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On the Brink with Andi Simon

Apr 22, 2024

Esther Aguilera is one of the 102 amazing women leaders in our new book, Women Mean Business: Over 500 Insights from Extraordinary Leaders to Spark Your Success,

In a world where success is often portrayed as a linear path, Esther Aguilera's journey stands out. Born to Mexican immigrants, she defied the odds and rose to significant positions in Washington, in non-profits, and in business. . Her story is a testament to the power of determination, self-belief, and the unwavering pursuit of one's dreams, inspiring us all to embrace our own unique paths to success. Welcome to "On the Brink with Andi Simon," where we delve deep into the stories of remarkable individuals who have defied odds and shattered barriers to carve their path to success. In this episode, we have the privilege of sitting down with Esther Aguilera, a trailblazer whose journey took her first to numerous positions in Washington, D.C., to the helm of the Latino Corporate Directors Association. Her openness to new ventures and a willingness to try unfamiliar leadership roles have not only transformed her life but have also paved the way for countless others.

Esther's journey is one defined by resilience and tenacity. Growing up as the daughter of Mexican immigrants, she learned early on the value of hard work and perseverance. However, her unwavering confidence and belief in herself truly set her apart. As you listen to our conversation, consider our thoughts about "imposter syndrome." Throughout her career, Esther grappled with feelings of being an imposter - a notion that she was never fully competent, yet always completely confident. However, this blend of humility and self-assurance propelled her forward, allowing her to navigate the corporate landscape with grace and determination.

A profound commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion lies at the heart of Esther's journey. Throughout her career, she has been a tireless advocate for Latino representation, from building diverse teams to expanding the seats held by Latinos in corporate boardrooms, recognizing the immense value that diverse perspectives bring. Under her leadership, the Latino Corporate Directors Association rapidly expanded, becoming the premier resource for Latino talent on corporate boards. Esther's unwavering dedication to championing diversity and inclusion is a powerful reminder of the importance of representation and opportunity for all of us. You will hear a woman who knew that Latinos were not moving into leadership positions, and she would help them open doors and find pathways to change these limitations.

Embark on a transformative journey with Esther Aguilera, a leader whose story resonates with us all. Her journey inspires us to embrace our strengths, confront our doubts, and forge our path with unwavering confidence. Through her reflections, insights, and profound wisdom, Esther invites us to challenge the status quo, embrace our authenticity, and dare to dream boldly. Join us as we learn from her experiences and find inspiration for our own journeys.

Watch and listen to our conversation here


How to connect with Esther

You can reach Esther on LinkedIn

Or, email her at

Additional resources for you

Read the transcript of our podcast here. (Edited for readability)

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink with Andi Simon. I'm Andi Simon, and as you know, my job is to get you off the brink. However, if you're stuck or stalled. Our job is to bring you interesting people. And I have a wonderful woman here today who's going to help you see, feel and think in some new ways because you don't have a story like hers. And she is an extraordinary role model. So how you can overcome life, life's adversities and rise. We're going to talk about a bunch of things that are going to touch you as she has touched me, and I think this is such an exciting time. Esther Aguilera is here with us today, and I am very excited because she is a part of our new book, Women Mean Business. Esther comes to us with the perspective of somebody who has had a journey, and I'm going to have her tell you about it, but let me introduce her.

She is currently a senior advisor at Altura Capital. Previously, she was president and CEO of the Latino Corporate Directors Association, and she built the first national network of Latino CEOs, corporate directors and C-level leaders. She oversaw the organization's rapid expansion to become the premier resource for Latino talent primed for the boardroom to accelerate the conversation of Latino inclusion in America's boardrooms.

She's a thoughtful, transformational leader, and she's known for driving impact and results. She is a two-time chief executive and a two time executive director, and she comes to us with a 32- year track record, executing strategic business plans and leading high performance teams. And she's going to tell you more.

