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City council and the C-suite: What happens when Latinas mentor the next generation
The Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley is a non-profit organization with it's own 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. Latina Coalition of Silicon Valley (LCSV) is a non-profit organization in the San Francisco Bay Area. Members joined together a few years ago to form a Lean In Circle. At tonight’s meeting of the LCSV Circle, 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 Circle has become a space where they can be unapologetically ambitious.
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.”
This Circle 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 Circle, and organization at-large. 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.”
The Lean In Circle within LCSV has served as the women’s home for professional development for the past two years. Their Circle, one of 41,000 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 LCSV Circle meetings are a monthly metronome for members. Sometimes they spend the time planning events, like a Sisterhood Brunch that helps women connect and build their network. Other times they rehearse negotiating at work, using Lean In’s resources to dive deep on successful methods. When there are a lot of new faces in the crowd, they’ll use Lean In’s Connection Card Activity to break the ice with questions like “If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?” and “When have you felt most powerful?”
Beyond the Circle meetings and their full-time jobs, many members get together for coffee or call one another before big presentations or job changes. Being in a Circle means having a place where aiming high is celebrated, not derided. No matter the challenge—whether it’s a tough midterm exam or a risky career move—everyone needs people cheering us on.
This community has 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.
“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 LCSV Circle is the mentorship program for young women, known as ELLA (which means “she” in Spanish). Young ELLAs find mentors in LCSV Circle 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 LCSV Circle’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.
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 LCSV Circle 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.
“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.