Under New Management- Latino Exec Retrospective

Latino professionals such as Maria Gutierrez are increasingly moving into positions of influence in the nation’s corporate sector

 

When she began working as lawyer, Maria Gutierrez made a conscious decision to focus on Latin America, particularly her native Mexico. Little did she know then, her interest in faraway places would soon take her in another direction entirely.

Latino executive

Ms. Gutierrez, a vice president and associate general counsel at New York Life Insurance Co., is currently on a rotational assignment with New York Life International in Hong Kong. Before that, she spent a year developing and launching insurance products on behalf of New York Life in India.

MS. Gutierrez has enjoyed success in each of her overseas postings in part, she says, because of her ethnic background. In fact, she believes the latter goes a long way toward explaining her career achievements generally.

“While I would not say that I have received any preferential treatment by virtue of being Latina, I believe that whatever success I have had is attributable in part to the traditional values I consider part of my Latina heritage – values such as hard work, loyalty, and integrity,” says Ms. Gutierrez, who relocated to Hong Kong in February.

“In addition, I think that growing up Latina in the U.S. has given me a heightened sensitivity to and an appreciation of the differences among various cultural perspectives, which have proven valuable in international business.”

Ms. Gutierrez is emblematic of Hispanics’ growing profile in the higher echelons of Corporate America. While Business Week reported last year that just 15 percent of U.S. Hispanics hold managerial or professional jobs, there is evidence to suggest that figure may be misleading.

As the outreach efforts highlighted in this year’s Corporate Diversity Honor Roll make clear, companies have grown increasingly covetous of minorities, including Hispanics, for specialized professional positions. Many firms in fact now have elaborate programs that go well beyond traditional recruitment initiatives. At New York Life, for instance, officers in each business unit actively monitor progress toward departmental diversity goals. The company also has a diversity taskforce that serves the same function company-wide.

Such efforts have helped fuel the growth of organizations such as the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting, the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, and the Hispanic National Bar Association.

Hispanics Increasingly Visible

Moreover, Hispanics are increasingly visible among Corporate America’s elite. Antonio M. Perez, who became CEO of Eastman Kodak Co. in June, serves as a prominent example. Others include Nike CEO William Pérez and Carlos Gutierrez (no relation to Maria), who before his current tenure as commerce secretary served as CEO of Kellogg Co.

In the case of Ms. Gutierrez, it’s easy to see why she’s a hot commodity. A native of Guadalajara whose family immigrated to Illinois when she was in grade school, Ms. Gutierrez is fluent in Spanish and conversant in Portuguese. She’s also an accomplished attorney. Prior to joining New York Life, she was a partner in the New York office of Baker &McKenzie, where she specialized in international mergers, acquisitions, private equity, joint ventures, and corporate finance transactions.

“New York Life valued what I brought to the table, no question about it. But I also liked what the company had to offer,” she says. “As any good lawyer would do, I researched New York Life before interviewing with the company, and I learned that it had a reputation for seeking input and creative involvement on the part of employees. That appealed to me, and I later experienced it for myself.”

Latino executive

She also lauds New York Life’s “commitment to diversity” and its community involvement and humanitarian goals, and says her rapid rise within the company is attributable in significant part to mentors who have taken an interest in her professional development.

More broadly, Ms. Gutierrez says she owes her success to mentors of another kind.

“I have been blessed to have an incredibly supportive family, particularly my parents, who have always encouraged me” and expected me “to excel at whatever I chose to do,” she says.

Her younger siblings no doubt feel the same way. Her sister is a doctor, and she has a brother who is an architect and another who is an accountant.