LXi's Conference Achieved Excelencia

November 03, 2022 • By Yasmine Nahdi

This Fall, Dean Williamson welcomed guests to the second annual Latinx Initiative (LXi) held by UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business, this year being the first in-person LXi event. Dean Williamson stated that the Latinx Initiative was founded to create community, provide professional development, and provide support for Latinx businesses in the community. He then introduced faculty members who are responsible for the initiative: Professor Maritza Salazar Campo, Assistant Dean Burt Slusher, Natalia Sanchez, and Lisa Shulman. Dean Williamson added that under this initiative, events that support the Latinx community at Paul Merage include quarterly cafecitos for professional development, a mentorship program that connects alumni and business leaders with current students, and scholarship opportunities for academic excellence.

Dean Williamson then introduced the keynote speaker, Dr. Diana Ramos, a board-certified obstetrician and gynecologist who received her MBA at UCI’s Paul Merage School of Business and is the California Surgeon General.


Education, Digital Drive, and Innovation

Dr. Ramos began by talking about how getting her MBA at UCI helped her in her position as California Surgeon General.

“It really boils down to three things,” Dr. Ramos said. “One is education because education is really critical here. The other is digitally driven. Little did we know how insightful, how ahead of our times we were here at UCI. The other is really being able to innovate.”

In her speech, Dr. Ramos discussed the statistics of Latino students in colleges. Ramos was the first in her family to go to college and expressed the importance of mentorship in order to ensure that the graduation rate for Latino students in college increases.

“We are a powerhouse,” Dr. Ramos said. “But a powerhouse that hasn’t really taken advantage of the education and the opportunity.”

Dr. Ramos then said that education is critically important for social health. To her, education is something that one cannot take away from you and is the best investment you can make for yourself. One in four students who graduate from UCI is Latino, and Dr. Ramos hopes to improve those numbers for the future of leadership in the state of California and the country as a whole.

Dr. Ramos talked about how the importance of comfortability in the digital world has led to her success in Paul Merage’s MBA program. She can talk to health professionals from all over the world through digital platforms, which to her has helped healthcare.

“We can expand our reach and our influence simply because of this digital world,” Dr. Ramos said. “We now know that previously, before the pandemic, about five percent/eight percent of all doctor’s visits were virtual and now, depending upon the health system that you are, about ninety-five percent of the visits can be virtual [which is] increasing the access and hopefully the quality of healthcare to many of those who don’t have access to health.”

She then talked about the statistics of the difficulties that Latinos have with the digital world. “Even though we’ve made great advances, the digital divide is still there,” Dr. Ramos said. “But we’re working on it and I can happily report that here in California last year, Governor Newsom signed a bill that allocated six billion dollars to create the infrastructure for Broadband access. It’s going to be free and accessible to the most underserved communities and businesses.”

Before Dr. Ramos closed off her keynote speech, she discussed the critical importance of innovation. Dr. Ramos talked about how she has innovated by learning problem-solving and human-centered design skills, which has helped her immensely in her state-level job. She then thanked the audience and reminded everyone that she is a resource moving forward.


Reflecting on Leadership

Panelists Gerardo Okhuysen, Carlos Amaya, Andrea Paz, and Evelyn Gonzalez were welcomed to the stage to talk about their experiences in leadership. The panel began with Okhuysen asking the other speakers about moments that led them to where they are now, to which each speaker shared a personal anecdote revolving around family and their backgrounds.

Okhuysen then asked Paz how she goes about being a humble leader when many organizations don’t look for humility. “One of the key things that we can do as leaders that separate the good from the bad is storytelling. The humbling part is about knowing that you don’t know everything and that you never stop learning,” said Paz.

Okhuysen asked Gonzalez how she was able to rediscover her purpose through her work. “I feel the sense of purpose for the family business was always there. But within HR, the purpose was more clarified during the pandemic where it was more of [telling me that] you’re in the right spot to fulfill your passion, and your passion is people.”

Amaya was asked about his experience seeking advice from others. “[I had a] moment of clarity; I need to be laser-focused if I want to do this right. Let me ask a senior partner if he can meet me for coffee on a Saturday morning and ask questions, saying that this is what I really want to do; what do you think? Asking from a place of vulnerability where maybe before I had a wall in front of me.”

Okhuysen then asked the panelists if they have felt the need to try to adjust themselves to the business environment. “I never felt that I had to change or diminish or not be proud of who I am and where I come from,” said Amaya.

“I think things have changed naturally over the years. Before, I was very self-aware of my accent every time I had to stand up on a stage and present,” said Paz. “A communication coach at Paul Merage once told me to stop apologizing and that accents are interesting.”