As you know, my desire is for them to tell you about their journey. It gives you a context for understanding the challenges that she's facing and the way she's overcoming them. But she also tells us that she brings a deep experience and understanding of the intersection between the charitable, business and government sectors. And I think this is really exciting. She's worked with members of Congress, cabinet members, corporate CEOs and directors, nonprofits, and associations, and she's just a superb-powerful person. Welcome, Esther. Thank you for being with me today.

Esther Aguilera: It is a great pleasure to be with you, Andy.

Andi Simon: Tell the listeners and the viewers, who is Esther? You tell me your story. And I think it's a very important one to set the context for your own journey, the challenges you've overcome and how you thrive, and the joy you bring to others in the process. Who's Esther?

Esther Aguilera: Thank you for having me. And thank you for the question. So, you know, as you mentioned, I have had the privilege of working for our nation's most powerful leaders from members of Congress, and cabinet members. I've organized meetings with the US President and worked with the top leaders in the nonprofit space, corporate space, and working with corporate directors. But my path was not a typical one. My family moved to the US from Mexico when I was four years old, so I'm an immigrant. We were actually undocumented when we first came. It's a long story, but needless to say, I'm the proud daughter of a landscape laborer and a garment worker. So, we had a very humble upbringing. But we clearly strived to do our best and contribute and get a good education, which is what landed me in college and also, I studied my first public policy. It's not something that growing up, I would have ever seen myself doing. I didn't even know what it was. By the way, when I moved, I moved to Washington, D.C. after college, and my parents didn't really understand what I did, and neither did my family. But here I was in Washington, D.C. We moved here in 1990 right after college. And that's where oh my gosh, so many worlds opened up. So many opportunities and a lot of scary things. I mean, good, scary things, but new things that really opened up all new apertures and experiences and opportunities again, that I enjoy today.

Andi Simon: But, when you shared with me your story, you said public policy wasn't something you're familiar with. How did you get to Washington?

Esther Aguilera: Well, I was very, very lucky. First I was visiting Washington, D.C., and I had a professor who I contacted and I said, hey, I'm in the nation's capital. And he said, well, you need to meet with some of the premier organizations. And he made some connections for me that I was literally just planning to have some informational meetings and then travel back to California to start looking for a job. And I took the plunge. I had some great meetings. The first organization was a National Council of La Raza, which is the premier today known as Latinos, U.S. and it's a public policy organization. I went for the informational interview, and they offered me a job. And I was just one in shock and thinking, oh my gosh, I’m moving to Washington, D.C. Is that something for me? But you know what? I took the plunge. And this was another great theme that I like to talk about is I've had some different pivots and new areas and new places. And what's been wonderful was really embracing new challenges has been how I have been able to broaden my horizons and find new opportunities.

Andi Simon: Yes. Good. But it is interesting because as we think about it, your intention wasn't to come to Washington and get a job. It was to go discover; you were curious. You're an explorer and you really didn't know what the possibilities were. It was an interesting opportunity for you to land something unexpectedly that has turned into a whole career trajectory for you. And I have a hunch several times during your career, things sort of popped in you and you thought that could be interesting. Where did your career go from that first destination?

Esther Aguilera: Well, I was lucky to land a job on Capitol Hill. I worked in the US Congress and became the executive director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus. I have had leadership roles since my mid 20s. That's what I love about Capitol Hill is you get great opportunities early and you are contributing a great deal. And so, that came about also with mentors who put my name in the hat and said, hey, I think Esther would be a great candidate for this. When I was already working on the Hill and when they asked me, is this something you're interested in, things went through my mind of doubting. Am I ready for this? That’s such a big challenge, such a big role. But I raised my hand and said, yes, I will take on the challenge and contribute everything I've got.

Andi Simon: It's interesting because that's one of your five wisdoms. Raise your hand. It puts yourself out there for new opportunities. You don't really know what's happening and what is going to happen to you, but you're comfortable enough in yourself to say, of course I can.

I don't know where that is and I don't know how we're going to do it, but somehow I know that I can succeed at some level. What are people expecting? Were they clear about their expectations or they just trusted you to rise to the occasion?

