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Fortune 500’s first Latina CEO speaks out on climbing the corporate ladder

“I’m going to get noticed and I’m going to get promoted”

Latinas stand out as the least represented group at the highest levels of corporate America: only 1 percent of C-suite executives are Latina.1 And the percentage of Latinas who assume CEO roles is even smaller: only three Latinas have been CEO of a Fortune 500 company. In 2017, former PG&E CEO Geisha Williams became the first.

Lean In’s Editor-in-Chief Caroline Fairchild spoke with Williams about the findings of our newly released State of Latinas in Corporate America report, how she navigated the corporate ladder, and how to address the workplace obstacles Latinas continue to face.

Edited excerpts:

CAROLINE FAIRCHILD: As a five-year-old, you immigrated with your family from Cuba and served as your family's primary translator. How did those early experiences shape you?

GEISHA WILLIAMS: It was very formative. Being a little kid and being responsible for getting translations right and representing my parents I had to be mature and responsible. I felt a responsibility at a really young age, and frankly that has stayed with me my whole life—all through college and going into the corporate world.

CF: How else did being an immigrant influence you?

GW: As an immigrant, you come to this country with nothing. You don't know the culture, you certainly don’t know the language, and you don't have any connections. You're starting with a blank slate. For my parents, when they first got here, it was all about survival, making sure that I was well taken care of, and putting me in a position to be successful. So at a very young age, it was about hard work. My parents drilled into me that I had to get an education, and that education is something no one can ever take away from you. What you learn and what you know is with you forever.

CF: Did you have mentors who helped shape your career path?

GW: I had a mentor in high school who lit a bit of a feminist fire under me in 1978. She said, “Geisha, you're so good at math and science. You should study engineering.” She said there are very few women in STEM, but there are even fewer women in engineering. You owe it to other girls to show that women could be very successful engineers. I thought that was interesting.

It was because of that belief she had in me, and that there weren't many women in it—I kind of got challenged by the idea—that I went into engineering. Let me tell you, it was the best thing I ever did. It was a perfect career choice for me.

CF: Research shows that even at the entry level, Latinas are vastly underrepresented in corporate America compared to their representation in the U.S. population.2 Did you experience challenges in finding your first role?

GW: Whether you're Latina, a Black woman, or a white woman, there's always bias. Particularly in a technical field. We were hired in cohorts. I might've been the only Latina hired in that cohort, even though the job was in Miami. Miami is a heavily Latino community. Maybe there was one other woman, but mostly it was white males that were hired in the same sort of entry-level position that I was in. I felt like if I was going to get to that next job that I aspired to then I had to be really great at it.

CF: You graduated from the University of Miami and started your career with Florida Power & Light Company as an entry-level engineer selling water heater blankets. What was that like?

GW: I didn't love it, but I hunkered down and did a great job at it. I became the top sales representative. It was an energy-conservation role, and it was about as unsexy an engineering job as you can get. I remember my colleagues in my cohort all hated it, and they all blew it off and were just waiting to get to the next job. And I was like, “I'm going to sell more water heater blankets than anybody. I'm going to get noticed and I'm going to get promoted.” And that's exactly what I did. I had that mind-set about working hard, getting results, and getting to that next level.

CF: What types of bias did you experience early in your career?

GW: This was the early eighties. There was a machismo aspect of joining a technical workforce—a workforce that was all about building out infrastructure. Even though I was working for a company where there was a lot of Latino representation at the supervisor and manager ranks as a Latina, it was like, “Oh, look at her in her cute little boots.” I had to overcome not just the fact that I was Latina, but the sexism of the era.

CF: What messages did you receive from your family or community about how you should approach work and your ambition? Do you feel like those messages helped or hurt you?

GW: They always helped me. My parents said if anybody can do it, you can. They were the wind in my sails. I have had other friends over the years whose parents were not quite like that, who felt that they needed to be in a more traditional Latin woman role—the kids, the home, the cooking. My parents were like, “Yes, we want to have grandchildren when you're ready. Meanwhile, you kick ass.”

CF: In your experience mentoring other Latinas in the workplace, what barriers do you think Latinas commonly face when climbing the corporate ladder?

