Sylvia Pérez Cash joined the HACR team in January 2021 as the senior vice president of operations, guiding the organization’s internal processes and strategies to advance its vision of a more inclusive Corporate America. Pérez Cash has over 15 years of experience in executive nonprofit management, both on the national and international stage. In honor of Women’s History Month, we’d like to highlight those experiences and share her thoughts on how companies can be more intentional in their philanthropic investments.
This month, HACR would like to take a moment to spotlight the work of one of their own Latinas. Perhaps it was a result of growing up in the political heart of the United States, Washington, D.C., or perhaps it was her worldwide travels, but Pérez Cash’s career illustrates that Latina leaders and role models exist in every sector and impact meaningful change in myriad ways.
Alida Minkel: Before we discuss your thoughts on corporate philanthropic investment, I’d like to explore your background a little bit first. A 2016 article in the Chronicle of Philanthropy discussed your work at the Cleveland Foundation and how a trip to New York City as a child signaled your interest in urban social issues. You would go on to major in Urban Studies at Columbia University. Tell us more about that trip and what motivated you to get involved in the philanthropic space to begin with.
Sylvia Pérez Cash: I grew up going to the Bronx, NY to visit family. These visits were as much about the relationships as they were about the experience of being in different homes and being a part of different ways of living. I then lived in NYC, during a part of high school, college, and graduate school. In the streets, there were always so many different people, languages, and (visible) ways of managing ones’ life. I think an early awareness and appreciation of these difference sparked my first inquiries into why things looked and felt different in NYC. Eventually, this led to a passion for the city that deepened my understanding of its history and the social systems that effect how people live. As I gained more understanding of social and economic opportunities and how the social and physical development of cities affect access to these opportunities, my passion for the city evolved into a passion for the people who live there and, eventually, to people who live in cities all over the world. The systems of urban marginalization are more similar than they are different across cultures and geographies. The chain of effect just continues from there, guided by a singular goal of connecting marginalized communities to the systems of opportunity that are historically (and institutionally) reserved for the very few and privileged.
AM: Although you just recently joined the HACR team, you have extensive experience in the nonprofit space. You have worked for organizations with both an international and national focus. How has your experience at the international level shaped how you approach your work on the national level and vice versa?
SPC: My experiences working locally, nationally, and internationally shape my understanding and approach to equitable systems change. They reinforce each other by providing lived experiences that demonstrate how consistently systems of inequality have been applied across countries, cultures, and histories to marginalize and discriminate against specific groups. Most of my international work was in Latin America and those experiences, specifically, drove home the insidious and ubiquitous presence of racial inequality across the entire western hemisphere. Whether one is Arab living in Europe, indigenous living in Peru or Canada, or of African descent and living in the U.S., Nicaragua, or Colombia, racial inequality has shaped one’s access to healthcare, education, housing, employment, etcetera. The institutional tools may be different; the historic and cultural justifications are different; but the impact is predictably the same. I bring this understanding into my work by always acknowledging the importance of culture when designing solutions (i.e. culturally-competent leadership), but never conflating it with systemic inequality.
AM: You were a National Urban Fellow, a graduate-level program that develops women and people of color to be leaders in the public and nonprofit sectors. How do you feel that your opportunities in the philanthropic space have influenced your own approach to leadership?
SPC: I’ve been extremely fortunately to have met some of the most passionate, creative, and exceptionally intelligent people through my work in the philanthropic sector. Whether I was engaging with the CEOs of the largest U.S. private foundations and banks in a board meeting, sitting in a mayor’s office with the heads of local philanthropic institutions, mediating between the U.S. Department of Justice and a Community Police Commission about police-reform, debating a grant request with a team of program directors, or participating in multi-stakeholder, public-private collaborations, I was witnessing and practicing mission-driven leadership. I also had mentors who used their executive positions to “sponsor” me as a leader – not an emerging leader or a young leader – but as a peer who could hold her own in all of the diverse leadership circles I just described. However, I also experienced, first-hand, the lack of diversity within philanthropy. I was often the youngest person, the only Latina, and one of a handful of people of color in any given decision-making table. And of course, I experienced resistance to the change I represented. From those experiences, I’ve leveraged three very important things for my own leadership approach:
- A deeply held value for developing new leaders and supporting new ideas
- An unfaltering expectation of high performance
- A commitment to creating safe spaces for authentic leadership (for myself, my teams, and collaborative partners)
AM: March is Women’s History Month which means we will see an uptick in brands promoting and raising awareness of their philanthropic efforts in areas affecting women and girls. How can companies be more intentional with their philanthropic giving efforts to make sure such initiatives are helping the people who need it most?