Esther Aguilera: With every role and pivot that I've had, and I will go into some of those as well, there's always been one. I already had some great ground training in policy and writing and research. And then I worked as a legislative assistant. So, I had some of the base groundwork. And then you take that and the important thing what I tell young people is don't go into your next role because you meet 100% of the experience and expectations. You look at a job description and you want to have space to grow, but you've got the foundation and you take that and you build on it and that's okay to ask for help. It's okay to feel vulnerable to say hey, I can do 50, 60% of this, and I'm going to need some guidance. I can do the rest with that guidance. And it's important to feel that you can be both honest with yourself and know that you can do it. Don't let that hold you back.

Andi Simon:  Well, I couldn't agree more. We can compare career tracks, but it is interesting listening to people talk today about needing mentors or sponsors. I never had any. Did you have them along your journey?

Esther Aguilera: Well, when we talk about sponsors, these are people who put your name in the hat for you. And so my professor who first said, hey, I'm going to make this introduction. And then, of course, you step right in., I had a member of Congress put my name in the hat. Another mentor of mine, a male mentor who said this is someone who could take on that role. So I think they saw something in me that I probably wouldn't have raised my hand. So those sponsorships are so important. And then, down the line.

Andi Simon: Well, you know, it's interesting because you didn't even go looking for them to sponsor you or mentor you. You just were good at what you were doing and kept showing up, curious, whatever the attributes were that they were looking for. And there you were. And that was really what's exciting about it is that you don't have to be intentionally groveling up that ladder. You can just be really good at what you do. People see it and then offer you something and you say, I can do that. And then you rise. And it's very exciting.

Esther Aguilera: I agree, but I also think it's important. There are so many lessons learned on the journeys that I'm an open book and I love to share. And that while sponsorships are important, let's not rely on them and make sure one keeps your resume circulating and raise your hand. And oftentimes, making a transition is really tough sometimes. But keep your eyes and ears open. Keep opportunities open even when you love what you're doing. It's okay. You're not being disrespectful to your current employer.  You are inquisitive and want to grow. I'm in the book Women Mean Business and my wisdoms have been around again and be open to new opportunities, new frontiers because that is how you learn and grow.

Andi Simon: So one of the things that you and I talked about was a theme. There are two themes that I want to make sure that we dig into. One is about where Latinos are today. But the one just prior to that is that we mentioned the fact that you were the child of immigrants, and you have led some of the most consequential organizations in the US. Did you bring a particular perspective that was extremely valuable? Were you just a young person coming out of college? How did you blend all of this so that you were you? Because I have a hunch of those who were sponsoring you, mentoring you, saw something unique in how you saw the world. Something that you can share. Is it something you can reflect on?

Esther Aguilera: Some of my early areas of motivation were really looking at women and how there were two standards for what women can do versus men. And I saw this growing up, and I always kind of fought against it or thought against it and said, why is there that difference? That was one of the things that just kind of kept me going. But, at the end of the day, I was always very impact oriented. I always wanted to leave a mark and a contribution. We all have superpowers. I've had opportunities after working on Capitol Hill.  I went to work at the Department of Energy, running the procurement office. And in that role, I came in to lead a team of federal employees and gave them real purpose. We reorganized the office and built a high performing team that was very impactful, and mission driven. It was a little lost, but the Secretary of Energy put me in charge and said, I want you to fix this. And it's where I discovered some of my superpowers. I was given that opportunity, I already knew that I could drive change on the legislative front. And I was thinking, how am I going to drive change here? And it's through people and it's through leadership and promoting people for leadership. And in that role, I later went to run a larger group, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, which is an internship fellowship organization for young people to get experience on Capitol Hill. I had so many doors open to me since with my experience, I wanted to make sure others had that as well. And so this organization, I grew it from $4 million to $10 million. And at every stage just transformed and built an even better, solid foundation for the organization, for the future. There again, it's about building a high performing team and impact. So, I found that my superpower is driving growth and impact. But my secret weapon is building high performing teams where people can contribute. And we find ways of finding where they can excel and contribute and grow to the overall having a clear purpose mission that everyone has a role to play in.

