Enterprising Women of Commerce: Alejandra Castillo


>>All right. Good morning. And welcome to the
Enterprising Women of Commerce. My name is Candace Shiver. And I’m really excited to be
here with each of you today and to take part in
this important program. Permit me to first give
a special thank you to Karen Krugman, Senora
Coggs and Erica Foye McFadden. Thank you for creating a forum. We can come together and we can
highlight the work, the talent, the perspectives of
leading women here at Commerce Department. It’s really reassuring,
at least to me, to know that we really don’t
have to go far to find models of achievement and
models to emulate. These ladies are right
here within our reach. And that’s really exciting. Thank you to each of you
also for being here with us. A couple of housekeeping
matters. In your programs
you’ll find a survey. And we’re asked to please
give your comments by the end of the program and
please turn those in. Also, please turn
off or put on vibrate or mute your cell phones. Now, I take the privilege
of introducing to you and presenting to some of you
our guest speaker this morning, Ms. Alejandra Castillo. She has humble beginnings. A unique story. An impressive career from
serving as Executive Director of the Hispanic National
Bar Association. She was a practicing attorney. She served in the Clinton
Administration and now in the Obama Administration,
where she was at the International
Trade Administration and is now the National Director of the Minority Business
Development Agency. She is the first
Hispanic-American woman and the second woman
to hold this position. But most importantly, I can
tell you, I work very closely with Alejandra, and she
has what so many desire. And that’s a passion
for what she does. She’s hardworking. She’s dedicated. She takes seriously
the opportunity to mentor young women. And so I think it’s very
fitting that she’s been invited to speak with us this morning. So I won’t talk any further. I know you’re excited to hear
about what Alejandra has to say. And we’re just going to
engage in conversation. We’ll receive questions
from you. And then we will conclude
with a holiday social hour. So, Alejandra, let’s begin
with your background. I think you have a
remarkable story. Now particularly of the
influence of your family, your environment
and your childhood. And it’s often said that
who we become as adults and professionals has a lot to
do with our experiences early in life and the values
that we gain. How has your upbringing
influenced your decision making and led you to become who you
are today as a professional, and maybe even as a woman?>>Alejandra Castillo: You
can tell why Candace is always so admired. She does everything so well. And this — I’m a
big fan of Candace. And I have to say that
because it’s people at all levels that
influence you. I believe life is a journey. And it’s an individual journey. So, you cannot share anyone
else’s journey but your own. And you cannot enrich your
journey but looking inward. And that question, Candace, is
a great question and a question that I think we should all ask. You know, how have
our experiences through life shaped us? And what’s the perspective
that we have moving forward? My parents came to the US
fleeing a dictatorship. Most people think about Castro
as the dictatorship of the time. But in the 1930s, the Dominican
Republic had a dictator who was in power for over 30 years. And my parents’ youth
was very quashed. And they said, you know,
the hell with this. Let’s go for opportunities. And they came to the
US, to New York City. But they came with a really,
a chip on their shoulder. That they understood that
freedom was something you had to cherish and that
you had to work for. And entrepreneurship was a
ticket to a different life that the US, the United States
of America, could best provide. And I emphasize that
because when you grow up from an immigrant community, sometimes you feel more
patriotic than ever. Because you realize that your
parents came to this country, not by birth, but by choice. And when my parents came
here and they understood that by creating a business they
could change the entire future of their entire family. Now, what does family
mean for me? My father had 13
brothers and sisters. My mother had 10. That in itself is a community. And like many of us,
I had the crazy aunts who always had an opinion. And I had the crazy uncles
who would always, you know, make you laugh or
cry at a party. But that was my family. And my father created a
business in the Bronx. And he hired all
of his siblings. They all worked there. And they all made successes or
failures based on that business. So as you can imagine,
a small business owner, you would sweat it when