Okhuysen asked Gonzalez what diversity looks like from her perspective. “It’s definitely very different. At the beginning, Northgate was very Spanish-focused. Now, we’re fully bilingual [so is] every communication within the store,” said Gonzalez. “[We now] take different cultures in. Everyone loves Mexican food. You don’t need to be Mexican to be part of Northgate. We definitely have gone through that change while staying authentically Mexican.”

Okhuysen opened the floor to questions from the audience. An audience member asked Amaya about the changes he made after talking to his senior partner. “It really helped me understand that I have to flip this. I have to put my career first and then the busy work. I had to first define what are the career aspirations that I wanted to accomplish and what are the things that I was doing that were taking me closer to that versus what were the things detracting or taking away from getting there.”

An audience member then asked Gonzalez how she deals with the familial connection of her business from an HR perspective. “The way we manage it is because we’re a values-based organization, so a lot of times when we need to let someone go it’s because they weren’t true to the values,” said Gonzalez. “That’s the prism we follow in HR; family or not.”

Okhuysen ended the panel by asking Paz her perspective on this same question. “Family doesn’t mean that I don’t work with mature people. When you [look up] to the values and the standards, they want to do a good job because they have loyalty and appreciation because they know that if they do a great job, [they’re] telling a great story.”

Okhuysen finished the panel by thanking the speakers and urging the audience to network with them as future resources.


Leadership for Today

Dean Williamson introduced the four speakers for this panel– Gary Acosta, Cathy Garcia, Carlos Herrera, and Anthony Rodriguez. Dean Williamson began by asking what are the things that the panelists find most exciting or most daunting about the current business environment in the role that leaders have to play.

“I think it’s a great place to be right now, especially for Latinos,” said Garcia. “We are the fastest growing population in the United States. More than ever businesses are paying attention. They want to know how they market to us. What do we buy? How do we buy? Right now is a pivotal time to be a part of the Latino community and to volunteer to be a leader in any capacity that you can because we have a voice.”

“I’ve been in healthcare for [over] 15 years. It’s very humbling to see the technology that we have in order to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Herrera. “I can tell you also that one way on how we can thrive in leadership and what we need today is healthcare.”

“As a leader, we should not only develop those around us but spot more [leaders]. A good leader helps somebody in a team accomplish more than they ever thought possible,” said Rodriguez. “If there’s anything that we’ve learned in these past couple of years is that we are resilient and we can do so much more if we put our minds to it.”

“Latinos have the highest workforce participation of any other demographic in the country. Companies are starting to wake up to the fact that their own ability to grow is going to depend largely on their ability to reach this demographic,” said Acosta. “I think there’s a few ways they can do that, that they’re not doing. One of the ways is to have more Latinos in the c-suites and in the boardrooms of their very companies.”


Dean Williamson then asked the panelists if there was a time in their careers when they did something they believed in that had risks. Garcia discussed a time when she had the opportunity to take a job that was different than what she was doing prior. She accepted the new position and ultimately gained valuable experience that helped her professionally and gave her many networks. Herrera talked about confidence and the helpfulness of having people believe in you. He discussed asking yourself what is holding you back and the importance of overcoming self-doubt to succeed.

Acosta discussed how every leader should have a philosophy that they are known for. For him, his philosophy consists of staying true to one’s values and doing what is best to not compromise the business or the leaders’ roles. Rodriguez talked about how he builds on both hard skills and soft skills. He discussed the value of taking information that is hard to understand and make it so that you can articulate it to someone who has no background knowledge of the information prior.

“Focus on your strength rather than any weakness,” said Herrera. “Define success by yourself. Don’t let anyone define your success. Success has to also come from the heart. Success is unique to you.”

“You have to continue to challenge yourself,” said Garcia. “I had never run a non-profit before; I didn’t know what that meant. But I had somebody that believed in me.. It’s constantly challenging yourself to [ask] what can I learn about myself and how can I utilize the skill sets that I have inside me to help other people.”

To close off the panel, Dean Williamson opened up questions to the floor. One audience member asked what the panelists do during their free time, to which the panelists replied with biking, hiking, traveling, watch sports, go to concerts, and volunteering. Another audience member asked about seeking out a mentor. Rodriguez answered that by preparing questions to ask and by having a college email address, which is a great resource that tells people you contact that you are a student.

Dean Williamson ended by thanking the panelists for their time and wisdom.