Andi Simon: I have several leadership academies I've been running for many years for clients. And one of the things we talk about is that a leader really needs other followers. A leader can't do anything alone. And so, as I'm listening to you, I'm saying you have some magic to empower and enable and engage others so they can rise higher than where they are growing. They don't have to move up a ladder. They need to grow personally in their skills, their confidence that you said it so well, their purpose, their mission to have strong values and to see how their actions are purpose driven and they can actually become part of a team that's delivering extraordinary results. And I have a hunch you had great pleasure when you were doing that, building those teams, and building those people. Right?

Esther Aguilera: That really was. That's when you find it's your superpower when you really enjoy doing it. And of course, I had another pivot to then start an organization with corporate directors. And we formed the Latino Corporate Directors Association, and that I was able to start from scratch and grow it tenfold to become the premier organization that really elevates because it's so important to have leadership roles and to have decision making roles and have a seat at the table. Because if you don't have a seat at the table, you don't matter, that's the bottom line. And it's part of important work that I'm really proud of now doing even more after having built a really solid foundation, all of the pillars that lead towards the impact and the team there to then take it on.

Andi Simon: Well, all of this then leads to the community. You and I spoke about how the Latino community developed, grown? Where is it going? How do we get access to positions of power and equal pay for Latinas and Latinos?  You've had a wonderful solo career and now you're pulling along lots of others to be able to actually optimize their success as well. Share with us a little of your perspective. What do you see happening?

Esther Aguilera: Well, first, this has always been the second largest demographic in the US. For 32 years have been working to advance the Latino community in the US from all angles, from legislative leadership and education across the board. And I have to say that in the 90s, we were called, and even the 80s, The Sleeping Giant because it was a large group, but still was more behind the scenes. And I don't think we have advanced as much as we can, and we need to. That's why I'm such a believer in having Latinas and Latinos in positions of power and authority because you have to have both a bottom up from grassroots kind of building to leadership as well and have those important roles across the board. This has to be in government and whether it's in the private sector, in the largest corporations of the country and so that's an important ingredient. Today, Latinos are 62 million Americans. This is close to 20% of the population and a GDP of nearly 3.5 trillion, which is the same as a fifth largest country. It's massive and yet we're still not in the positions of power, and we're still, especially Latinas, are least paid. In fact, the pay gap is the lowest for Native American women and Latinas. Native American women earn $0.51 to the dollar that men make in the same jobs. And Latinos are $0.54. Other groups come in and that hasn't changed much in the past 20 years. So there's still that huge gap. The boardrooms and corporate boardrooms, Latinos are the single group of any other women's group, any other demographic group with the least amount of board seats and representation in that boardroom, Latinos and Latinos alike. I think that's why my philosophy here is that and this is why we started the Latino Corporate Directors Association that you can't complain about. You can't say, well, it's the search firms is this and we keep hearing we can't find qualified Latinos for the boardroom. You have to point the finger this way and do something about it. So that's why a group of pioneering corporate directors launched it and then brought me on board to build it because we have to be the owners of our destiny.

And we can't wait for others to solve these things.

Andi Simon: It's easy to complain and it's easier to sort of look at history, but I think you're already beginning to see some small steps to move the needle a little bit. Anything that you can share that is exciting to you? Do you want to share your superpowers with others? Do you see opportunities opening up? You said we're still the sleeping giant. You do have a whole lot of people here in this country ready to do some really exciting things. What are you thinking?

Esther Aguilera: Oh my gosh, we have so much talent.  In every sector and every industry, it's about really showcasing and lifting up the talent that's there so that we take away the narrative and excuse. We can find them right there. It’s groundbreaking with Latino corporate directors. I'm also advising Alpha, which is the largest Latino professional association in the country. It is the oldest and largest with over 115,000 members around the country. And here is an organization that we already have so much, membership and visibility within the community. But it's about letting others in other communities know, here's where you can find the pipeline and the talent for anything you need, and lifting up and showcasing profiles and taking away again that narrative that there's plenty of talent, there's more to grow. There is potential and talent there. And we're here to help make it easy for you to find it.

