The panelists offered personal perspectives on their career paths and respective fields, reflecting on how their individual backgrounds and experiences have shaped aspects of their success. While each participant’s story is unique, the discussion also revealed shared experiences and beliefs—particularly evident as they discussed lessons learned, mentorship, and the duty each feels to ‘pay it forward.’

Some of the event’s central themes and most compelling takeaways are recapped below, and the full panel conversation is available here.

No matter your background, you can always be a role model for someone else

Each panelist strongly identifies as Latino or Hispanic, but it was evident from the discussion that a tremendous diversity exists within that broad cultural identity. Just as Latinos come from many different countries, aspects of Latino culture and experience in the U.S. differ greatly within populations and communities. While participants found numerous shared aspects of their upbringings and experiences—ranging from English being a second language in their households, to not being able to have sleepovers, to navigating the U.S. college system alone—the panelists revealed other ways in which their experiences diverged significantly, particularly around access to opportunities or support at various points in their educations or careers.

“Opportunity” can mean many different things to many different people. The most impactful opportunities the panelists cited were ones that would beget many others: to be physically located in the U.S., to obtain an education, and to be able to transform their knowledge and skills into a fruitful career. Each panelist expressed a sense of responsibility to ensure others are equipped to recognize and pursue opportunities that will help them succeed.

Vanessa Larco shared a story related to the college application process. She had performed terribly on the practice SAT test because she took it without really understanding what the SAT was or recognizing its importance. When a teacher told her she would be unlikely to get into college based on her score, she took to the internet and studied on her own. She now makes sure that whenever she meets Hispanic or Latino students, she shares all of the things she didn’t know. She finds she is often the first person to discuss the ACT/SAT with them, or to tell them that student loans aren't necessarily bad.

“I didn’t know how to navigate this system, I stumbled through and got lucky figuring it out,” Vanessa said. “Not having these types of exposures puts a lot of people at a disadvantage, particularly in our communities.”

She notes that being a first generation American and growing up in a family that didn’t have distinctly “American” priorities created an unintended side effect that made things harder for her to achieve or even understand. Larco aims to widen the aperture of opportunity and make the playing field more even for people of diverse backgrounds.

Lalo Flores, who grew up in Chile, set his sights on the U.S. at a young age and credits his parents with fostering his love of science. While he did not want to follow in his parents’ professional footsteps and become a veterinarian, he was very much influenced by growing up in a house where science was valued. Flores believes that the emphasis on scientific innovation early in his life led him to attend university in the U.S. instead of in Chile, to become a scientist, and ultimately to lead a science-driven company.

Elena Gomez recalls that shortly after she joined Zendesk as CFO, a young Latina colleague approached her and said, “You have no idea how big of a deal it is that you're Latina, you're female, and you're on our leadership team.” She was struck, she said, noting that, “For whatever reason, I hadn't really appreciated the importance of looking around and seeing someone who looks like you.”

What Vanessa, Lalo and Elena’s stories share is the fundamental lesson that there are many direct and indirect ways in which someone can serve as a mentor and help share the trajectory of another person’s life and/or career. No action is insignificant, and the act of simply being oneself can be incredibly inspiring to others.

Invest in people; foster a supportive culture that attracts and nurtures diverse talent

When Vanessa first entered the workforce out of college, she recalls that the message was to “fit into this box, which was a very masculine stereotype.” Her first job was at Xbox, so she was not only trying to act like a guy, but a gamer guy. The role couldn’t have been further from her own identity, but she felt pressure to fit into the mold. She noted that she has seen a lot of progress in this regard since she began her career and hopes people continue to change the conversation. She encourages companies, leaders, and employees to foster a culture that enables and empowers their individuals to discover their strengths and play to them.

Lalo believes it’s important for companies to not only create an inclusive culture that empowers employees, but to show them that you trust them—because of what they do, not who they are or where they came from. He believes that as a leader, “you have to mean it. It is not just talking the talk, but also walking the walk and living it on a daily basis.”

Both Vanessa and Lalo emphasized the importance of creating a culture that doesn’t value “people who look like you” but instead values a diversity of perspectives and backgrounds. For Lalo, making people feel comfortable and supported starts from the top down—the mindset that no idea is too small, no question is unimportant is one he tries to live each day.

The first time Elena was in a corporate office was the first day of her first job. She couldn’t ask her parents questions about what to expect or how to act, because they'd never been in a corporate office either. Her experience is a good reminder that many people—even after they’ve gone to school and aced the interview, don’t necessarily have the information or support systems they need to be successful (or to believe they can be successful).

Companies that create an open environment—one that fosters and supports talent while allowing individuals to be vulnerable and to grow and learn in areas where they are less skilled or comfortable—will have the advantage when it comes to cultivating diverse talent.

Walk the walk, commit to diversity through recruitment practices

An inclusive environment is important, but it’s only part of the equation. Latinos currently represent about 17% of employment across all occupations, according to a recent Pew report, but only about 8% of STEM workers. Addressing this imbalance means fueling a more robust pipeline of candidates pursuing STEM careers by engaging with students earlier and more often.

Century Therapeutics is implementing several programs to accelerate a more robust pipeline of diverse candidates in STEM fields. These include hosting Philadelphia’s high school students to introduce them to STEM, and careers in science. Century is also planning to establish internship programs that will recruit from all demographics with emphasis on underrepresented groups from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds. He hopes that the exposure these kids get from these programs shows them that they too could pursue a life in STEM, something they might not have considered before.

Vanessa noted that the only reason she left her hometown of Miami for college was because she knew she wanted to pursue a degree in computer science, which was not offered at the University of Miami. Among her friends who were first-generation Hispanic Americans, she was the only one to leave home to attend college. Graduating from Georgia Tech opened many doors for her and ultimately helped to secure her first job, but she knows that many young men and women who prioritized staying close to home over attending a top tech school have had far fewer doors opened.

The panelists agreed that companies need to think about how to recruit from new places and rise to the challenge of finding new and different talent. If companies are truly committed to diversity and inclusion, dedicating resources to finding new ways and new types of people to recruit will be a priority from the top. This can include casting a wider net in recruiting as well as fostering a more diverse STEM talent pool early on.

Elena concludes, “There's a war for talent. Why would we limit our talent pool, when we all know that we can't find enough talent? Hopefully that's a forcing function to introduce broader strategies too.”

A key takeaway of the discussion was whether one is fresh out of college or leading a large organization, learning never ends. All panelists underscored the importance of an open mindset and a willingness to embrace other perspectives. There is so much each of us can’t know about other cultures and experiences (and likely things we don’t know within our own cultures) that even the simple acts of listening, learning and leaving space for growth can be truly impactful.

The edited transcript of the panel conversation in Q&A format can be found here.