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Elevating Hispanic Representation in Top Executive Roles

As the Hispanic population booms, workers in this demographic seek better representation in C-suites and corporate boardrooms.

​Cid Wilson embodies the proverb "If the mountain will not come to Mohammed, Mohammed must go to the mountain." In Wilson's case, that meant flying to the Alps towering over Davos, Switzerland.

Four years ago, the president and CEO of the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility traveled to the alpine town during the World Economic Forum, even though he wasn't invited to the exclusive event where world leaders and industry titans discuss the planet's challenges.

Wilson was hoping to crash the festivities to implore CEOs to promote more Hispanic workers to executive roles and add them to corporate boards—two objectives that are among the goals of the nonprofit he leads. A friend helped him get access to some sessions.

"I know that if I have a conversation with a CEO in an environment where they don't have such conversations, I'm elevating the priority," Wilson says. "Sometimes if you don't get the invite, you just have to bring the chair to the table."

Wilson was invited to the event the following year and says interacting directly with CEOs helped him establish connections he might not otherwise have. A lack of relationships with industry insiders has hobbled Hispanic managers and professionals as they strive to land roles in the C-suite and on corporate boards, experts say.

Hispanic Underrepresentation in Corporate Leadership

Hispanic individuals accounted for only 4 percent of large U.S. companies' most senior executives in 2021, according to a survey by Wilson's organization. That's essentially flat with the 5 percent reported in 2020 and 2019.

"It's increasingly difficult for Hispanics to break through," Wilson says.

Latino leaders hope the recent strong spotlight on the need for more diversity will help move the needle for Hispanics in corporate America. Like other people of color, Hispanic employees are woefully underrepresented in senior leadership and the boardroom. They face the same obstacle as other marginalized groups: an ingrained culture that favors white males. And like Asian-Americans, Latinos come from cultures that shy away from boasting about one's accomplishments. Modesty isn't rewarded in the corporate world.

Overcoming Unique Challenges Faced by Hispanics

Hispanic workers also face particular challenges. Chief among them is that a substantial number of non-Latino Americans falsely believe many Hispanics are undocumented and pigeonhole them into low-level positions. In fact, non-Hispanics believe one-third of Latinos in the U.S. are undocumented, though that number is only 13 percent, according to a survey commissioned by several organizations, including the Latino Donor Collaborative. Around 50 percent of Asian, white and Black respondents said they believe undocumented immigrants are taking jobs away from U.S. citizens. Meanwhile, 48 percent of non-Latinos said they believe Hispanics are employed primarily as farmworkers or laborers.

"These perceptions lead to a lot of direct bias and unconscious bias," says Esther Aguilera, president and CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association. "We have to dispel the myths. There's a perception that [Hispanics] don't qualify or will struggle with a higher role. Hispanics have to prove in more ways that you are qualified because the assumption is that you are not."

An IBM Institute for Business Value survey of 1,000 Hispanic leaders found that 63 percent say they continue to work harder because of their race, while 87 percent say they have experienced racially based prejudice. Hispanic individuals who speak English with an accent say they've had their intelligence and capability questioned.

"When I came to this country [in 1994], I had a master's degree—I wasn't an idiot," says Jesus Mantas, senior managing partner at IBM Global Business Service. "My English was really, really bad, and I was told to go back to Spain." 


The Growing Influence of Hispanic Workers in the U.S.

Hispanic leaders say companies that fail to place Latino employees in positions of power only hurt themselves. The number of Hispanic workers in the labor force grew to 29 million in 2020 from 10.7 million in 1990. It is projected to reach 36 million in 2030, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Meanwhile, Hispanics represented 19 percent of the U.S. population in 2020, up from 16 percent a decade earlier, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The agency predicts this demographic will account for 29 percent of the population by 2060, remaining the second-largest group of Americans after white, non-Hispanics.

"We are the biggest market opportunity," Aguilera says. "It's where the growth is. You can't be effectively governed without Latinos."

One broad study, based on data from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, found that Hispanic workers held only 5 percent of executive-level jobs. Black executives account for 3 percent of such posts, while Asians hold 6 percent. White executives make up 85 percent of the total, according to the survey by the Ascend Foundation, a Pan-Asian advocacy organization.