you couldn’t make payroll. Or when an inventory was short. So, you know, just to answer
this question, I lived my life through the eyes of my parents. And that was a message where
failure was not an option. I was talking to my
colleague Al Bettencourt about being a translator. And because I was the first-born
in my family, I was the one who had to learn how to
speak English really fast. And what does that mean? If you’re a translator
like Francisco here, who does a great
job translating, if you’re a translator, that
means that when you get stuck on a word, your brain
is trying to look for that word that’s
going to translate that meaning in its entirety. And I know that Al is
chuckling in the front because when you’re a kid and
you’re trying to translate between Spanish and English,
or whatever language, you are put on the
spot to be able to translate things perfectly. And I’ll just take a minute. Because this really is embedded. At the age of seven I
remember coming from school. And you know, you want to
get home and watch cartoons. Well, that was not my reality. My reality was that I could walk
into my grandmother’s apartment. I could hear the
voices in the kitchen. And I knew immediately
that a neighbor was there, waiting for me to get home so that I could translate
the letter from the Social Security Office
or the Housing Department or the Food Stamp or the doctor. And as a child I
remember like, oh my God. Here I go again. But it wasn’t that
didn’t want to do it. It was that my childhood
was not that of a child. It was that of a
community person. And today I look back
and I say, you know, what a wonderful experience. That was fabulous. Not only that, but
it also helped me to learn two languages. And it also helped
me to learn how to deliver bad news sometimes. And try to figure
out a solution. Because, and just to wrap
up, when that letter said because of your failure to
provide certain documentation, your Social Security
benefits will be suspended, I had to understand
very quickly, okay, that means that she needs to get
her doctor’s letters in order. That means that she needs to get some documentation
put in together. So I was able to look at the
bad side and quickly pivot. What’s the solution? How do we help them? And I think those are the
wonderful experiences growing up that, if you look at
life just asking yourself, why don’t I do this? And why did I do that? Life will go by and
you’ll miss out. But when you look
at life and say, okay what are the opportunities? How can I make it better? Then you build skills
that are fabulous. So sorry for the
long-winded conversation.>>No, thanks for
the explanation.>>Alejandra Castillo: But
this is a conversation. And I hope that we
will stir up some — I see some people nodding,
which is always a good thing. But that will stir up some
memories that you may have about what makes you
so special and unique. And maybe rekindle that. Because sometimes in the
workplace, we get very dull. We do everything
over and over again. We’re very mechanical. And the joy of life, we
tend to miss out on that. So, that’s the type of
conversation we’re going to have today, hopefully.>>Absolutely. No, thank you. From your childhood you
learned about entrepreneurship, problem solving, and so on. And you probably didn’t think that you would be
National Director of MBDA. Was that — I don’t know, was that in your
thinking during childhood? So you and I had a
conversation at one time about our paths, you know? Paths and career. They’re not always straight. Maybe they’re never
straight, you know? They have different
twists and turns. And we don’t always know
what the next step will be. We have one thing in
mind and I can end up being something
different, totally different. And you have had
some experiences to have what may be perceived as
non-traditional roles for women, even in your current role. How did you, you
know, stick to it and accept these non-traditional
roles no matter how they may be perceived by the
public or outside?>>Alejandra Castillo: You
know, that’s a great question because I really
think, just as you said, the path is never straight. And be very wary if it is, okay? I would submit to you, be
very careful if you think that the path is so straight. Because life will — the beauty
of life is those curveballs. Now, are they painful? Sometimes they are, you know? And I’ll be very honest. As lawyers, passing the bar
is the most important thing in your life. Well, I failed the bar
the first time around.>>And so did I.>>Alejandra Castillo: Yeah?>>Mm-hmm. [ Laughter ]>>Alejandra Castillo:
And ten years ago when I failed the bar the
first time, I would have never, ever confessed to that. Until I read, and where it’s
