A Life Spent in Service

As Chicago United’s president, Gloria Castillo guides the group’s mission of improving race relations and increasing opportunities for minorities in the Chicago area. Photo by Sheila Barabad.

Growing up in a mixed neighborhood in the North Side of Chicago as a third-generation American, Gloria Castillo was raised to be immensely proud of her Latino background. It was when she moved to Ventura County, California, for college that she realized how segregated some states were—with Latino neighborhoods being relegated to small pockets of her county. It was also the first time she experienced blatant hostility toward Latinos. This time in her life would greatly impact the work she would eventually do as president of Chicago United, an advocacy organization dedicated to improving race relations and increasing access to opportunities for minorities in the Chicago metropolitan area.

Before joining Chicago United, you spent 20 years in advertising at Monarch Marketing Group. Tell me how your time in advertising prepared you for the work you do now with Chicago United.

Initially I started in advertising sales at Redbook magazine. I loved everything about the world of advertising sales, but I was told that if I wanted to stay in the field I’d have to move to New York and I wanted to stay in Chicago. Around that time, my mom, a pioneering Latina businesswoman, who started Monarch Marketing Group in 1972, asked me to join the company. Saying yes was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. My time with the company was extraordinary. There were so few Latina business owners and even fewer mother-daughter teams. My mom was and has always been my role model and mentor and with her, I learned so much about advocating for women and Latinos in business. It was the first time I was able to marry my passions for women and minorities in business with my work. The skill set of running a small business was completely transferable to running a nonprofit, so when I was asked to join Chicago United, it felt as if it was meant to be.

What appealed to you about Chicago United and the work the organization was doing?

It was personally meaningful to me because I knew they were changing lives and by that I mean the lives of the people served by the organization and the lives of those involved with the organization. I wanted to be a part of that. Every year we honor local Latino business leaders and, when I run into them afterwards, they tell me about all of the doors that opened for them. We’re talking about emerging leaders of color developing new networks, having greater opportunities, and being able to better the lives of those they employ and of those in their communities.

How has Chicago United changed under your watch, what programs or initiatives are you particularly proud of?

When I was first hired I knew this was an organization of pure potential. Specifically, I wanted to focus on the part of our work that deals with corporate policy. Think about what a company CEO is responsible for: they are largely accountable for who sits on their board, who’s hired and promoted, and who their company does business with. When you think about their work in those terms, you begin to understand how important it becomes to work directly with companies as it relates to creating policies that will put more people of color in their pipeline.

I’m also very proud of our annual Changing Color of Leadership conference. There were some who questioned if there was an audience for such an event in Chicago, now each of the 1,100 seats are filled. For me, it’s a point of pride because it’s not just Latinos who participate and support the event; Chicago’s entire business community is represented and it’s then that I realize the power of what we’re doing.

At the core of our work, is our Five Forward initiative, which provides companies with the opportunity to do business with local minority firms. When it’s successful, it means more jobs are created in communities of color, it means we’re reinvigorating neighborhoods and creating a better infrastructure. We’ve all heard about the violence in Chicago; one aspect of alleviating that is strengthening of our communities of color and this initiative works to achieve that.

Does anyone ever push back against the work you’re doing?

Companies come to us because they value inclusion, but some people push back. Our constant challenge is creating opportunities for the huge pool of talent our supporters represent. I get the most excited when I speak to student organizations. So many dismiss children from certain neighborhoods, believing they won’t achieve anything. What I see in these children is extraordinary. Not only are they overcoming challenges, but they are excelling. When I see this, I think: what if we gave them a little more opportunity and support? Think of what they could accomplish!

For many years you’ve been an outspoken advocate for various civic and community organizations. What causes are nearest and dearest to your heart?

Social and economic justice is what drives me, it’s the theme you can detect in all of the work I’ve done. I started with Chicago NOW (National Organization for Women) during the women’s movement and now I advocate for getting women on boards, so I feel like I’ve come full circle.

I’m also on the board of Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), which is where I can help to address issues surrounding immigration, employment, housing, and education. MALDEF is very near and dear to my heart. They are representing young people, the “DREAMers,” who’ve been able to excel under the most difficult circumstances. It doesn’t make any sense to me why the country isn’t better utilizing the talents of undocumented people. Who is more useful to you as a company: someone who has had everything handed to them, or someone who has had to figure it out on their own and excelled despite the adversities they faced?

In all the work you have done, what are you most proud of, what has held the most meaning?

It’s in the little moments that I find the most meaning. When someone comes up [to me] and tells me that I gave them an opportunity or a bit of advice that truly helped them, and I didn’t even know how much I was helping them at the time, that’s very fulfilling. You never know when those moments will pop up and I cherish it every time it happens.