Andi Simon: You know, I'm thinking about two situations.  When I mentioned to you there was a woman at Washington University, when I spoke there on Women Mean Business, who had gotten a scholarship to a high profile Latino woman who had gone to college, the first from her family. She had gotten a wonderful scholarship to a very high profile private school, and then had gotten into Washington University with a big scholarship and was very lonely. And when we were talking, she said, I'm all alone. And it's very hard to have to be here without a community of others like me who understand the journey I've been on, and I'm not quite sure where I'm going. Am I going back to make money for my family and my community? It was the most profound. And then I gave a talk down in Houston and Arturo Lopez, a Vistage chair that I knew brought in a whole group of Latinos, all of whom are struggling to be heard. And I think that the nature of both media and what we talk about, how we celebrate, where we get the positive superpowers and how we acknowledge it, needs something to boost it. And as you and I were talking about Alpha and others, it's not a bad time to think through how to rally other Latino to help build a network of mentors for others. She said, I don't have a role model. I have no one. I've had no role model through most of my education, and I felt I was amazed at her boldness and her bravery, but I also knew that she was going to have to work hard to find some community to belong to that she could lift herself up. So there's a real need. We're going to rise. We need to have others help us. And I've heard that so often from the folks like yourself in our book, who said, if I rise, I lift others. They basically can't do it without others. That's why I said to who's your sponsor? Who's your mentor? And how do I get help? And they're not even women. They were all guys. And so there's a real need out there. So now with Altura Capital, are you seeing things that are shareable? You're in the private equity world now.

Esther Aguilera: Yes. My latest pivot, what’s exciting about my pivot to private equity was one in every one of these paths, I have honed in more around my brand, and my brand has been to really lift up others. And the firm that I work with is Latina led, Latina founder, CEO, private equity. Her name is Monica Mantilla. And I always say she's probably the pioneer Latina who was founder, CEO and managing partner of a private equity firm for 18 years.  The way that she invests in companies and again, private equity, you already have to have a profitable company that's going that we can invest in to grow. But, she also has a social impact mission. She invests in low, moderate-income communities that have great businesses and can invest in them to then also create better jobs, better pay, better benefits, and they track that impact. So here we have a firm that's not only creating value for shareholder, for investors and for the company, but also an impact and community. That is my brand. So I always have to feel really strong and passionate about what I'm pushing, what I'm driving, and who I'm working with and for. And so I found each step of the way has always been that for me. I always tell folks, find what are what drives you, what kind of team and environment do you want to be part of, but also how do you help create that team and environment? Because we're all players in it, developing high performing teams. Meaning means that everyone brings something to the table and you want to harness it, and you want to continue to nurture it, to continue to produce even more, because you feel part of that mission and drive of what we're all achieving together.

Andi Simon: You're a real multiplier, aren't you? It isn't enough for you to have a job and to do things. It's only really good if I have a team, however big that might be, who also are empowered and engaged to multiply and do more together and better. This is really exciting.

Esther Aguilera: But it wasn't always something you and I talked about as well. It wasn't always an easy journey, right? You know, a big part was, I’ve been thinking a lot about the imposter syndrome and early in my career. Oh, my gosh, I was there really. Two big things to overcome. You know, one here is an immigrant working in the US Capitol, what am I doing here? And someone is going to expose me. I found that, in fact, I don't like the term imposter syndrome. There are two sides to it.  I think most of it is self-inflicted. Let's say as an immigrant, you come here and you're already feeling like an outsider, and you don't always have the resources to really properly show up and build that confidence that you need to step into some new roles, but you have to find it yourself. And so in terms of the imposter syndrome, as I mentioned, there's kind of two sides to it. I think that other people probably see a lot more. When you're feeling that, people see a lot more value and worth and contributions, and you do it yourself. So I see it as an opportunity to turn it around and say, okay, well, what am I bringing to the table and how do I own my own worth and my own contribution? So, the imposter syndrome, you're only diminishing your self-worth. It's about building that up and then building a network and supporters around you that are also going to lift you up. Because we all need that. It's okay to ask for help. You can say, I don't feel good today, but you're always going to have ups and downs. That's part of life. It's not always going to be rosy.

