Six Figures: A finance executive creates spaces for Latina empowerment

Yesenia Morillo-Gual is a senior vice president at one of the largest financial services firms in the world. She supervises six people and directly deals with about 150 people on a regular basis, but she also knows what it is like to doubt yourself. Corporate America has often made her feel like she doesn’t belong, and more than once she has encountered other Latinas struggling with the same issue.

So in 2010, she founded a networking site called Proud to Be Latina to help other Latinas navigate their career space with more confidence. On December 3, she is expecting approximately 100 women from different fields to attend her Second Annual Latina Empowerment Conference taking place in New York City and open to the public.

“The overall goal is to help women realize that power isn’t so much about status, it’s about knowing yourself,” says the Dominican-American Morillo-Gual.

Proud to Be Latina also holds free monthly conference calls which engage speakers from different spectrums, including teachers, entrepreneurs, and bloggers. Morillo-Gual says they pick a specific topic, for example, how to take rejection, and they discuss how to make it work for you. It’s for free and she says about 85 to 90 people participate in the call each month.

“I had this five years in my pocket before I launched it,” says Morillo-Gual about her beloved own business, which grew from ideas jotted down in her notebook. “I took $25,000 out of my pocket [for the first conference] — getting the venue and paying the speakers upfront. I had to put it out there to get it going. I just jumped right into the conference.”

She says she first started inviting her immediate network, and the word spread. She also had the website ready to launch simultaneously with the conference, which she worked on herself for three and a half months.

“I work anywhere between 11-12 hours a day,” says Morillo-Gual about her daytime finance job. “I do Proud to Be Latina on the train platform. Monday and Wednesday I dedicate to Proud to Be Latina, Tuesday and Thursday I dedicate to my PhD studies (in educational leadership), and the weekend is heavy on the family — not a lot of sleep, but that’s what I have to do.”

She says she’s worked in the corporate sphere for a long time and has stayed in contact with a lot of Latinas along the way.

“Our culture doesn’t necessarily see that there’s a place for them in corporate America,” says Morillo-Gual. “People almost believe that being a CEO, or lawyer is out of our reach, but you have to understand that it is going to be hard, but it is possible.”

Morillo-Gual says she first stepped into the company she works for now by accident. She first wanted to be an accountant, but probably a year before graduation, she switched to a finance major to have more versatile skills. All she knew for sure was that she wanted to work at a reputable organization, preferably with tuition reimbursement. That’s how she started out as an assistant and set a goal to be an executive in a set amount of years.

“I started engaging with the leaders and 2.5 years later, I got my first promotion,” says Morillo-Gual who just continued learning from the people she worked with and taking additional training classes. “It was also taking a critical look at what I was lacking. I took presentation and public speaking courses more than once.”

She says in the beginning it’s about working hard, and then as you move up, it’s about working smarter.

“Don’t be afraid. Just do it,” says Morillo-Gual, as the most important piece of advice she can give. “Thinking is what messes us up. ‘Should I?’ will kill you. If you want to do something just start it.”

She says she had to get clearance with her full-time finance company to make sure she had the legal capability of starting her own business during her free time.

“We sometimes just assume that it’s not going to happen,” she says. “Asking has been phenomenal for me…I’ve become a catalyst to show others that just because you’re an assistant doesn’t mean you can’t do things.”

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