As America celebrates National Hispanic Heritage Month, Latinx and Hispanic workers are still struggling to advance. A 2021 survey of top companies by the Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility showed that only 4% of senior executives identify as Hispanic. Meanwhile, Latinx-owned startups have averaged just 2% of available VC funding for years. And Latinx people who identify as queer, Afro-Latinx, or other intersectional identities may also face additional discrimination and career challenges up and down the corporate ladder.

To mark National Hispanic Heritage Month, we spoke to five Latinx and Hispanic leaders and business owners across fields, from Fortune 500 companies to startups to book shops. We asked them about their career journeys, the importance of diversity in their workplaces, and how they’re working to help support the success of Latinx and Hispanic workers. 

Irma L. Olguin Jr., co-CEO, Bitwise Industries

From the age of 6, Olguin worked summers alongside her family on a farm in Fresno, California. She expected to stay there forever. But she took the PSAT on a lark and earned a scholarship to the University of Toledo, where she discovered engineering.

“It was just me, a queer Latina from the fields of California, trying to make her way in computer science and computer engineering,” she recalls. She got a job to pay for her studies and quickly came to out-earn everyone back at home. “When you get to pay all of your bills in the same month, when you go to the pump and don’t worry about whether gas is 10 cents cheaper down the block — I realized my life would never be the same,” she says. “I wanted to create that experience for more people who grew up like I did and who identify the way I do. Our slogan is ‘No one belongs here more than you.’”

In 2013, she co-founded Bitwise Industries, which has helped 10,000 students from marginalized communities enter the tech industry. “If we really put our shoulder into this work, we can move the needle on diversity, equity and inclusion in the technology industry — and to the leadership that runs the future companies that will be better carriers for this work.”

Her favorite part of the job? “Every two weeks I get to pay people. That is the single most powerful thing I can spend my time doing,” Olguin says.

The change she’d most like to see in the tech industry? “I would remove degree requirements from hiring — the idea that you have to have gone to a prestigious school to qualify for a prestigious job. That stands in the way of the technology giants diversifying their workplaces.” Fortunately, more and more companies are removing degree requirements from job postings. ​​For positions within Indeed, the company has removed university degree requirements from all eligible job profiles, active job requirements, and job ads.

Mario Bolanos, senior director, worldwide applications engineering at the Programmable Solutions Group (PSG) Business Unit, Intel

Bolanos has spent his entire career in technology, going from working as a product test engineer at Texas Instruments to leading 130 engineers in Intel’s PSG Business Unit. “I have the opportunity to live the dream of any engineer, which is to create, enable and work with the most advanced technology in the world that is changing and improving the lives of every person on Earth.”

He firmly believes that increasing diversity in the workplace can be a huge benefit for companies. “It will improve execution, fuel growth, drive higher levels of engagement, attract more minority employees and reduce turnover.”

Bolanos has seen a lot of progress on inclusion over that time, and he’s optimistic about pipelines for diverse workforces. Intel specifically achieved full representation in its U.S. workforce in 2018 and launched the RISE 2030 Strategy to further increase representation of women and underrepresented minorities. 

Still, Bolanos says, many companies have more work to do. “While these actions are improving the diversity numbers and increasing the pipeline, they are not necessarily improving the diversity in the top ranks, where additional effort is needed to make progress,” he says. “Increasing the number of underrepresented minorities in the executive ranks means employees will be able to bring their unique ideas and perspectives and influence change in policies or decisions at the very top.”

Kalima DeSuze, owner and founder, Cafe con Libros

After years in the U.S. Army Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) Corps followed by social work and activism, DeSuze began to wonder if she was living to work or working to live. “I’ve always felt that we should really think about the life that we want and then build a career around that,” she says. “I wanted to have a business of my own, something that is a contribution to society and would bring me joy.”

She opened a bookstore and cafe in Brooklyn called Cafe con Libros, where she highlights works by, about and for women. DeSuze ensures the store feels inclusive through the staff who reflect “the spectrum of what it means to be part of America, part of an intersectional movement, and work together across differences — whether that be race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, gender expression.”

She says Cafe con Libros takes special pride in promoting emerging writers who don’t receive as much marketing support. “As benevolent as the book industry is, it’s also capitalism at its best,” she says. “Who do we want to give an opportunity to grow in this industry?”

She especially likes finding children’s books about heroes like Nina Simone, Gwendolyn Brooks or Ruth Bader Ginsburg. “Just to think about these women, all the things that they’ve done, and I get to curate an entire bookstore about their stories,” DeSuze says. “I feel so lucky to be able to do that.”

Luis Martinez, founder/CEO, We Tha Plug

Martinez has worn a lot of hats, working in professional basketball, the Navy, and the U.S. Attorney’s office in San Diego. “I’ve got an eclectic background, so I can speak from many perspectives,” he says.

He was volunteering for Startup San Diego, a nonprofit supporting area entrepreneurs, when he “caught the bug,” he says, and all of his varied experiences fell into place in a single mission. “I saw there were real issues with not getting access for founders of color,” he recalls. 

He founded We Tha Plug, an accelerator and entrepreneurial ecosystem, to support Black and Latinx founders from ideation through series A funding. “We focus on young men, especially in underserved communities,” he says. 

He’s committed to bringing resources to underserved young people who want to become engineers, designers and founders, and to that end, he also directs the San Diego State University program with the National Security Innovation Network, helping students tackle innovation challenges for the military and launch companies based on solutions. 

“These are the future leaders of our community,” he says. “If we don’t build the infrastructure for them, then who will come after us?”

Alencia DeAnda-Gregg, assistant vice president of human resources, AT&T

“The telecom industry has historically been a place where people go to have long careers in a single company,” says DeAnda-Gregg, who has personally spent over two decades at AT&T. That’s an opportunity for accomplished individuals like her, a graduate of the Latino Executive Development Program at Southern Methodist University and recipient of the Women of Color Technology All-Star Award and the Young Hispanic Corporate Achiever Award.

But she also realizes that companies with many longtime employees can leave newcomers feeling like they don’t fully belong. “It is not the most welcoming environment, and we need to fix that,” she says.

DeAnda-Gregg grapples with these challenges every day as assistant vice president of human resources at AT&T. “I am very intentional about inclusion,” she says. “When I structure my own teams, I look at everyone as a key piece of the puzzle. I actively look for a voice, perspective or skillset that is not already represented to make the team stronger.”

After seeing young female professionals struggle to find their place, she developed a team of diverse tenured women within AT&T to mentor them. “It has given them a circle of people they can trust to have candid conversations and get the support they need to be successful,” she says. “My best days are the days where I get to help someone work through a difficult situation while allowing them to be human and vulnerable.”