For the past seven years, Dr. Damary Bonilla-Rodriguez has been the Latina Initiative Manager for Girls, Inc. — an organization of which she is an alum. Girls, Inc. equips approximately 125,000 girls annually, ages 6 to 18, to achieve academically and lead healthy lives.
In addition to trying to reach and serve more Latinas and increase diversity within the organization, Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez says she leads training sessions and webinars for staff and executives around issues of diversity and leadership.
“Every day is different,” says Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez, who often travels to the individual 95 branches across the country to give trainings — this week she was in Indianapolis, and last week in Atlanta. “I don’t know where I’ll be next.”
She says what she does know, however, is that she was born to be a leader.
“I lost my mom when I was 8, and I have two younger sisters, so I was always in a leadership role since I was little. I was always in that position…Everybody looked at me to handle everything. My grandparents took care of us, but they didn’t speak English.”
Although she thought she originally wanted to be a lawyer, one thing led to another, and she says all her degrees led her to a career in leadership. Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez was the first in her family to earn a college degree. She received a BA in Spanish and social work, an MS in organizational communication, and finally a doctorate of education with a focus in executive leadership.
“When I was studying for my BA, everything interested me…school was an outlet — the only place I was by myself — the one place I could turn off my phone and not deal with family issues, and it was the time for me to grow,” says Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez. “Everything that I learned, I shared with others. I love passing along information. The curiosity of everything I could learn, to grow, really drove me.”
Her main passion is helping other Latinas advance in mainstream society, because she believes Hispanic women should be supportive of each other. In her research for her 200-page dissertation, she studied what hinders Latina leadership and what promotes it. The findings of the study, she says, concluded that family and culture came up as a positive influence, as well as an obstacle.
“My family is very positive and very encouraging, because they are always all there, but it’s also been a hindrance, because there are always family issues to deal with,” says Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez. “What I’ve learned with my research is there is no such thing as balance — more like, do what you can today, so I try to implement that.”
Today, the 33-year-old Nuyorican lives with her husband and twin 3-year-old boys in the Poconos, Pennsylvania, where she works remotely.
“I want to do more one-on-one consulting — either with corporations or with people,” says Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez. “That’s probably what I want to do next.”
She also plans on being an online professor at a new site launching today called the Ella Leadership Institute — where coaches and consultants will give telementoring sessions for Latinas on different aspects of leadership. On March 22, she will also be giving a talk on “The Power of Your Heritage” through Proud to Be Latina — a Latina leadership network.
“What’s helped me most recently is advice that said, ‘You have to embrace your credentials, and hold people to that so they understand your credentials, so you don’t undermine yourself,” says Dr. Bonilla-Rodriguez, who admits she’s just recently embracing her title of Dr. “If you go around saying, ‘It’s OK not to use my title, you internalize that. It’s a larger concept. You deserve that respect…If more women heard that, I think that could change the mindset.”