so important because we’re in a library, until I read
Governor Duval Patrick’s bio. And he admits there, he
says: I didn’t pass the bar. And how, you know — for a
lot of us, it’s like you want to just hibernate for
the next, you know, 20 years because
you’re so ashamed.>>Sure, sure.>>Alejandra Castillo:
But you know what? From that I learned that if I
really wanted to be a lawyer — and for me being a lawyer
was a second — a new career. I went to law school
after the White House. And we talked about
it, you know? After being at the White House
and working for Bill Clinton. And you know, getting your
paycheck and being, you know, all these exciting things. Then I chose to go back
to being a student. Eating cereal, you know? Not collecting a
paycheck, you know? Spending a lot of
time in the library. It was a very dramatic change. But I said to myself, my
goal was to be a lawyer. And if I live life
without pursuing my dreams, I will regret it. And life is about no regrets. So, going back to your
initial question, you know, the curviness of the journey
is where you find the richness of your friends and who you
are at the end of the day. Who you are. And what are you made out of? Because surviving law school, I joke around that I left
the White House to get sanity at law school, which is always
a chuckle because you never go to law school to get sanity. But in comparison to where I
was in the Clinton White House, that was — that made sense. But, you know, again, at the end of the day you want
to live your life. And I think this
is the best test. If “The New York Times”
was to write your obituary, what would you like
it to say, right? Live life as if someone was
going to write your obituary and say: Candace was X.
What would that story be? And I think that’s what
we should all think about. What do we want to do in life? Who do we want to touch? What impacts do we want to do? What contributions
do we want to do? Are we going to walk through
life always looking down, bitter, sad, angry, upset? Or are you going to look at
life and say: You know what? It’s a cloudy day, but it’s
a great day to watch a movie when I leave work tonight. You know, what do
you look forward to? MBDA provides that. And I’ll just pivot. MBDA provides that because
we’re seeing the country change. It’s undeniable. It’s changing. And change is good. But how are we going
to embrace that change? How are we going to make sure that minority companies
are growing? That they’re creating jobs? That they’re investing
in their communities? How do we make sure that
there are no more Fergusons in the country? How do we make sure that there’s
more prosperity for everybody? Not just for the 1 percenters. How do we make sure that as
policy makers, decision makers, some people are here from
ITA, from NOAA, from EDA, from all the commerce agencies. What role do you play
in making sure every day that you’re coming up
with a new initiative, a new policy, a new program? Something that your
supervisors will say wow. They’re thinking out of the box. This is possible. How do we push the envelope
instead of just coming to work from 9:00 to 5:00, which rarely, anybody in this room
works from 9:00 to 5:00. I know that. Because I see a lot
of you, you know, going out of the
building late at night and early in the morning. But what contribution
do we make? Where is our voice
in this process? So that’s kind of, again,
a long-winded answer.>>No, no. Well, that leads to
another thought, though. As you talk about, you know,
what impact are we making? What are we doing here? You know, we’re in a
unique position here at the Commerce Department. I think sometimes
we undervalue it. Sometimes we overlook it. Maybe even take it for granted. But every now and then I take
a look back and I say, God, it’s really significant to serve
in the Obama Administration. And you to have served in
the Clinton Administration. How would you advise everyone
here to really take advantage of the resources, the
exposure, the opportunity that we have right
now at this time?>>Alejandra Castillo: You know, we’re all under budget
constraints. And we — my colleague
Albert Chen is here, too. We’re now fighting
for our FY16 budgets. So budget issues are a big
concern for every agency. But I would invite you,
after you leave here today, whoever is in your
chain of supervision, what’s the training budget
for your respective offices? You know, they’ll probably
say we don’t have much training dollars. However, right now there
are lots of courses, and then I’ll get to the
point why I’m raising this. There are a lot of
courses online. There are lot of information
that you can access that is not expensive. Because here’s the point. And this is why I’m