Leadership for Tomorrow

Panelists Ileana Prado, Adrian Trevino, Ricardo Soria, and Victoria Montes took the stage to discuss future leadership in the last panel of the event. Prado began by discussing the importance of skills that were discussed in previous panels such as handling data, identifying strategic solutions, virtual collaboration, and mental endurance. She then asked the panelists what they learned today.

“The priorities that are shifting from generation to generation is the concept of a work-life balance. Some of the individuals in the last panel started talking about finding a balance,” said Trevino. “There is this change now moving forward where we’re creating value.”

“A lot of the dialogue again is we’re looking ahead and we’re trying to forecast what we’ve seen. But in order to do that, it’s important to look back,” said Soria. “We’re not just looking to have our bank accounts filled. I think as this new generation is approaching the workplace, there’s a lot more intentionality behind the careers that they’re looking to pursue.”

“I just think that things aren’t that linear,” said Montes. “It’s good to start from intention, based on my experience, but things are not always that linear. I think that having the intention, having a vision is really important, and being ready to pivot.”

Prado then asked how the panelists understand their roles in the future. “One of the things that really has helped me move forward in my career, and I’m seeing this in a lot of leaders I work with, is the ability to communicate–your communication skills, whether it’s written or oral. There’s validation in active listening,” said Trevino.

“Weaknesses are just things that you’re not good at yet,” added Soria. “Active listening in a business setting is incredibly important.”

In terms of networking, Montes said that you have to accept feeling uncomfortable and find extroverts to talk to. She added that practicing talking to people makes networking better and easier in the long run. Prado then asked what the panelists think is essential to growing and learning. Trevino answered that curiosity is essential to growing, while Soria added that curiosity adds to the concept of networking. Montes talked about knowing what skills you need to have for the specific position you want in order to set yourself up for success.

“I was a single mom in grad school. That experience that I had, I had to adjust go, how am I going to be able to be successful? I’ve got a baby. I’m in college,” said Montes. “Oh, I know– when we have our case study meetings, I’m going to invite my place and provide pizza… People learned to really support me, and I take that personal experience as a single mom and being in a corporate environment to today with my team and the people I work with.”

Prado then asked how exelencia will be defined as a leader in the business industry of the future. “I try to be very in tune with the campus climate; what do we need to be offering to ensure that we are enticing the right talent [and] that we’re offering the right opportunities,” said Soria.

“One way is for myself, ourselves. The second way is excellence for the organization itself,” said Montes. “The first one is you got to be able to watch the trends, read the rags, talk to people, go to a lot of events, listen, and be able to follow the leading indicators of what’s going on. The second part of that is it boils down, I believe, to customer excellence in customer service.”

The last question Prado asked the panelists was what one piece of advice they wish was given to them. “The daily decisions that you make, positive or negative, are going to impact your career,” said Soria.

“If you don’t know where you’re going to go, pick a spot that looks interesting and plant your stake and start going in that direction,” said Montes. “I would say pick an industry that you like and if you’re going to have to do some pivoting, try to stay within that industry.”

“If possible, find a company that aligns with your values,” said Trevino. “It makes going to work a lot easier.”

Prado closed the panel off by saying that the word “yet” has immense power and can be used in situations where one may feel unsure, and reminded the audience that the future belongs to the youth of today before thanking them.


Identity, Curiosity, and Community

The LXi event closed off with a keynote speech from Pamina Barkow, the CEO of Orange County Pain Management.

Barkow began by discussing one of the three themes mentioned in the panels–identity. “We heard about investing in your own identity, in your own future in yourself. I think it’s essential, especially for us Latinos, to really think about this. As a leader, it’s hard to make great decisions if we ourselves haven’t developed who we are. It’s only when we’re the best versions of ourselves that we can then go on to be great leaders.”

The second theme Barkow spoke about was curiosity. “I believe that intelligence is just endless curiosity. The more we’re curious about the world, the more we’re curious about problems and people, the more we’re going to learn… What you learn is never going to waste. Invest in yourself, because you never know when the skillset comes in handy and as a CEO, I’m only as good as my toolkit.”

The third and final theme is community. “The more I give in life, the more I get. So much of my life is giving. I’ve been blessed to have so many mentors along the way here at Merage and beyond; I still have mentors. When terrible things happen, they’re the ones I turn to. I turn now too– I’m a mentor to others because it’s my responsibility to give in that way.”

Before thanking the attendees for coming to the event, Barkow ended her speech by emphasizing how investing at an institutional level makes meaningful change for the Latino community. “It’s our duty, our honor, and our responsibility to grow this communidad. We’re stronger together than apart.”

For highlights from our LXi event, please view videos and photos.