News Column

Hispanic Business Magazine Hosts Annual 'Woman of the Year' Awards Luncheon

June 8, 2010

Rob Kuznia --

Jesus Chavarria, Jacqueline Rodriguez-James, Rose Andrade, Alicia Abella, Alicia Villarreal, Thelma Melendez
(LtoR)Jesus Chavarria, Jacqueline Rodriguez-James, Rose Andrade, Alicia Abella, Alicia Villarreal, Thelma Melendez

What's the secret to success? It turns out there are many.

Don't be afraid to treat co-workers like family. It is better to have a smaller network of strong relationships than a larger network of distant acquaintances. Treat high-ranking executives with respect, but do not fear them -- they are people with hopes, fears and hobbies, just like you.

These were just some of the nuggets of wisdom shared by the panelists of Hispanic Business magazine's annual Woman of the Year banquet, which honors this year's winner and finalists for the award.

The event, which this year took place in Los Angeles and seated about 100 distinguished guests, featured a three-member panel of accomplished women professionals, as well as a keynote address from the Woman of the Year, Dr. Thelma Melendez de Santa Ana, the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Elementary and Secondary Education.

"To be a leader is to wake up every morning knowing that you may forever change someone's life for the better," said Dr. Melendez, whose photo graced the cover of Hispanic Magazine's "Woman of the Year" issue in April. "I feel this way every single day in my life as an educator."

On the panel were two finalists for the award, Dr. Alicia Abella, executive director of AT&T's network and services research lab, and Rose Andrade, a senior vice president at Union Bank of California, as well as guest speaker Jacqueline Rodriguez-James, a partner with the Los Angeles law firm Levene, Neale, Bender, Rankin & Brill L.L.P.

The purpose of the banquet is not only to celebrate the achievements of some of the nation's most accomplished Hispanic women, but also to initiate a discussion about success in the workplace and enduring issues facing Hispanic women in America.

Given this year's winner, education was a predominant theme.

Melendez, Abella and Rodriguez-James all shared a discouraging educational experience growing up: hearing a high school career counselor tell them they couldn't succeed at the four-year college of their dreams.

"I'm always very, very leery of guidance counselors in high schools," said Dr. Abella, who holds a doctoral degree in computer science at Columbia University. "Maybe there are some good ones out there, but I've heard a lot of bad stories about them, and I'm not sure why that is."

Of course, all three defied the discouragement. Their advice for dealing with this setback is straightforward: ignore it and forge ahead.

On the flip side, each of the women enjoyed the benefits of supportive families and inspiring teachers.

Dr. Melendez has fond memories of a caring kindergarten teacher in Montebello, Calif. near Los Angeles. When Melendez arrived as a 5-year-old, she was the only English learner in the class. The teacher, Mrs. Silverman, knew that the young Melendez would benefit educationally and socially from having a friend who spoke English, and called Melendez's mother and another girl's mother to set up a play date.

Melendez said she learned this story only last year, when her mother finally told her about it.

"For all those years I didn't know that," she said, with a catch in her voice. "I just knew that Brenda Caster was my best friend. So Mrs. Silverman believed in me, and took steps to make sure I excelled."

Dr. Melendez went on to earn a bachelor's degree from UCLA and a doctorate from USC. After landing a job as a first-grade teacher in her native Montebello in 1982, she rose through the ranks, eventually becoming a principal. Her ascent took her to the helm of the Pomona Unified School District, where she was named California Superintendent of the Year in 2009.

In her current post, she serves as the chief adviser U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan on all matters relating to preschool, elementary and secondary education. He, in turn, has the ear of President Obama.

Attorney Rodriguez-James said she was blessed to have supportive parents.

"My father had a little bit of the machismo in him," she admitted. "It was targeted like, 'We won't let the girls take out the trash,' or 'we won't let the girls have to go fix the car,'" she said. "But my father was very, very supportive when it came to education and my career."

Each of the women shared instructive advice on how to succeed.

Rodriguez-James said it's important to treat everyone in the office with respect, no matter where his or her spot on the totem pole.

"Always be nice to the receptionist and the assistants," she said. "If you treat people with respect, they will treat you with respect."

On the other hand, Rodriguez-James said, don't be afraid of anyone.

She said she always tries to keep one thing in mind when representing celebrities or CEOs of large companies: "The client is just like you."

"The client wants to talk about what their kid is playing that week," she said. "The client is scared or the client needs help. The client is not someone to be afraid of."

Ms. Andrade, who works as a senior VP in the credit risk and reporting division of the Union Bank of California, said the secret to her success has been simple: treat your co-workers with the same level of openness as you treat your family.

"I just embrace people and treat them like a family," she said. "And I dare to have my heart out there. Sometimes it gets broken, but it mends. And then you learn the lesson and you move on."

Dr. Abella, who leads a group of researchers at AT&T dedicated to eliminating plane travel and other commuting methods, said she believes in "quality networking," which she defines as a relatively small group of trusted associates, rather than a huge Rolodex.

"Those are the people who are going to go to bat for you when you might not be in the room," she said.

She also recommended the book "Real Leaders Don't Do PowerPoint" by Chris Witt.

"We all spend all those hours on PowerPoint presentations and bullets and fonts and colors and all that," she said. "Then people go away not remembering you. ... But what you want is for them to remember you and the message that you are delivering."

The event had a headline sponsor, Microsoft, as well as two community sponsors, legal firms "Levene, Neale, Bender, Rankin & Brill L.L.P." and "Adorno, Yoss, Alvarado, & Smith."

To view the 2010 WOY slide show please click the link below.
Play Slideshow

Source: (c) 2010. All rights reserved

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