Results driven, strategic, and innovative. Time and again, that is what has made made Esther Aguilera’s thirty-year career stand out from the crowd. She excels at building relationships and executing business plans to drive both growth and impact.
When Hispanic Executive last spoke with Esther in her role as president and CEO of a new nonprofit venture—the Latino Corporate Directors Association (LCDA)—she communicated an ambitious plan: to put LCDA on the map to change the corporate governance landscape for the better. The last four years have presented plenty of obstacles capable of derailing these plans, from a pandemic and an economic downturn to social unrest and political strife, but Aguilera’s immigrant roots prepared her to be persistent, resilient, and resourceful. After she and her family immigrated to the US from Mexico when she was a child, it took them years to gain citizenship despite a legal claim.
Even before she joined the LCDA, Aguilera had an impressive career filled with accomplishments. In addition to spending eleven years as president and CEO of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, she’s served as executive and legislative director of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and as senior advisor to the Secretary of the US Department of Energy. All in all, she brings nearly three decades of experience to an organization focused on gaining recognition for the growing Hispanic population of the United States and ensuring that members of that population attain positions of leadership.
A consistent thread to Aguilera’s own personal and professional pursuits has been her commitment to elevating Latinos to positions of power and helping them claim their seats at the decision-making table.
“The number of Latinos on boards is so small, and we keep hearing that organizations can’t find qualified Latinos,” Aguilera says. “With our growing LCDA network, we’ve proven there is an ample supply, and that excuse no longer applies.”
Expanding the pipeline of Hispanic leaders was one of the major initiatives Aguilera undertook after assuming her current role in 2016. “We’ve continued to grow our membership of experienced directors and have also been identifying C-level executives who are clearly qualified for the boardroom,” she says. “We can position and prepare them on their journey. Everything we do is comprehensive, because we can’t leave a stone unturned in advancing such an important mission.”
In a short period of time, Aguilera says, the LCDA has become a leader when it comes to advocating for, growing, and opening up opportunities and demand for Latinos in positions of leadership, executing heavily on matters of board governance and diversity. “This is as a result of the deep relationships we have cultivated with board practice search firms and private equity firms like Carlyle, KKR, Blackstone, and TPG Global as well as investors, pension funds, and shareholders, among others,” Aguilera says.
“No company can be effectively governed without Latinos at the decision-making table.”
The LCDA’s partners and allies underline the importance of Aguilera’s efforts. “Esther’s passion and tireless commitment to strong corporate governance and boardroom diversity is inspirational and impactful,” says Jose R. Rodriguez, a senior partner of the KPMG Board Leadership Center as well as a board member and the treasurer of LCDA. “KPMG is proud to partner with Esther and to support LCDA’s mission of increasing Latino representation in corporate boardrooms to better reflect the US population and key stakeholder sentiment.”
In addition to finding external partners, Aguilera has been focused on internal growth at the organization. LCDA’s membership has grown exponentially in the last two years, she says, providing a network of accomplished business leaders and speakers for the organization’s mission. According to Aguilera, it’s the first time the large (and growing) membership of Latinos at the highest levels of corporate leadership and governance has been able to come together as a united front.
“I always say that these are some of the most accomplished and respected leaders in business that happen to be Latino,” Aguilera remarks. “It’s a peer network of top executives and corporate leaders that is committed to paying it forward, and that’s what makes it so unique.”
The LCDA has recently engaged with Nasdaq, the New York Stock Exchange, and leading investors to promote diversity on corporate boards. It’s a deep dive that Aguilera is excited about, because it’s never been done before with leaders who are capable of creating so much change.
Aguilera’s success comes largely from her ability to find allies and execute a comprehensive approach to advancing every facet of the organization’s mission. As she explains, pushing for diversity from a moral stance can only change so many minds. Making the business case for diversity, on the other hand, yields strong results.
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“Diversity at your table leads to better decisions, better results, and better shareholder value,” she explains. “We function like a business network for this reason. Latinos are 20 percent of the population, we command $2.6 in GDP, and we contribute 83 percent of new entrants into the workforce. Corporate boards and companies remain agile when they reflect the diverse workforce and market. That is why no company can be effectively governed without Latinos at the decision-making table.”
This is the core of Aguilera’s leadership; she’s a social entrepreneur who weaves together a comprehensive approach, leveraging data-driven metrics, social media and communications amplification, and a powerful convening of business leaders. As she says, “There are so many important stories to tell; telling those stories and raising the profile of our membership is built into our mission.”
The LCDA is finding other powerful ways to tell those stories by doubling down on its research and analytics capabilities. In late 2020, the organization launched the California Board Equity Scorecard, which tracks every appointment made within the state to chart the progress of Latino leadership. “We found that Latinas, despite being 40 percent of the population, are being left behind,” Aguilera reports. “We have to be calling out these numbers, because they are research and evidence based and showing where the most missed opportunities lie.”
Aguilera says the LCDA will be issuing quarterly reports and scorecards that detail companies’ progress. The effort will also expand to other states as the program continues to evolve.
The LCDA is also tracking the largest thousand companies in the US and will be expanding that to the Russell 3000 Index, a financial index that tracks the performance of the largest publicly traded US firms. “The time is right because of the forces that have come to bear this past year,” Aguilera says of the heightened focus on equality in 2020. “Institutional investors, shareholders, and our network of leaders are all calling for this change. A company that is forward-thinking recognizes that their business should reflect the marketplace, their customers, and their employees.”
It’s a message that bears repeating, and Aguilera ends her interview by making sure there’s no ambiguity.
“I say this crisp and clear because I do not want to muddle our message,” she says. “Latinos are your current and future customers as well as the employees driving your business success, and those numbers are only growing. If you’re not connected, you’re losing market share. If you want to compete, you know what to do.”