Mary Ann Gómez Orta: The Connector — keeping it real

In this installment, TFL Profiles talks “keeping it real” with “The Connector,” Mary Ann Gómez Orta, president & CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI).

Mary Ann Gómez Orta is a connector in the truest sense of the word. She is not only a “Latina connector.” She is a connector — period.

Anyone who gains the chance to speak with Mary Ann for any length of time soon will pick up on the love and pride she feels for her family, and the deep satisfaction she gets from watching those she’s helped do well.

One might say she is perfectly suited to head an organization like the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute (CHLI), which largely prepares young Hispanic and Latino students to be more competitive in a global economy. Mary Ann continues to focus on growing the organization’s programs and reach, never losing sight of its three guiding principles: to prepare, connect and honor leaders.

Her dedication has deep and personal roots. Mary Ann’s father is an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico, who came to the U.S. under the Bracero Program and worked as a farm worker. Her mother was born and raised in Brownsville, Texas, and picked cotton in Texas before making her way to California.

“You can still see the hard work in their hands,” she says. And as for Mary Ann, she studied and helped the family by babysitting children at the farm worker camp, never knowing how much she made because it all went toward the household.

These powerful life experiences inform her strong opinions on overcoming life’s challenges and beating overwhelming odds to achieve educational and professional success.

“I know suffering,” she says. “I saw my parents suffer … But you just have to move on and get out of your comfort zone. You owe it to your family and community to get an education. They worked hard for you, so get an education — university or vocational.”

She also considers outreach and promoting diversity to be a two-way street.

“You just can’t sit in your office all day in front of your computer” waiting for people to come to you, or “just stay in your little group,” she says with a combination of steeliness, sincerity and warmth that is both disarming and impossible to feign. “I’m just going to keep it real … you have to work hard, and work well with people who are different than you.”

Think Freely Latino (TFL) sat down recently with Mary Ann Gomez Orta at this year’s National Association of Hispanic Publications’ (NAHP) Legislative Summit, following her presentation to a visiting delegation of Hispanic publishers on “How to Successfully Navigate Washington.” Prior to joining CHLI, Mary Ann served as the executive director of NAHP. She also is a former corporate marketing manager for Coors Brewing Co. and McDonald’s Corp., among her other professional accomplishments. She earned a master’s degree in business administration from St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California.

TFL: You currently serve as the president and CEO of CHLI. What is the best part of your job? What do you love most about it?

MGO: Oh, I love my job. What I love most about my job is advancing the Hispanic-American community. We have to progress as a community.

 I grew up in a farm worker camp as the eldest of five. I try to keep it real. I run a national organization with a small team, so at the end of the day, we eat what I hunt. But, I’m not in this for me. I really care about getting more Latinos an education, and getting more of them, including from both sides of the political aisle, positions at the highest levels.

And that’s what we work so hard at CHLI to do, and what I love about our work. We prepare, connect and honor our leaders.

First, we prepare college students to be globally competitive, because today, students are not just competing with their cohort who is sitting next to them in class. Students and young professionals are competing with people from around the world for the top jobs — from Asia, Europe and Latin America.

So when we talk about ‘preparing’ that means we prepare future leaders through internships, scholarships and conferences that involve public service, leadership development, and business and academic excellence. That’s where our CHLI Global Leaders Internship Program comes in.

On the ‘connect’ side, CHLI hosts events where professionals from all walks of life and backgrounds can network and connect. We don’t just convene Hispanics and Latinos, we also invite representatives from other communities like the Jewish-American, African-American communities to name a couple. I enjoy this part of my job very much because I’m a connector, and because other people did that for me. That’s why you’ll see a lot of diversity at our CHLI events.

On the ‘honor’ side, every year we recognize two leaders for their service to the international community. At our next CHLI gala, which will be held here in Washington, D.C., on April 26, one of the leaders we will recognize is a physician, a democracy and human rights advocate, and former Cuba political prisoner Dr. Oscar Biscet, who was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007. This is important. We need to showcase the diversity created by the diasporas that still need our help in this country.

TFL: As one of five children of farm workers, what drove you to to pursue a college education?

