Valerie Grillo of American Express in New York, NY November 2010

Six Figures: Valerie Grillo says, to rise to the top, “Don’t be afraid to be yourself”

For Valerie Grillo, there was no doubt she wanted to become a businesswoman.

“I feel very fortunate to have the job that I do,” says Grillo. “When I was 8 or 9, I had a business Barbie doll. That was my favorite doll. I’m in business but I can impact people, and that’s why I love what I do.”

The 38-year-old Puerto Rican from the Bronx, NY is vice president of global leadership development at American Express in New York City – where she heads a global team of 18 to develop the 12,000 people leaders across the company.

“What my team is focused on is learning solutions to be better at your job,” says Grillo whose typical day starts before the sun is up, because she has to commute to the city from Rockland County, NY everyday. “A lot of my time is spent meeting with my team…and meeting with business leaders to understand their needs – on the phone or in person.”

She says she also goes to external conferences in order to bring more ideas to her internal team.

Largely inspired by her grandmother who went to college later in life to become a teacher, Grillo learned to take education seriously at a young age. She ended up getting a master’s degree in organizational psychology from Columbia University, and now she says she feels fortunate to be able to use that degree to teach people how to do their jobs better.

“In college, I knew I wanted to go into business, but I was always interested in what makes people tick,” says Grillo who was introduced to organizational psychology for the first time as an undergrad. “A professor introduced me to someone in human resources who taught me how organizational psychology is applied in the business world. It kind of pulled together everything I was interested in.”

That’s how she realized she not only wanted to be in the business world, but study what makes a business run – the people that come to work everyday – and help them become more productive, engaged and get better in their jobs.

“I learn everyday –  my team is always bringing new ideas and sharing with me what they learned,” says Grillo about the personal impact she loves about her job. “Although I have a large team, I like to hear what they’re thinking. Every other month we come together via video conference to see each others faces and connect. That’s how we connect when we sit across the globe.”

From her own personal experience, Grillo says she thinks one of the challenges for Latinas rising up the corporate ladder is not to be afraid to let others know about their accomplishments. Sometimes just working hard is not recognized.

“I think in my own career, I’ve always worked hard, but I’ve had people give me feedback, advice…it’s also important to get others involved and not be afraid to ask others for help,” says Grillo who also recommends having a sponsor – someone who is one or two levels above you. “They see your work. They know you can get things done, but when different roles open, they have the clout and put their position on the line to get your name out.”

She says, often times, as you grow in your career and you get promoted, there are less women, and less Latinos. One thing that has been helpful to her is employee networks, such as American Express’ HOLA network (Hispanic Origin and Latin American).

“All Latino executives at American Express come together monthly to network,” says Grillo about HOLA. “It’s great to be able to get to know each other and have development opportunities together…It’s helped to have Latino peers.”

But her most important piece of advice that she’s ever gotten to rise up in the corporate world is, “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.”

“I think as Latinas, we feel we need to fit into a certain box,” says Grillo who also recommends keeping your mind open to opportunities when they present themselves. “We might be a minority in the corporate world, but you don’t have to hide who you are. Don’t feel like you need to fit in a certain box to be successful.”

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