Andi Simon: But, as you reflect on your movie, we were talking about how life is a movie and you don't want to end up regretting things.  You have been able to champion gently yourself, slowly through many pivots, and each one adding richness to your life. And you add richness to that. And it isn't as if there's a straight line. I mean, one of the things that I think is so true is the unknown in front of you can become the best experience. I look to your wisdoms and I go, oh my goodness, Esther is a wise woman because that's exactly what we're saying.  It's the unknown. Usually your brain fights it, flees it. Fear fiercely denies it. Appease it.

You have an amygdala that would like to hijack it, but instead you've embraced it and you've written a new story for yourself where it's okay, I cannot fail. I just embrace the new and I am going to succeed. Impostor syndrome could be a whole other podcast. I don't think I truly don't believe in it. I do think that people are always a little uncomfortable and it's okay to be uncomfortable. But in fact, the unknown in front of you can become the best experience. And that's right and once you turn lemons into lemonade, let's do it. What's the worst that can happen? Well, it didn't work. So what? And everything you've touched is turned to good, better and best. And so you've got a wonderful career, Esther. If you want to leave the folks with a couple of really cool, actionable things, one, two or three, other than forget your imposter syndrome, we don't need it. What would you share with them based on a beautiful life story?

Esther Aguilera:  Well, certainly one, build that board for yourself around you and that group of friends, both peers and a network that you could be there for them. They're there for you, too. Don't be afraid to ask for help or to say, hey, I'm really happy where I am right now, but maybe I should start putting my resume out and privately talking to people about what I should be doing next. Because unless you put your name out there, whether it's for maybe something new or for a boardroom, people aren't going to have you on the top of  their mind always, unless you bring it up or let them know, and that in your own mind kind of helps to put you in a position where you can say, hey, I'm ready for this pivot. And the last is, those pivots could be scary, but at the end of the day, they do open new opportunities.

Andi Simon: Yes. And opportunity is exactly what they are. They're not problems. They're all opportunities. And they are in front of you waiting for you to say, I'm cool, let's try it. And that becomes a great, great journey. This has been such fun. Thank you for joining us, our audiences, and Esther shared with us today some really profound opportunities that she has lived through with her superpowers. Esther, if they'd like to reach out to you for talking, experience, consulting, any kind of work with Altura, how could they reach you? Is there a website or is it through LinkedIn?

Esther Aguilera: I think the best way is LinkedIn. Esther Aguilera, and I look forward to hearing from individuals. It has been my great pleasure and thank you for inviting me. I'm honored and just really admire your work. Thank you for what you do for us all.

Andi Simon: Well, thank you for that kind, kind ending here. Esther and I have truly enjoyed being in Women Mean Business. And I think that the most interesting part of a book is you don't really know where it's going, like life. It takes you along. And that's what's happened here. And every time I open it and I read some things, they're all different. There are 500 of them. They really reflect very different perspectives, but very enriching ones and the energy and the force there. So when you read Esther's, you're going to say, of course the opportunities are here. Who's stopping me except me? And that becomes really important. Let me wrap up for all of you who come to On the Brink with Andi Simon. Thank you. You pushed us into the top 5% of podcasts globally, and I admire that for you because that's your benefit to it. We keep looking for great people that can help us see, feel and think in new ways. Send them along. Your emails are wonderful, and I keep looking for more people like Esther and others who can share with you their life's journey so that you can see how others have tackled the opportunities or the challenges that they faced. Remember, Women Mean Businesses is on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and your local bookseller. So are all my other books there as well. So if we can help you take your observations and turn them into innovations, let us know. It's been a pleasure to share the day with you, Esther. I'll say goodbye and thank you so much. Goodbye, everybody.

Esther Aguilera: Bye bye everyone. Thank you. Andi.


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