According to a recent study by the Center for Talent Innovation, more than three-quarters of Latinxs expend energy repressing parts of their persona at work. The same study found that 63 percent of Latinxs surveyed do not feel welcome and included, do not feel invited to share their ideas, and/or do not feel confident their ideas are heard and valued in the workplace.
AlixPartners Managing Director and Hispanics or Latinxs at AlixPartners (HOLA) employee resource group (ERG) member Michael Chiock spoke with Rob Ramirez, Investment Banking Vice President, Guggenheim Securities, David Silva, Senior Associate, Sidley Austin, and Jessica Springsteen, Senior Associate, Clifford Chance, on how their backgrounds are an asset and what their companies are doing to empower Hispanics and Latinxs and help them feel comfortable bringing their whole selves to work.
Michael: Can you each share a little bit about your background and your career progression?
Jessica: It’s not clear from my name, but I'm a first-generation Peruvian American. I joined Clifford Chance in 2011 after working at the International Finance Corporation.
Having the opportunity to visit Peru growing up gave me a window into two very different cultures, which was formative for me. From a young age, I knew I wanted to have a career that had an international scope. My practice is in energy and infrastructure, mostly in Latin America, and my language skills are one factor that has set me apart and propelled my career.
David: As you were talking, I felt like you were describing parts of my life too. I grew up in Dallas, but my dad is from Venezuela and my mom is French-German. So because of my mom’s background and my kind of generic European last name, when I would tell people that I was Venezuelan, people would not believe me or would be surprised.
I didn’t grow up speaking Spanish at home, but I spent summers in Venezuela with my grandmother, and it was important for me to know the language, so I worked at learning it in school. And my language skills have really been pivotal to my career. I got more opportunities and responsibility at a more junior level simply because I spoke Spanish and I could read those documents and do those interviews and have those conversations with clients.
"I got more opportunities and responsibility at a more junior level simply because I spoke Spanish and I could read those documents and do those interviews and have those conversations with clients."
- David Silva, Senior Associate, Sidley Austin
Rob: Unfortunately, I don’t have the language skills David and Jessica have. I was born and raised in Miami to Cuban-American parents, who really prioritized my education growing up. I attended the US Naval Academy and served the Navy for five years before pursuing an MBA at Columbia Business School, which led me to my current investment banking career at Guggenheim Securities, where I focus on the restructuring space.
Michael: Like Jessica, my parents are from Peru. I started my career at a utility company before moving into consulting. At AlixPartners, I have done a lot of work for energy companies in places like West Texas, where the crews speak mainly Spanish. I discovered that when I spoke to the crew in Spanish, I would learn a different dynamic. I was able to discover another layer of what’s going on at the company and bring more insight to our client, and I think it was something that my colleagues weren’t really expecting from me.
So, it seems like all of us have benefited in same way from our upbringing and heritage, but has there been a time when you felt you needed to suppress part of your persona at work?
Rob: The first time I was aware of an obstacle related to my surname was at the Naval Academy when a professor penned an article that basically said minorities were taking the seat of a more deserving person there.
I think from that point forward, I’m guilty of adapting to my environment and to some extent “whitewashing” who I am. But candidly, I don’t think I realized this until very recently when having conversations regarding social injustices and inequality this year.
Jessica: It's an interesting question for me because as a first-generation Peruvian American, I was never quite in either world in the sense that I was too Latin for some people in the US, but then I would visit my family in Peru, where I was considered too American.
I speak English as a first language and I speak Spanish as a native Spanish speaker, and just going back to something you said earlier, Michael, in terms of your interaction with the crews in the oil fields, I think I have a cultural fluency where I can connect with clients and others in a way that others can’t. So, I haven’t had to suppress my persona, but it’s because I’ve been deliberate in choosing to work in places where I feel comfortable.
David: My experience is similar in that I can operate in both communities. When I was younger, if people made assumptions about me being Anglo, I would often let those assumptions go uncorrected.
But by the time I was in college, I had really begun to appreciate that being Hispanic was an asset, and it ended up forming the foundation of my practice, which was doing investigations and white-collar work for clients in Latin America, and now worldwide. So now I find that I’m usually going in the other direction, and I am more forcibly reminding people that I’m Hispanic.