bringing this up. You are responsible
for your own growth. Your work environment
is responsible to nurturing that growth. But at the end of the day, you
are responsible for your growth. And Tupa [phonetic]
who’s a colleague and just joined MBDA is here. We talk a lot about
how are you growing? We were at, in December, 2014. Ask yourself the question — and
I bring a book everywhere to jot down notes and things. Ask yourself, in 2014, what
did I do to nurture my growth? Did read a new book? Did I find a new author? Did I follow up on a new concept
that came to me, you know, for example we’re talking
about social impact investment. What does that mean? Corporate B. I don’t
know what that means. I need to figure that out. What’s the impact? Ask yourself, is there a topic
of discussion and conversation in my portfolio that
I really want to become more knowledgeable in? Because I have to say, a
lot of it starts with us. If you’re not growing, if
you’re not pushing the envelope, if you’re not learning
something new every single day, then you’re failing yourself. So I put that as one component. Now, as managers, we have
a responsibility as well to make sure that we track
our employees and our staff and our team and see
how they’re growing. If we’re not giving
them challenging tasks, if we’re not recognizing
their job, their work, if we’re not praising them
when they do excellent work, then we as managers
are also failing. And I take that responsibility
seriously. As a matter of fact,
tomorrow we have — MBDA is having its
employee award ceremony. And we’ve created new categories
because there are people in our team that are
doing fabulous work. That they don’t necessarily fit
in that kind of that little box that we traditionally have done. So we’ve created new categories. The Rising Star award. We’re in a workplace that
is intergenerational. We have folks that are,
you know, baby boomers, generation X, generation
Y, I mean, the alphabet soup, millennium. How do we engage them? We spend a lot of
time in the workplace. I spend more time in my office
than I do with my family. And there’s a lot
of guilt in that. Because that’s the way
life in the US is, right? You work a lot. So what are we doing
to nurture ourselves? And what are we doing
to nurture our team? Because when we have a
positive workplace, guess what? We will feel more
comfortable leaving our offices because we trust that the team
together is going to do the job. That it’s not just going
to fall on our shoulders. So, there’s a lot of
things that I’ve mentioned in this long-winded answer. But, we need to dissect
that a little bit. It’s very — we need
to unpack it. The workplace in the 21st
Century is suffocating. And the reason I say that is because we’re spending way
too much time in the office. And the question that I ask
is: Is spending more time in the office a function
of efficiency? Is spending more time in the office a function
of doing more work? Maybe it’s not. Maybe we’re just spending
too much time in the office and not being efficient
with our time and our resources
and our abilities. So we need to ask
ourselves those questions. And managers need to
be more understanding, that life today is very complex. So, anyways.>>No, thank you. [ Applause ] Similar to managing people and
making people feel included, one of the things that
I admire about you is that you take seriously
mentorship. You take the time to speak. Tupa has oftentimes mentioned to
me how much she appreciates you. That you listen to her. And that’s really
hard to find sometimes in the workplace, a true mentor. Whether it’s someone
of your same age — excuse me — same gender or not. How significant is
mentorship to you? And how do we create more
good mentors in the workplace?>>Alejandra Castillo:
I think it’s a — someone came to me the other day
and said: Oh, can you mentor me? And my first reaction, in all
honesty was, am I that old? But then I caught myself. Obviously I didn’t say it. That’s just the vanity
in us speaking. Then I said: You know what? Of course. Absolutely. Because I was — I
have amazing mentors. And they come in all sizes and
shapes and all ages and all — you know, gender, geography,
social income status. They come in all shapes. But you have to be open
to having a mentor. And that means that a
true mentor will tell you when you have a crazy idea. A true mentor will tell you:
What the hell are you thinking? A true mentor will also
say: You know what? You have this amazing talent. Have you thought about this? A true mentor is not going to
be sitting with you every week on a regular schedule. A true mentor may be somebody
who you haven’t spoken to in 10 years, but you pick
up the phone and you call them. And you can hear the
