I wear many hats,” says Linda G. Alvarado, president and CEO of Alvarado Construction and co-owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team. She’s not just talking about hard hats and baseball caps; Alvarado also owns numerous restaurant franchises and serves on several corporate boards.
Alvarado’s interest in wider corporate participation stems from her upbringing. “I grew up in a family where my parents were very focused on church, academics, and community,” she says. “So when I began to build my business, I got involved with community organizations by serving on nonprofit boards.”
Her first boards included Inroads, an organization devoted to supporting minorities in the business world, and the Denver Boy Scouts Council, which had started taking extra measures “to develop connections with Hispanics in the inner city,” she explains.
Then, when she was only 27, she served on her first corporate board, the United Bank of Littleton. “It was all guys and me,” she remembers. “But I felt comfortable in a male environment, having grown up with five brothers.”
“We played sports together,” she remembers, adding that she was challenged physically at a young age. “I had a hernia at five. But you don’t look for excuses to quit,” she says, offering a kind of business mantra. “You just get better at the game.”
While serving on the audit committee at United Bank, she admits there was a learning curve. For example, when board members began to speak about “oreos” during a meeting, she thought they meant the cookies. The term actually refers to “other real estate owned.”
Despite such hurdles, Alvarado was soon asked to join the holding company of United Banks of Colorado. Her first duty was a fiduciary responsibility to the shareholders, and it was through that experience that she started to see another benefit to board participation: “It enabled me to network with successful business executives, civic leaders, and elected officials including the governor.”
Other corporate boards offered Alvarado key insights into the larger business world. While serving on the board of Lennox International, she gained an understanding of the federal regulatory environment as a director, assisting the family-owned HVAC firm transition from a private to a public company. On the board of telecommunications firm US West, she had a front-row seat to the breakup of AT&T and the subsequent formation of the seven regional “Baby Bell” companies. She was also a director in the launch of a new company, the Pepsi Bottling Group, a spin-off of PepsiCo.
Alvarado has always been a pioneering force for Hispanics and women in the corporate world, but she is quick to dispel the idea that her presence is a result of her ethnicity or gender.
“These companies weren’t looking for women or Hispanics, per se,” she says. “It was really about successful business expertise, diverse industries, and personal qualities in character, leadership, judgment, and ethics.” Rather than seeing her as “a percentage or a check mark,” she says, “they were looking for successful entrepreneurial CEOs to help consider expansion of products and services; increase sales, marketing, and technology applications; and identify more efficient ways of doing business.”
Still, Alvarado stresses that Hispanic presence on corporate boards has a ways to go. She posits that if a Hispanic executive was on the board of Chevrolet in the late 1960s, perhaps the company might not have named one of their cars the “Nova” (or “doesn’t go,” in Spanish). “Diversity of perspectives can be a great business asset,” she says.
As a CEO, Alvarado also feels it is critical to have Hispanics in senior-level management positions to attract and retain talented employees who can see there is a career path for people of color. But, she adds, it can occasionally be awkward to advocate for minorities.
“Sometimes Hispanics are cautious about raising their hand and asking, ‘How many Hispanics are in the finance department? How many are in senior management positions? In the succession plans?’ Because people might think you’re asking the question just because you’re Hispanic. But you’re asking because it is an important business strategy,” she says. “We advocate for Hispanics and other ethnicities, genders, and diverse groups because there is an underutilized talent pool seeking opportunity to create value to the growth and success of the company.”
Alvarado plans to continue to serve on corporate boards, as well as the kinds of nonprofit community-based boards where she started. She also remains committed to public speaking, which she hopes will “continue to inspire Hispanics of all ages to build confidence and believe in themselves,” she says.
“We need to be careful not to let other people’s lack of perspective cloud our focus and vision in our ability to achieve our goals,” Alvarado asserts.
Guest Editor Commentary
“Linda Alvarado is a corporate America pioneer. She demonstrates how serving on behalf of Hispanics on the board needs to start at the management level. One of the reasons the percentage of Hispanics in the boardroom is so meager is simply because there are not enough Hispanics in senior management positions to start with. Making the Hispanic management pool stronger is a good starting point to create sustainable growth for effective Hispanic corporate directors. As Hispanic senior executives, it is our duty to mentor, coach, and develop more junior people who will be the Hispanic leaders of the future, first in the C-suite and then in the boardroom.”