Meanwhile, Latino leaders represent only 2.3 percent of the board members of companies on the Russell 3000 Index, according to Latino Corporate Directors Association. However, it notes, appointments of Hispanic board members grew fourfold last year.

Hispanic leaders say executives complain that they can't find any suitable Latino candidates for either senior roles or board positions—and they're tired of that excuse. "What are you looking for?" asks Sindy Benavides, CEO of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "Let us send you a list."

Leveraging Hispanic Insight for Organizational Growth

Last year, Church's Chicken hired three Hispanic candidates onto its marketing team as the company began the rebrand and refurbishing of its roughly 1,600 restaurants to play up its Texas roots. Roughly half of the San Antonio-based chain's customers are Hispanic.

"We have had Hispanic leaders," says Karen Viera, SHRM-SCP, Church's senior vice president and global chief people officer. "Our desire is to better understand and have a stronger touch point [for the Hispanic market]. It was an opportunity to bring in the right talent for the right roles."

Claudia Lezcano joined Church's as vice president of brand strategy and activation last August and says she hasn't made any major changes yet. However, she noticed that a limited-time special Bourbon Black Pepper Smokehouse Chicken wasn't doing as well in Texas and California as it was on the East Coast. After tasting it, Lezcano, who has a Mexican mother and a Cuban father, didn't understand why it wasn't appealing to people in those areas, which have large Hispanic populations. "It has a bit of kick," says Lezcano, who was promoted to senior vice president of the U.S. market in January. "It is appropriately spicy."

The company will be conducting customer focus groups to learn more. Lezcano acknowledges that any marketing executive could have seen the different sales numbers but added that her background pushed her to dig deeper into the data.

"I think I was just extra curious around the why," she says. "As a Latina who tried the product and looked at the data, [I thought] this should be selling. It resonates with my palate, and I have a Mexican background."

Lezcano also plans to fine-tune the company's relationships with its influencers on social media to better reflect the subtleties of the Hispanic market. Now, most of its influencers are national but she would like to find personalities that are more closely connected with specific places. "We want to be more localized," she explains. 


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The terms Latino and Hispanic are typically used interchangeably, though there is a technical difference. Hispanic describes people from Spain or Spanish-speaking countries in Latin America. However, that would exclude Brazil, where the official language is Portuguese. Latino (or the feminine version, Latina) refers to people from Latin America, but that would exclude people from Spain. The U.S. Census Bureau most often uses the term "Hispanic," according to the Pew Research Center.

The term Latinx emerged about a decade ago as part of a global movement to introduce gender-neutral words, according to Pew. It also is now considered an all-encompassing word that includes both "Hispanic" and "Latino." 

However, only 4 percent of Hispanic/Latino individuals prefer the term Latinx over the others. Pew found that 61 percent say they prefer Hispanic, while 29 percent prefer Latino.

Only 25 percent of Hispanic people in the U.S. have heard of the term Latinx and a mere 3 percent use it, according to a Pew bilingual survey taken in late 2019. A study conducted last year by polling firm Bendixen & Amandi International found that only 2 percent of Hispanic/Latino individuals surveyed said they identified themselves as Latinx. In fact, 40 percent said they were bothered by the term.

So, which to use?

Many community leaders say either Latino or Hispanic is fine. Of course, it never hurts to ask and pay attention to the language others are using.

The Imperative for Corporate Diversity and Inclusion

Companies' curiosity about Latinos must extend to understanding their own employees and not just their customers, experts insist.

Diversity, equity and inclusion (DE&I) consultant Robert Rodriguez says organizations often bring him in to "fix" Hispanic workers. He says one company executive complained that Hispanic candidates don't interview well and told the story of "Maria." During the interview, when asked about herself, Maria talked about her family and said she lived with them. When asked about her accomplishments, Maria discussed her team. The interviewer viewed Maria as lacking leadership skills, according to Rodriguez.

Rodriguez explains that Latinos tend to be family-oriented, so when asked about themselves, it's not surprising that they would mention their relatives. He also says Hispanic individuals traditionally don't boast about themselves.

"We are not broken," Rodriguez says. "There is plenty of Hispanic talent."

Rodriguez says the problem is that companies put the onus on Hispanic workers to adjust to the corporate culture and don't do enough to adapt to the diverse labor pool.

"What are you doing to help people succeed?" Rodriguez asks. "If you want to tap into the community, you need to do more."

