How Do We Get More Latinos Into Leadership Roles?

Latinos under-index when it comes to the boardroom and Congress.

May 13, 2013— -- SAN FRANCISCO -- The Latino community in the United States is growing and increasingly exercising its collective muscle when it comes to everything from who sits in the Oval Office to the diversity of the shows on television. But Hispanics continue to under-index in Congress and in boardrooms across the country. Of the 5,488 Fortune 500 boardroom seats, Hispanics hold just 173.

Basically, there aren't enough Latinos in leadership positions.

A group of Hispanic leaders wants to change that. Several hundred business leaders and innovators -- mostly from the Bay Area but some from as far away as Washington, D.C. -- gathered over the weekend at Stanford University for the fourth annual Silicon Valley Latino Leadership Summit. They talked about everything from politics to social media, but the overlying message was consistent. Not enough Hispanics hold leadership roles and the Latino community cannot be complacent about that. It needs to change.

As Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials, said during his opening keynote at the conference, "The road to the White House goes through the barrio, but that is not good enough. We're falling behind."

So how can Latinos change that?

One way is to vote. Vargas said that while Latinos have exerted influence at the polls, it stands to be even greater. Many Latinos don't think their vote will make a difference or they're not sure how to register and so they don't cast ballots. Vargas advocates same-day voter registration. He said it's also important for people who are familiar with the voting process to stress its importance to friends and family.

"Culturally, we've been conditioned to sit back," Margarita Quihuis, a senior consulting fellow with consulting firm SocialxDesign, said during a panel on social media.

Social media, she said, is powerful because it allows people to "behave as if" they are leaders. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are powerful tools that allow a single person to mobilize followers across geographic and other boundaries.

Education is also critical. Aida Alvarez, who currently sits on the board of directors at Walmart and who served as United States Small Business Administrator under former President Bill Clinton, said having mentors and sponsors, people "uniquely situated to argue your case," is crucial. And there are countless opportunities for making those connections and networking during the education process.

It's also important for the people who are in those coveted positions to serve as mentors and help those looking to advance.

"Give back," Alvarez said. "You didn't get here by yourself."

Former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry Cisneros, who once served at the helm of Univision, agrees.

"Anything we can do to advance education," he said, "is for the benefit of our people and our country."

But it also comes down to each individual person, Alvarez said, and sheer perseverance.

"Know yourself," Alvarez said. "Know what you want. Stay focused. Never give up."