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José Fernando López Headshot

Latinos In The Corporate World: Representation Or Inclusion?

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Every year, during the celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we usually bring out a series of statistics regarding the presence of Hispanics in institutions that shape the economic, political and social American landscape. It is then that we realize the "mea culpas" we give ourselves for the little we have advanced, and they are not few, especially in two areas that define the true power of a community: the politics and the corporative.

In these two fields, in fact, the statistics are not encouraging. Although in some states the presence of Hispanics in local congresses, and even as mayors and governors, has been growing in importance, the fact is that at a national level this is still very limited. While Hispanics now account for 16% of the population, they account for only 3% of the Senate and about 5% of the House of Representatives.

In the corporate field the figures are not much higher. A study by Senator Robert Menendez, based on a survey completed by 219 of the Fortune 500 companies, found last year that only 3.2% of all directors and 2.9% of executive team members were of Hispanic origin. And according to the executive recruiter Victor Arias, senior partner at Korn/Ferry International in Dallas, if the study is open to include the top 1,000 companies and nearly the 10,500 directors serving on their boards, Hispanics do not reach 1.5% of the total.

According to the book The New CEOs: Women, African American, Latino, and Asian American Leaders of Fortune 500 Companies, written by professor Richie Zwigenhaft, of Guilfor College -- quoted in an article by Timothy Pratt published in PODER Magazine -- there have only been 15 Hispanic CEOs at Fortune 500 companies since 1981, the year Roberto Goizueta rose to the top of Coca-Cola. Currently, there are six, the same as a decade ago.

Pratt's article includes statements from several experts who almost unanimously expressed their dismay over the lack of progress, or even decline, of the presence of Hispanics in upper echelons of the corporate world. Among the experts cited is Solomon 'Sol' Trujillo, who became the first native-born Hispanic to serve as CEO of a Fortune 200 company when he rose to the top of U.S. West.

"The results are dramatically disappointing," Trujillo says in reference to the number of Hispanics in C-suites and boardrooms. Trujillo, a controversial executive that for the last 16 years has served on the board of Target Corp., clarifies his answer with a statement that I think should be introduced in the debate about the presence of Hispanics in the echelons of power on a corporate and political level: "But I want to use the term, 'inclusion,' not 'representation,' because it's about inclusion for the purpose of adding value ... it's not political."

Unlike politics, where a growing number of voters can guarantee, especially at local level, the election of a person who "represents" the interests of a community -- Hispanic in our case, -- in business the relationships between the number consumers of certain products and the selection of management teams is not automatic. Not only in the so-called C-Suites -- which are usually filled by insiders who have experience in the company -- but on the boards, where there is a networking difficult to penetrate.

Anita Perez Ferguson, a researcher at Fielding Graduate University, and another of the experts cited by Pratt and who is working on a book about Hispanics in corporate boardrooms, says in the article that "it can take from three-to-five years for a board member to get settled and begin recommending other directors, including other qualified Hispanics." According to Perez Ferguson, "not knowing the right people are one of the obstacles Hispanics must overcome to enter top boards."

Markets are stubborn. "The domestic Hispanic market is now worth $ 1 trillion, or the equivalent of one of the top 10 richest countries in the world," says Pratt. And this should open the doors of many companies to executives familiar with the market, with good professional training and with a high level of inclusion in the business. As Senator Menendez's study says, "companies with diversity plans tend to increase Hispanic representation, some by a factor of two."

The raw material is there. "The veteran businessman says many companies have, for a long time, supposed that there was a shortage of qualified Hispanics for leadership. 'This is no longer the case,' Trujillo insists." But this is not enough. They have to make themselves be heard. Hispanic leaders have to talk about this more in non-Hispanic circles, where they can influence others. "We're at a moment where this needs to accelerate," he says. "We need to step up and do something about it now."