A local program is providing Latinas with the resources needed to realize their dreams of running for political office, working at the White House, or leading a public or private board.
The San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce launched the Latina Leadership Institute in 2015, with 21 participants. Twenty-five select women will make up a new session of learning opportunities this fall.
"It's a non-partisan program that encourages more women, Hispanic women, to run for public office," said Paulina Rubio, the chamber's vice president of education and leadership. "The program also prepares them in applying for appointed White House positions, and to serve on boards and commissions, including corporate boards."
Additionally, the institute can help individuals seeking leadership roles within political campaigns.
The nonprofit group LatinasRepresent helped to encourage the development of the Latina Leadership Institute. LatinasRepresent notes that Latinas are among the most underrepresented groups in U.S. politics.
While 25 million Americans are identified as Latinas, only 109 had held any of the more than 8,200 state and national political office seats as of 2014. Latinas held nine of the 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives by the same year.
The institute is a six-month program in which participants meet for a full day once a month. The participants come from all walks of life, building leadership skills, improving their confidence levels, networking, and learning more about their own communities.
Additionally, LLI participants are encouraged to volunteer to mentor young Latina students at the University of the Incarnate Word (UIW).
"The response to the program has been incredibly overwhelming," Rubio said. "The chamber green-lit a second class even when the first session was still just a pilot program."
Many participants in the inaugural LLI class have either graduated to higher leadership roles or have run for public office. Local small business owner Ruby Resendez was the first graduate to run for office. She competed in the Democratic primary for the Texas House District 116 seat earlier this year.
Melissa Aguillon, president/CEO of public relations firm Aguillon and Associates, ran to fill the vacant Texas House District 123 seat in late 2014/early 2015. Years ago, she worked for then-City Councilman Jose Menendez before his election to the state legislature. She also worked in the city's clerk office and in the economic development department.
Aguillon first heard about the program at a chamber officer installation gala. Her race for the legislature had come and gone, but the new institute proved an irresistible educational opportunity.
"I thought, yes, I had already run a campaign but that doesn't mean I know everything," Aguillon said. "I thought it could open additional doors because I have worked (in the public sector) and on local nonprofit boards. I wondered, how would I get to that next stage where I would be able to give back in a different way?"
Aguillon was particularly impressed with the institute's guest speakers such as Hope Andrade, a San Antonio native who has served as Texas secretary of state and as a Texas Transportation Commissioner.
"I enjoyed it regarding her business acumen and political affiliation, and also hearing her being a mother and a grandmother, all the personal stories there," Aguillon said of Andrade. "Everybody is in the same boat as we are. We're all striving to be stronger women and to be more influential of what's going on around us. At the same time, we have to stay grounded."
Aguillon also recalled when LatinasRepresent held an event locally prior to the start of the institute. She was inspired by guest speaker Rosie Castro, mother of Julian and Joaquin Castro.
"She got up and told us, don't think you're not smart enough, don't think you can't do it. We're going to make sure you have the resources and tools you need," Aguillon said of Rosie Castro's speech.
Aguillon is heartened to see fellow participants from the inaugural LLI class continue to be successful. She currently serves with the SAISD (San Antonio Independent School District) Foundation, and a fund development committee with Girl Scouts of Southwest Texas.
"The program gave them confidence t
o take their careers to the next level," she said, adding she may entertain another run at public office in the distant future.
Melissa Cabello Havrda, a fellow LLI graduate, is a partner at the law firm of Casner and Cabello Havrda. The firm opened this past March. She sits with boards of directors at the Magik Theatre, Leadership San Antonio, and Transplants for Children.
Like Aguillon, Havrda learned about the institute at a chamber event. Local businesswoman Sonya Medina Williams spoke at the event, addressing how Latinas lack representation in politics.
"It really sparked something in me," Havrda said, who has a bit of experience in local politics and has given thought to running for office. "There was something about her speech that spoke to me, how we don't have the representation we think we should have."
Havrda agreed with Aguillon, that Andrade's speech at the inaugural LLI session was impressive.
"This story how she pulled herself by her own bootstraps, it was super inspiring to me," she said. "It makes me think why not, why not us, if she can do what she did with the little that she was given in life."
But Havrda admired her classmates just as much.
“They’re just incredible women,” she said. “It was inspiring just to be around them, to learn what they’ve done with their lives, and I realized they are still on their way up. They’ve already accomplished so much.”
Sandra San Miguel is another graduate of the inaugural LLI class. She was recently recruited to serve at the National Cancer Institute/National Institutes of Health/U.S. Department of Health and Human Services as senior public health program director.
She is overseeing cancer centers nationally, with the purpose of designing, implementing and evaluating scientific initiatives, such as the “cancer moonshot” introduced by Vice-President Joe Biden.
One of Sandra’s role models, sister Myrna San Miguel, a Hispanic Chamber member, recommended that she apply to LLI.
“My interest in both, leadership and wanting to pursue a life as a public servant, spurred my interest to apply,” Sandra San Miguel said.
San Miguel also enjoyed talks by Andrade, Medina-Williams and by State Rep. Ina Minjarez at the institute.
“Mrs. Andrade portrayed how we could remain true to our core values while still finding common ground with others, and highlighted the importance of keeping our feet firmly on the ground,” she said.
Ina was very candid with us about what it is like to be a woman in a still-male dominated world of politics. She gave us a fabulous quote, ‘Stay classy and be a leader’,” she added of Minjarez.
San Miguel said the institute introduced her to a new world of possibilities. She looks forward to the day when she could consider running for office and help to raise Latina representation in government.
“The network that the (chamber) established for us is priceless. Each of us is so unique, we all come from different academic/professional backgrounds and have such different levels of expertise, but we have so much in common at the same time,” she explained.
“The fact that we can count on each other unconditionally is refreshing. We build each other up. I’m honored to be part of a group of bright, confident, and passionate Latinas who empower one another.”