GW: There are cultural barriers about what a Latina woman is supposed to be and how she's supposed to behave at home. I can think of one woman in particular—it's always stuck with me. She was even more talented than I was. She was smart, hardworking, capable, and had all the tools. But it was her mother that was the biggest drag on her career, constantly making her feel guilty about not spending enough time with the kids and needing to be home to cook dinner for her husband. The mother's perspective was that her husband needed to be successful. The mother's guilt and the sense of obligation held her back. She never made it to the officer level. I don't think that's an isolated case. I think that happens quite a bit.

CF: What were some of the challenges you faced when you started to climb the corporate ladder with aspirations of reaching the C-suite? At any point did you feel like you had to mask part of your Latina identity?

GW: I was always very kind of vanilla in terms of my appearance, and I've never, ever wanted to gather attention based on my looks. Maybe that goes back to what my high school teacher said about going on to be one of the first and having to prove to others that I can do it. I wanted to showcase my abilities and less about my appearance.

CF: Alongside Asian women, Latinas have the lowest promotion rates of any group of women from director to VP.3 What was your experience like being the first Latina vice president at your company?

GW: I felt impostor syndrome for the first time when I became vice president. Especially when I would meet with people that I wasn't working with day in and day out. And I had to overcome it and get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

I was a vice president of distribution operations, which is a unit underneath a senior officer. And then about a year and a half later I was promoted to vice president of distribution. That promotion meant everything to me. I felt like, okay, they didn't make a mistake. I do belong. I can do this.

CF: What was difficult about your rapid rise through senior leadership at PG&E?

GW: PG&E was going through a lot of challenges. We had a horrible gas explosion in San Bruno, California. I felt the community's pain associated with it, and I became the face of the company. I had so much natural disaster experience that I sort of inserted myself into that. I was senior vice president of delivery, but after that explosion I felt like I needed to be part of the team that was going to change the culture of the company. The team that was going to make the company safer, more reliable.

In 2016, the CEO announced he was going to retire, so for the first time in my life I was thinking about the CEO job. I competed for it hard and I'm so proud of myself. I remember the day that I found out the board had elected me CEO. I will never forget it. It is seared in my brain—how I felt and what it meant.

CF: Did it immediately hit you that you were the only Latina Fortune 500 CEO?

GW: I remember that day like it was yesterday. It was so unbelievably exciting, and the reaction that it created within the company—among women in the organization, Latinos in the organization, anyone of color in the organization. My chief communications officer came to me and said that they were getting a lot of questions about interviews [because] I was the first Latina CEO in the Fortune 500.

I was like, no, that can't be. It was 2017—there's got to be someone in healthcare, consumer goods, or retail. But they’d done the math. I was it. Not just Fortune 500, but Fortune 200. So I felt a certain responsibility to tell the story and to be visible. To be that woman to inspire other Latin women across the organization, or across the country, to say, “She could do it. Why not me?” I think there's a responsibility to do that.

CF: What's your advice to company leaders seeking to increase representation among Latinas at the highest ranks?

GW: Talk to your Latinas, bring them together, [have] focus groups, and ask them what their experience has been—what has worked really well, what they love about the company, what's getting in the way. Are they interested in that next level? If they’re not, peel back a layer and ask them to tell you more about that. Sometimes people self-select out.

Talk about the importance of having a diverse leadership team—not just to check the box, but because you really believe that [more diverse] ideas and perspectives are going to make you better as a leader. When you start acting that way and you truly value diversity, not because you're checking the box, but because you think it's going to make your company better, it sends a signal. You can never underestimate the power that CEOs have to shift the direction of their organizations culturally. So I would say engage in the conversation and don't be afraid to roll up your sleeves and ask why things are the way they are. And if you find something that is actionable, then do it. You got to be intentional.

For more: Read the full State of Latinas in Corporate America report here.


  1. Published and unpublished data, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2023, October 2023,
  2. Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau, “2023 Annual Estimates of the Resident Population by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin for the United States: April 1, 2020 to July 1, 2022 (NC-EST2022-SR11H),” Pipeline data in comparison includes companies from both the U.S. and Canada; additional analysis of combined data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Statistique Canada was performed to confirm that findings hold when looking at combined U.S. and Canadian populations.
  3. Published and unpublished data, LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2023; LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2022, October 2022,; LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2021, September 2021,; LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2020, October 2020,; LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, Women in the Workplace 2019, October 2019,