You are using an outdated browser.
For a better experience, please upgrade your browser here.

City council and the C-suite: What happens when Latinas mentor the next generation

The Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley is a Lean In Circle, a small peer group that meets regularly to learn and grow. They are part of the Lean In Latinas Network of Circles across the U.S.

Over the bustling of women getting seated, Nancy Sánchez silences the room with a gentle greeting. At twenty-nine, her demeanor is poised, her pauses in speech confident. At tonight’s meeting of the Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley (LCSV), there are a few new faces in the crowd, but they’re quickly welcomed into this community of thirty-some Latinas from all industries, ages, and backgrounds.

For nearly twenty years, this has been a space they cherish. This is a space where they are no longer in the minority. This is a space where they can be unapologetically ambitious.

Left: Nancy Sánchez and Marlene Gaucin kick off the Circle meeting. Right: Monica Sanchez, Karla Reyes-Noguera, Lorena Gutierrez.

Nancy starts off with a bit of housekeeping—reading updates from the month since the group last met. And there are quite a few of them: upcoming workshops and networking events and news about their signature initiative, the Engaged Latina Leadership Activist (ELLA) Program.

“We have the power to build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like the idea of a rising tide: we make each other better.”

The coalition is in constant metamorphosis, as new members cycle through workshops and forums, different women take on the responsibility of mentoring the high-school and college-aged ELLAs, and young Latinas join the working board to try their hand at driving the strategic direction of the organization. Their ultimate aim is to help one another—and all Latinas in the Bay Area—achieve their potential.

As one member puts it, “We have the power to build something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. It’s like the idea of a rising tide: we make each other better.”

From left to right: Jaqui Guzman, Herminia Estrella Ojeda, Guisselle Nuñez, and Janine Ramirez

The coalition has its own Lean In Circle, which has served as the women’s home for professional development for the past two years. Their Circle, one of 40,000 around the world, offers opportunities for members to build confidence, learn negotiation skills, and refine mentorship relationships in any field they choose.

The Circle provides a platform for Latinas to reinvent the lens through which they are seen and see the world.

The Circle—like all Lean In Circles—is entirely volunteer run and unpaid. Meetings are squeezed between client appointments or press conferences or midterms. Members gather in the empty spaces in office buildings scattered around San Jose when colleagues have left for the day. Beyond the Circle meetings (and their full-time jobs), many members get together for coffee, call one another before big presentations or job changes, or meet up to rehearse negotiating at work.

Left: Nancy Sánchez (right) meeting with her mentor, Teresa Alvarado, before work. Right: Lucy Corona was Stephanie Bravo’s bridesmaid a few years ago, after meeting in the ELLA Program through LCSV.

And it’s created real impact for members. Stephanie Bravo says fellow Circle members have served as references for jobs, become mentors and friends and even bridesmaids, and encouraged her to pursue a master’s degree at Stanford University. “The women here just want to do better, personally and professionally, for ourselves and our community.”

“The farther you rise in the ranks, the fewer and fewer Latinas you’ll see.”

Latinas are particularly disadvantaged in the workplace. They navigate office cultures steeped in bias, which is compounded for them as both women and people of color. They face one of the largest pay gaps of any demographic: 47 percent compared to white men. And there are often few women—let alone Latinas—within the leadership of most organizations.

From left to right: Shirley Bolton, Rebecca Gallardo, and Lisa Dominguez

“The farther you rise in the ranks, the fewer and fewer Latinas you’ll see,” says Stephanie Bravo. “With the coalition, you get exposure to Latinas—ones in positions of power and influence—that can help you be a true influencer, teach you how to pull from your heritage and make it a strength, how to build a personal brand, and all the how-tos for activating your authentic leadership style.”

When given the resources to compete, Latinas do; when given the guidance to be successful, they are.

That’s why the heart of the coalition is the mentorship program for young women, known as ELLA (which means “she” in Spanish). Young ELLAs find mentors in coalition members, many of whom are at the top of their fields. They participate in professional development seminars and activities throughout the year, and they each get a chance to flex their new leadership muscles by serving on the coalition’s executive board.

It’s the coalition’s core philosophy in action: When given the resources to compete, Latinas do; when given the guidance to be successful, they are. This mentality opens doors for ELLAs that might otherwise be closed to young Latinas.

Left: Lorena Gutierrez and Rosaura Mendoza. Right: Marlene Gaucin, Nancy Sanchez, and Guisselle Nuñez with Lean In Connection Cards.

Having Latina mentors allows ELLAs to be seen, to have their stories told, and to build leadership from within. It gives a community of women the support to dive in, rise above, and bounce forward. When Lisa Dominguez started off working in a field that had virtually no Latinas, “especially successful ones that looked like me,” she says it was hard for her to imagine a path to the top that matched her ambition. “I had to make my own efforts to make a community that did have that.” She is now the director of the education department at the Hispanic Foundation, a career change that grew from her understanding of the many barriers Latinas face in the workplace.

It was fellow coalition member who reminded her, “No, you need to lean in. You were chosen for this for a reason.”

Christina Ramos says that when she was first tapped for a job as chief of staff to a San Jose councilmember, she felt the dreaded imposter syndrome many women experience. It was fellow coalition member Guisselle Nuñez who reminded her, “No, you need to lean in. You were chosen for this for a reason.” Today, Christina is paying that support forward. Because there are no other Latinas at her level in San Jose government, Christina says she is all the more motivated to advocate for those who might want to walk her path one day—or forge a completely new one.

From left to right: Gloria Torres, Christina Ramos, Lucy Corona, Stephanie Bravo in front of San Jose City Hall.

“I had a successful career because I was surrounded by strong women,” member Teresa Alvarado explains. “I think it’s really important for me to share that, and to help people—especially Latinas—feel like they’re boundless, that there are no opportunities that are off-limits, and that they can break boundaries on their own.”

True mentorship is a two-way road. The Circle and its broader coalition nurture both mentors and mentees. For these women, being a part of this community isn’t about adding a line to their résumé but being genuinely connected to other Latinas striving for equality. It provides a platform for them to reinvent the lens through which they are seen and see the world.

“I think it’s really important for me to help people—especially Latinas—feel like they’re boundless, that there are no opportunities that are off-limits, and that they can break boundaries on their own.”

“We’ve paved some roads, and we’ve seen a lot of the young women excel and move into management or positions in the executive suite—chief of staff, running for elected office,” Rebecca Gallardo, a founding member, reflects. “We’re starting to see the fruits of our labor. It not only warms your heart, but I think volunteering and helping others is intrinsic to the well-being of each human being.”

It’s nine p.m., and tonight’s session is drawing to a close. Nancy adjourns the meeting, and the women begin to trickle out, with a few more coffees on their calendars and a few more tools for tomorrow’s work day. They’re grateful for the space where their ambition isn’t questioned but instead celebrated, and they’re eager to put their learning into action, woman by woman.

From left to right: Monica Sánchez, Guisselle Nuñez, Lisa Dominguez, and Nancy Sánchez