Wilson agrees that companies must bolster their efforts to embrace Hispanic employees in the workforce, but he's tired of the slow pace. His organization is sponsoring a Latina Empow(h)er Summit in Orlando, Fla., in March, and one of the sessions is about golf, a sport primarily played by white men. Business relationships are forged on the walks between holes and over dinner and drinks at the clubhouse, making golf a game that ambitious Latino workers may want to learn, Wilson says.

"I actually don't believe we must assimilate," Wilson says. "Corporate America should acculturate to us." However, he acknowledges that the process could take years and there isn't time to waste. "What are the strategies we should consider today?"

Empowering Hispanic Leaders Through Grassroots Initiatives

Hispanic managers often look for new ways to progress in their careers. A few years ago, a group of nearly 200 midlevel leaders at AT&T started the Latino/Hispanic Grassroots Initiative. The group helps young Hispanic workers navigate AT&T's corporate structure by giving advice and apprising them of AT&T's multiple initiatives designed to advance their careers

"People need to know how to connect in such a giant company," says Alencia DeAnda-Gregg, an assistant vice president of human resources. "We didn't need to create new programs. We wanted people in the company to know about the programs we already have."

DeAnda-Gregg says the group was formed because many of its founders didn't have anyone to show them the ropes. She adds that having someone to guide you is especially important for colleagues who are first-generation Americans or don't have relatives or friends who understand the business world.

When she started her professional career in 1996, DeAnda-Gregg says, she felt uncomfortable and didn't know why or have anyone to ask. She was the first person in her family to have a corporate job. Today, the Latino/Hispanic Grassroots Initiative gives participants a sponsor who can assist with everything from deciding what to wear during an interview to preparing a presentation to identifying the benefits that could help advance their careers.

"We knew it was something we would have liked to have, so we created it for those coming behind us," DeAnda-Gregg says.

Cultivating Future Hispanic Leaders

Some companies are already taking steps to help their Latino employees advance. Last year, Zoetis, an animal health care company, started a new management training program for Hispanic employees. The company's chief talent and diversity officer, Evelyn Ortiz, calls it "an accelerated MBA."

Consulting firm McKinsey & Co. developed the curriculum specifically for people of color, and Zoetis is also using it for groups of Black and Asian employees. Ortiz says the company opted to arrange groups by race and ethnicity to help them develop a greater sense of community.

The program is part of a new elevated focus on DE&I that started two years ago. Ortiz says that since the program is so new, the company hasn't yet determined whether it positively impacts participants, but so far it has been well received.

Adding Education Programs

Conagra Brands also introduced a new effort dedicated to helping Hispanic and Black individuals. Last year, it gave $62,500 each to the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund to create college scholarships. The total number of scholarships is still being tallied, but the program will continue this year. Eventually Conagra plans to add a mentoring component, according to Mariane Boldori, the company's vice president of human resources.

Boldori says most of Conagra's diversity programs are targeted to entry-level and middle-management employees. She notes that the company decided to broaden its focus to include education because it worried that the high cost of college might prevent Hispanic and Black individuals from attending, reducing the future number of candidates of color.

"We want to affect the potential pipeline," Boldori says. "This is a way to create advancement for people of color."

College enrollment rates for 18- to 24-year-old Hispanic students rose from 32 percent in 2010 to 36 percent in 2018, the last year data was available from the National Center for Education Statistics. It still lags the 42 percent rate and 59 percent rate for white and Asian students, respectively, though it is on a par with the rate for Black students.

One of IBM's signature programs designed to create a path for Hispanic workers' advancement in corporate America is centered on education: P-TECH. This model gives students the opportunity to earn their high school diploma and an associate degree at the same time. It combines coursework with mentoring, worksite visits and paid internships. Enrollment is open with no need for testing or certain grades, and there is no cost to students. That's a great help to students who may lack the financial means to pursue higher education, Mantas says.

There are 75 U.S. school districts participating in the program, and they are located in predominately Hispanic communities. IBM is working with government and education leaders to increase the number to 300 by next year.

Mantas says it's imperative that more Hispanic students learn technical skills, because the demographic is such a major part of the population.

"We are the source of youth, voters, labor, consumption," Mantas says. "As the Hispanic population goes, so will the U.S. population."

Theresa Agovino is workplace editor for SHRM.

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