SPC: In my experience, the key to good problem solving is good listening. If a private or corporate foundation wants to achieve meaningful impact through their philanthropic investments, they need to first listen to the organizations and leaders already working in this space and reflect on how the foundation’s human and financial assets can uniquely contribute to a collective solution. Secondarily, I would say that impactful philanthropic investments are facilitated through diverse networks of relationships. Frequently, you’ll find an institution has done their homework on a problem, identified multiple strategies for impact, but then invested in the one strategy or space in which they do not have strong relationships or partners. That is a mistake. If a company wants to have a targeted impact on a system, a community, or even just a person, it must invest as much in the relationships supporting their strategy as the strategy itself.
AM: What are some things corporate leaders can do to ensure women and other underrepresented groups are represented and heard at the decision-making tables of their respective organizations?
- Put more women at the table. Inclusion is an action, not just a value. Many times, corporate leaders have to take the time to look around the table and NOTICE that women and people of color are not there. Then, once the deficiency is noted, a leader must actively prioritize diversity by backtracking the discussion, project, strategy, etcetera… until a more diverse group of decision-makers are engaged. Some may resist by claiming a team “loses” time and efficiency by resetting the table; some will say “we’ll do it next time.” But if a company means what they say about diversity, then any loses should be viewed as a consequence of not setting up a diverse “table” at the front end of the process. The time for change must always be now.
- Hire more women and people of color in management positions. While a company develops a diverse recruitment pipeline, it may take additional time and resources to cultivate diverse talent pools for management roles. Yet, the company must make these investments; it must hold itself accountable for the challenges it faces in recruiting diverse talent (e.g., revise its hiring policies, practices, and partnerships) and not deflect responsibility for institutional bias onto underrepresented communities.
- Aggressively and unapologetically invest in leadership development for women and people of color. Corporations know how to develop leaders. Take a hard look at the roster of people who get approved for executive development programs and make a commitment to reversing the ratios. What would happen if for five years, instead of sending one person of color for every five people enrolled in the most exclusive executive development program, a company flipped its goal and sent five people of color for every one non-person of color? In this scenario, without affecting budgets or expectations, a company could grow a diverse leadership pipeline from within.
AM: Data from HACR’s 2020 Empow(h)er™ report found that 48 percent of respondents did not participate in their company’s structured mentoring program. Of those that didn’t participate, 22 percent said they didn’t participate because such programs are not offered at their level. What are some other ways, beyond formalized mentorship and sponsorship programs, in which leaders should be reaching out to women and other underrepresented groups?
SPC: Often, corporations put the burden of networking on to the emerging leader and not the executive. Yet, it is the executive who has the social and political power to open up his or her network and actively include others. If leaders want to reach out to women and other underrepresented groups, they should take a proactive role in identifying the social spaces in which these communities build relationships within the company. Join an in-person or virtual lunch table with employees two-three levels down; participate in a volunteer committee or employee engagement activity (e.g. lunch and learns or planning a community care day) – anything that allows the leader to participate as a peer and not the boss in the room. This will help a leader socialize with people different from them, who they might not get to work with through the formal corporate structure. And from there, a relationship may grow that can turn into the informal connection needed to supplement the formal mentorship and sponsorship programs that a company offers.
AM: Ok, one last question. Is there a particular female leader you look up to or take inspiration from that you would like to take a moment to spotlight?
SPC: I’m proud to say that I have MANY female leaders I could spotlight. I consider myself fortunate in that way. Most immediately, I will shout out:
India Pierce Lee and Lillian Kuri, SVP of Program and SVP of Strategy respectively, at the Cleveland Foundation. They are two of the most passionate, compassionate, and intelligent leaders I know.
Risa Lavizzo-Mourey, MD, MBA, former President and CEO of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the first foundation president I met who “looked like me.” She made me realize I could build a career in philanthropy if I so chose. She is also an exceptional leader.
Finally, my mom. She is an amazing leader in many respects. Here I’ll share one of the many lessons she taught me through her lived example. Advocacy has its place in change movements, but it’s not the only way to influence a system. Change can also happen from the inside out when you have the right tools and political (small “p”) orientation. She taught me that learning the spoken and unspoken rules of your corporate culture doesn’t mean you have to reinforce them. It means you become more knowledgeable than those who the rules are designed to benefit. Knowledge of organizational culture, including awareness and inter-play of office politics norms, can be leveraged to successfully mentor others and to advance equity goals where the opportunities are present.
Sylvia Pérez Cash has committed her life to empowering people and communities to be agents of their own change. HACR thanks Ms. Pérez Cash for her contributions to underrepresented communities and for taking the time to share her unique insights with us.