 MGO: Look, I grew up in a farm camp watching T.V. I got bused to high school so I didn’t attend games, and no dances. So I thought to myself, ‘How the heck do I get out of here?’

I saw my mom and dad working really hard, and I saw all those people on T.V. doing all sorts of different things. And I was a pretty good student, and my parents told me to study hard, so I thought, ‘Well, why not keep going?’

Then I thought, well I like teaching, so maybe I would pursue a degree in education. But then I saw people in business really helping other people in the community and making an impact. And that’s when I decided to go into business and later earn my M.B.A.

TFL: You have an amazing professional background. What are the qualities that have distinguished you in your career?

MGO: What distinguished me? Well, when I worked at Coors Brewing Co. I was recommended to my position there by an African-American male to his Anglo-American female boss because I had a reputation for working hard and working well with everyone.

TFL: So what would you say is the secret sauce for success?

MGO: Work hard, and learn to work well with different people — and work with the people who know their job because the combination is important.

TFL: How does a busy professional balance work, a personal life, and time to give back to the community?

MGO: My job is not hard. My job is fun. You have to delegate and be open to other people’s opinions. But you know what, I’m not going to do things differently unless you can prove to me you have a better approach. I’ve been working in the business world since I graduated from college — organizing events and campaigns, coordinating sponsorships, so I know how to do a lot of different things in different ways. But, I am open to new approaches and to learn.

TFL: Who is your hero?

MGO: I would always answer that my heroes were my parents, and they always will be. But I have over the last couple of years added two rock stars to my personal super hero list — my boss, The Honorable Lincoln Diaz-Balart, and my husband, Carlos Orta. They are men I greatly admire and respect. I have learned a lot about loyalty, friendship, leadership and diversity from them as well.

TFL: How can students apply for a CHLI internship? How competitive is the application process, and do you have any advice for applicants?

MGO: Hispanic college students enrolled in a university in the U.S. including Puerto Rico can apply. The deadline for the fall semester program is coming up April 28! Students in their junior or senior year, or who just graduated within the last year may apply. All the details are on our website, www.chli.org.

You know what else? I care about young people, and a little tough love goes a long way. I can’t, and other people can’t, solve every problem for them or answer every question they have. I tell college students and interns that they have to do it for themselves. They are very resourceful people and they have access to resources we didn’t have growing up. They can do it. We need to remind them they can, and they have to step up too. 

And by the way, yes the program is quite competitive, as it should be. But we cast a very wide net, and are always looking to expand it, make it more diverse and inclusive, and bring students from different parts of the country into the program.

TFL: Where do you see CHLI in the next several years? What are your future goals for the organization?

MGO: You know, there are not enough people talking about how diverse we are as a community. And, it’s one thing to say we are diverse, and another thing to do something about honoring diversity, and diversity of thought. We all come from different countries of origin. You have to ask yourself, what is it that I am doing to leverage that diversity? Are you embracing it, and doing something positive with it?

 At CHLI, we want to make sure we continue to grow our programs and reflect that diversity of thought that exists within our Hispanic and Latino community. We also want to expand our programs and promote a more respectful dialogue between people with differing opinions. I mean, why do we have to personally insult each other just because we have differing viewpoints? 

And because we promote leadership in public service, in business and in international relations, we want to make sure college students see how those areas interact together. That’s why it’s important to keep growing our partnerships and strengthening our relationships with the champions who are supporting CHLI.

TFL: What do Latino leaders have to do to really help empower our community?

 MGO: You know how Latino families are. Everyone knows everyone and understands each other’s little nuances. That is how we are. We stick together. But Latinos need to be talking to others outside of their own community.

 Just ask yourself. Who are the last five Latinos, or Anglos, or African-Americans, or people from a different political party who you invited into your home, or broke bread with in the last month? We have to start engaging others in different and important conversations.

 We also have to share our stories. Many of us are so strong because we have endured and overcome so many hardships. And those stories are good to tell. They are important to share, because if we don’t talk about our contributions, then how are we going to grow as individuals and as a community? There has to be more groups like ours telling these stories.

Learn more about how to apply for a CHLI Global Leaders Internship here.

Learn more about Mary Ann Gómez Orta here.

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