excitement in their voice because they’re happy
to hear from you. And those are the type
of characteristics that I hope I have
when I mentor. I’m very strict because I think
that — I’m still pretty — I grew up in that generation where there are certain
fundamental things that you must do before
you can say, you know, I want to be the boss. And it’s hard because
the millennials have a different perspective. They’re like: You know,
I should be the boss. I went to school. I have my degree. Why can’t I be the boss? And you never want to
— you never want to, you know, offend them. But you want to walk them
through the process and say: You know, managing is not easy. You have to love people
to be a good manager. Because people come with
all of their personal and frustrations and issues. So you have to love people to
be able to be a good manager. But you also have to be
able to take on the work. Because it’s a lot. So it’s walking through
the individual. But I want to take a
pause, because I brought to this forum all of
my favorite books. Well, not all of
them, obviously. But some of my favorite books. We’re in a library, right? There’s nothing more
powerful than a library. And you know, I think
about Justice Sotomayor. If you haven’t read her bio, I
really invite you to do that. She has a wonderful story. Again, you know, she’s a woman
who comes from the Bronx. Her father passed away
when she was very young. Her mother was a nurse. And she made it through. And she struggled. And now she sits in
the highest court of the nation doing
some wonderful things. If you haven’t read
her dissenting opinion on the Michigan case regarding
diversity and the need for diversity and inclusion,
I suggest that you read it. It’s long. It’s 80 pages. But it’s nice to know
that there’s a woman on the Supreme Court
who is looking at how America is changing
and how things have to include diversity
and not just in terms of ethnicity, but gender. So I wanted to make
a pitch for that. Because I think it’s
a fabulous book. Arianna Huffington. You may not think of her in
terms of a possible mentor, but you know, this
book that she wrote, maybe a year and a half ago. It’s called “Thrive.” It’s very different from
Sheryl Sandburg’s book. But she pretty much says, and
she opens the book up by saying, you know: I woke up one night, dazed and confused
in a pool of blood. Because I passed out
out of exhaustion. And she broke her nose. And it was a turning
point for her. Because sometimes we work
so hard that we forget to take care of ourselves. We don’t sleep. We’re not eating properly. We barely go to the gym, if at
all if we even know where it is. Which, by the way, a funny joke. I’ve paid my membership at the
gym here for two years now. I went in there once. [ Laughter ] But Arianna Huffington
has a wonderful quote. She says: Life is a dance
between making it happen and letting it happen. Right? That’s very powerful. Because we’re all focused
on making it happen. You have to take a step
back and let life unfold and let it surprise you. So, a great book. Hope you take a look at it. And then, Carla Harris. Really amazing woman. We have a video on
our MBDA Website. She spoke at our Med Week. And she’s truly a
powerful woman. And she has some great insights. She said something
at our Med Week, and you may remember, Candace. She said: When the
crisis happened, a lot of businesses
hunkered down. And they were very conservative. And they didn’t want
to make any move. And she said, for
her, that was great. Because when everybody
hunkered down, she could see the landscape. And she could see the
new opportunities. And from a visual perspective,
that was very telling. She’s a strikingly
beautiful tall woman. And when she went like
that and she said: I could see the landscape. I realized it’s when times of
crisis that you sometimes need to say: Where’s the vision? I want to be that vision. I want to look beyond
and over the crisis and see what the
horizon has to bring. So she was very powerful. And I’m going to
leave Maya Angelou, who for me is a wonderful, extraordinary human
being and writer. So we’re going to
leave her to the end. Because I want to
close with her. But I wanted to pitch the books. Because that’s what nurtures me. And I was telling, Candace, I have books everywhere
in my house. And there’s a book on a
daily basis that I read in the morning just to
kind of set your mind, get you ready for war. So books are very important. And that’s what nurtures me.>>And I agree. We all need something to
inspire us and keep us pushing and going on a daily basis. So thank you for
sharing that, Alejandra. At this time, we can receive
questions from the audience.

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