"I didn’t want to be different, you know? I wanted to be recognized for my accomplishments and not because I was an underrepresented minority. What I didn’t realize at the time was I could have been recognized for both"
- Michael Chiock, Managing Director and member of Hispanics or Latinxs at AlixPartners (HOLA)
Michael: Thanks for sharing that, particularly about embracing your heritage, because I would say that I probably have not taken advantage of my diversity as much as I should have. I used to feel like I didn’t want to be different, you know? I wanted to be recognized for my accomplishments and not because I was an underrepresented minority. What I didn’t realize at the time was I could have been recognized for both, right? So being authentic and embracing your differences is advice I would give to someone starting out at my firm. What about you, David?
David: The first thing I would say is just do good work, as there’s no amount of extracurriculars or personality that can make up for missing deadlines and not giving great work product. The next thing that I tell people is to find somebody relatively close above you who knows the ropes. So, if you are a first or second-year associate, find a mid-level or senior associate that can tell you about the partners you work with or what the clients are like, and what the expectations are.
Michael: When you think about that person, do you think it matters what their background is or the color of their skin?
David: No. I mean, I believe that you need both. You definitely need to have a friend who is from some minority group that you can just talk straight with, and you can roll your eyes with, and you can go to when something ridiculous happens—it’s happened to all of us. But that doesn't necessarily need to be the same person that will tell you the lay of the land.
I do think it’s important to have Latinx mentors who are senior to you. The head of my office at Sidley is on our firm’s global Management Committee, and she's Latina and was pivotal to my decision to join Sidley, so it’s been fantastic being able to have her as my mentor. But I also have an LGBTQ mentor, and mentors who are white men, all of whom have impacted my career. So I guess I have ended up trying to kind of cross-pollinate my mentors to get different perspectives.
Michael: Jessica, what do you think?
Jessica: Completely agree. I have had white men that have been champions for me, so I don’t think you have to have, in my case, a Hispanic female partner mentor.
With that said it’s important for me to be visible for younger lawyers coming into the firm, because you can’t be what you can’t see. Along those same lines, I would advise incoming associates to seek out their affinity networks in order to connect with peers and have opportunities to be visible and engaged with the firm’s activities.
Rob: I agree with everything Jessica and David said. I’ll add that you should feel like you're working in a place where you feel comfortable being yourself. And if you can't, you should trust your intuition and look elsewhere to find a better fit for you because you just won't thrive in an environment like that for too long.
Michael: That’s a perfect segue into my last question. It sounds like we’re all fortunate to work at companies where we can bring our whole selves to work. What do you think it is about your companies that has enabled that?
Rob: It's all about having leaders who are authentic. And it sounds so simple but having leaders that have a genuine interest in the people that work for them and value their team members on the merits of their work and the quality of their ideas results in an institution that values creating diverse teams with diverse backgrounds. That means that it’s not just OK to be different, but it’s encouraged.
Jessica: It definitely starts at the top. I think what makes Clifford Chance successful is that management is extremely focused on inclusion and it's important because a law firm’s assets are its lawyers and if they're feeling discriminated or sidelined or marginalized, then you aren’t going to get the full benefit of that person.
David: I agree wholeheartedly with what Rob and Jessica have said. One thing I’ll add is it’s important how the company functionally shows its support for its people. So, are you promoting minorities and making efforts to put them in front of clients, and are you listening to their recommendations, and taking seriously the issues that are important to them, and not just paying lip service?
Michael: At our firm, we’re now having a deeper dialogue about what needs to be different regarding how, as you say, we functionally support minorities. I’m paraphrasing this, but our CEO Simon Freakley has said that even though what we’ve done in the past might have been good, we need to do more. It’s encouraging to hear that your respective firms are approaching this moment in the same way.
Meet the participants
Robert Ramirez is a Vice President in Guggenheim Securities’ Restructuring Advisory Practice. His experience includes advising companies, sovereigns, sponsors and creditor constituents on restructuring, liability management, M&A, and financing transactions.
David Silva is an associate in Sidley’s Commercial Litigation and Disputes and White Collar Practices. David defends companies and their directors, officers, and employees in complex criminal and civil investigations, environmental government enforcement actions, and white-collar matters.
Jessica Springsteen is a member of the Americas Energy & Projects Group. She advises commercial banks, multilateral organizations, and export credit agencies in all aspects relating to the development and financing of energy and infrastructure projects worldwide with a particular emphasis in Latin America.