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Maria Otero came with her family to the United States from Bolivia when she was twelve years old. A time of many transitions for any adolescent, Otero had the additional challenge of learning an entirely new language and culture. For several years, she desperately wanted to assimilate as much as possible. She even avoided speaking Spanish in public and yearned to have blond hair.
It wasn’t until she graduated from high school that she began to realize the value of being so familiar with two different cultures.
“I could speak two languages,” she says. “I could keep score at a baseball game and go out and dance salsa. Being able to navigate those different worlds created great opportunities.”
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Among those opportunities were paths that led to Otero working as an economist for the United States Agency for International Development; serving as president of Accion, a pioneering organization in international microfinance; and becoming the highest ranking Hispanic official at the US State Department, where she was the first Latina Undersecretary in the department’s history.
Serving others, though, runs in Otero’s family. One of her sisters has been deputy mayor of Washington, DC; another sister is CEO of a major nonprofit in New York City; a third sister was a community organizer; and her brother headed the first commercial microfinance bank in the world. Her paternal grandfather was minister of education in Bolivia; an uncle was mayor of La Paz, Bolivia; and one of her cousins was Bolivia’s ambassador to the United States.
Currently, Otero serves on the board of directors of Herbalife, where she chairs the compensation committee. This places her in the key role of guiding decisions on salaries, bonuses, compensation philosophy, long-term incentive plans, as well as human resources and diversity issues.
Most of her career has been devoted to providing opportunities and access to resources to underserved populations. She believes Herbalife is a good fit for her because it strives to reach similar groups.
“Herbalife provides a means for its distributors, many of whom are women, to help maintain their families and improve their economic situations,” Otero says. “Through my previous work, I understand the challenges and constraints those families face, so Herbalife’s business perspective and sense of purpose both speak to me.”
To help illustrate, she points to visits she’s made to nutrition clubs set up and managed by women. She says those women feel empowered and have a sense of pride and dignity in their work. She also says she’s able to personally relate to their experiences because of her own accomplishments and the way her husband and three children have helped her balance their work and family.
“Herbalife provides a means for its distributors, many of whom are women, to help maintain their families and improve their economic situations. Through my previous work, I understand the challenges and constraints those families face, so Herbalife’s business perspective and sense of purpose both speak to me.”
Herbalife is unusual in that there are two other Hispanic directors on its board: Richard Carmona, former US Surgeon General, and Michael Montelongo, former Assistant Secretary of the Air Force who was featured in Hispanic Executive’s 2017 Best of the Boardroom section. However, Otero still serves as the board’s only female director.
“Being the only Latina in the room, I’m able to bring complex, nuanced insight and a historical perspective about a growing, vitally important segment of our population ,” she says.
For example, Otero was able to advise the company against a particular approach to marketing to Hispanic women. She pointed out that Latin culture views being a little overweight and curvaceous as perfectly acceptable and recommended finding a different way to encourage improved fitness and nutrition. “A fifty-five-year-old Latin woman would no more start exercising to get thinner than she would start believing in the man in the moon,” she told the board.
When asked about the diversity of most corporate boards, Otero points to the fact that only 1.5–2 percent of the Fortune 1000 have Latino members. She firmly believes that achieving effective diversity requires intentional, purpose-driven efforts. It’s a lesson she learned from Hillary Clinton, who appointed women to four out of six undersecretary positions while she was Secretary of State.
She gives Herbalife high marks for its emphasis on finding qualified minority professionals for its board of directors.
“The company isn’t interested in token representation,” Otero says. “It reached out to minority professionals who tapped their own networks for candidates. That kind of authentic access is the only way to reach beyond the perspectives of existing, nonminority board members.”
She adds that there also has to be genuine desire all sides. “I’ve been interviewed by boards of other companies that were doing what they thought they should but weren’t really interested in increasing their diversity,” she says.
Otero sees much of her role on the board and as committee chairwoman as helping to bring about consensus of different viewpoints. As a woman and former diplomat, she feels it’s something for which she’s well-suited.
“I believe any group is enriched through a variety of viewpoints,” she says. “In the case of Herbalife, they all contribute to creating a world-class company.”
Thoughts from Guest Editor Victor Arias
“Immigrants add tremendous value to this country, as did Maria’s family. The move to the United States has been transformational for her family and for our country. She has tremendous insights, especially as a Latina!”