Immigration Series: The 5 Things My Immigrant Parents Taught Me About Leadership

We recently celebrated America’s Independence Day. I’ve always loved the fourth. Growing up it meant beaches; BBQ and much-needed bonding time with the familia. Now as a full-fledged adult I am reminded of the moments in my life that have taught me what it truly means to live in this country. One of the things I love most about America is its willingness to open its doors to others.  That is why I love Leviticus 19:33-34, which says  “When a stranger remains with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who remains with you as a brother, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” My parents were immigrants to the US in the late 1960's when they arrived here from the Dominican Republic. My stepfather came to the US from his home land of Nicaragua. 

That’s why the recent issues at the border with separating children from their parents have many immigrants and their families outraged. Katie Annad wrote an article for Vox Media about the emotional impact this treatment has had on children. When I think of these families I can’t help but think of my parents and all the sacrifices they made for their kids to carve out una buena vida (a good life). It is foolish to assume that their sacrifices didn’t come at a great cost. However, their sacrifices came with many lessons that have greatly impacted my career and that of my siblings.

Here are five ways being the daughter of immigrants helped me grow as a leader: 

1.    Stay Motivated.

 Papi and I, 2015

Papi and I, 2015

Nothing screams motivation more than leaving everything you hold dear to move to a new country, experience language barriers, racial and cultural discrimination, all to have opportunities for a better life. I feel fortunate to have been there to see my parents struggle in real ways to achieve their dreams. I am so blessed that I lived every risk they took with them.  When your parents are immigrant’s motivation is the driving force behind what they have risked and given up in exchange for our success. I could never repay my parents for what they gave up but they have in turn become my motivation to continue to grow and develop. I believe what influenced me to stay motivated in my career is that my dad taught me to dream and dream big! He taught me that no matter what obstacles I faced I could reach for the stars and shine brightly. My mom taught me the value of bringing excellence to everything I do. Because of her, I have learned to work hard and learn form my mistakes.

2. Speak Your Truth.

 Mom and I, 2016

Mom and I, 2016

Proving yourself to others and defending your actions is another consequence of being an immigrant in a new nation. Often time’s immigrants live their lives on the defense. Regularly having to explain who they are as if they owe others an explanation was frustrating for me to see as a child. I frequently experienced this when mom went to my school demanding that I be given not just the education that was available but the one I deserved. What I learned from this and many other experiences that I witnessed was the value of finding my voice. As I grew it made me work hard to make sure others less fortunate than me had a voice too. Speaking my truth taught me to have empathy for others.  That explains why I dedicated my career to the field of social work.  I found my voice and now I make sure others find their voice too.

3. Integrity Builds Connections.

 Mom and Alex, my (step) Dad

Mom and Alex, my (step) Dad

Immigrants work and they work hard. My mother was always busy. If she wasn't learning English (her native tongue was Spanish), she was working two jobs, attending college or strengthening ties to her new community by attending church, visiting inmates or caring for the sick. Did I mention she welcomed immigrants into our home while they began their life here in the US? She made every moment count.

My step-father still gets up every morning at 4 am to go to work managing a parking garage in the city. Is it because he loves it? Not necessarily. He knows that he made a promise to his family and to his employer. He has always said “ Hay que trabajar (we must work).” This philosophy has stayed with me. Recently, he asked me how my new job was going. As I shared my list of struggles he listened quietly and then said “ Are they still paying you?... Then keep doing good work.”  He reminded me that at the end of the day in our career all we have is our word. Integrity builds trust and can take you far. 

4. Pay it Forward.

My parents' story would have been very different without the opportunities that others created for them. My mother and Father continued to pay it back their entire lives. I can’t tell you the number of relatives and friends that lived with us as they arrived in America. Back then I didn’t understand why I had to give up my room and privacy. Now I know that my parents were doing exactly what was done for them. They both worked in factories often working 2-3 jobs to bring the rest of his family to this country. It’s easy for us to sit on our porch and think, “ wow I made it…or look how far I’ve come.” My immigrant parents taught me that you never do this alone. I was taught to remember where I came from, honor those that paved a way for me and remember to reach out and pay it forward. Paying it forward is important not just for our career but also for our community to thrive. I'm a firm believer that we all need to support each other. We need to make time for coffee, lunch, and networking with those coming up and those that hold our hands along the way. When was the last time you took your mentor out for Café?

5. Be True to Yourself.

 I didn’t always appreciate it when my parents were unapologetically themselves. Like when I saw my stepfather iron his work uniform with such pride. He never pretended to be anyone other than who he was. And, almost to a fault, he is a truth teller. My parents (on both sides) are known as people who are respected, honest and trustworthy. This is because they are and have always been true to themselves.

Being true to yourself is critical for business leaders as well. You need to establish trust if you want people to buy into you, your vision and support your team. I learned from my parents that I'm much more relatable and trustworthy if I bring my authentic self to work. Being genuine in the workplace helps to establish strong ties that can last a lifetime.  As a leader, I want to be approachable, share my interests, and develop my team.  When mistakes are made I keep it real and give grace. The best way of building rapport is to be transparent and genuine.

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My parents may not be seen as great leaders to many but to me they are. It is because of them that I have grown into the woman you see today. As we raise our son I hope to pass down the importance of staying motivated, speaking his truth, having integrity while paying it forward and being true to himself. If he can learn those values he will be doing just fine.