Graciela Ivonne Monteagudo is no stranger to being the “only woman at the table.” Over the course of her career, Monteagudo has gone from being, as she puts it, “one of the few female engineers in Mexico to becoming one of a few women and Latinos to have profit and loss responsibility of multibillion-dollar businesses in the US and abroad.” Today, she’s part of a minuscule percentage of Latinas in Fortune 1000 Boards (less than 1 percent).
Being “at the table” has afforded Monteagudo incredible opportunities—and allowed her to advocate for women and Hispanics both in and outside of work. But it has also opened her eyes to the untapped potential of the individuals—and entire markets—that are all too often excluded within the business world.
Even at the beginning of her career, working in marketing roles at the Mexico branch of consumer goods corporation Procter & Gamble, Monteagudo never felt limited because of her gender.
“It was a meritocracy,” Monteagudo explains. “It was a great place to learn, with amazing training programs and really supportive leaders—I never felt like there were any barriers to my growth.”
And Monteagudo certainly experienced a lot of growth: when she was just thirty-six years old, she was selected to lead a $250 million business in Mexico. And in 2004, she became the first Latin American fellow of the International Women’s Forum (IWF), an invitation-only organization dedicated to supporting, inspiring, and connecting some of the most accomplished women in the world.
“It was a one-year program,” Monteagudo says of that fellowship. “We attended conferences and got training in Harvard and Cambridge with professors who had designed the program curriculum to address the barriers that stop women from moving ahead in their careers.
“It opened my eyes to so many things,” she continues, “to the importance of networking, to the world of corporate politics, to the importance of using public speaking skills—not just in big presentations but also in company meetings.”
Inspired by her experiences through the IWF, Monteagudo made it a priority to help other professional women identify and overcome the barriers preventing them from progressing in their organizations. But this was by no means a new area of interest for her.
“I’ve always hated unfairness, and when I was in high school, [Simone de Beauvoir’s] The Second Sex was one of the books that really touched me and opened my eyes,” Monteagudo says. “As a sort of legacy project, I decided to develop a conference based on all that I had learned as an IWF fellow: I gave that conference for years, starting in Mexico and then going around the world.”
And the more she gave the conference presentation, Monteagudo says, the more she started to notice a common thread in her audience’s experiences.
“Women everywhere were facing similar challenges. What was different was the degree of intensity,” Monteagudo notes. “In many African countries, women can’t even get a job. But that kind of discrimination also resonated with women in the US, with women in Argentina.”
“Women everywhere were facing similar challenges. What was different was the degree of intensity.”
Seeing this, Monteagudo began forwarding a message to those around her—the simple truth that no matter how wrong unfairness is, the world will not always be fair. “But you can do something about it,” Monteagudo says, firmly. “You will live in situations where things are against you, but you can learn about the situation. You can train yourself to be more aware, to be better.”
And even if you can’t change the whole world, Monteagudo points out, you can still effect change on a life-changing level.
While working as a top-level executive at Walmart, Monteagudo helped drive a gender diversity initiative that enabled women working for the company all over Mexico to take advantage of additional training opportunities. “Because Walmart is the largest employer in Mexico, the sheer number of women we were training was really impressive,” she notes. “So for me to participate in the design of those training programs meant that I was actually helping to change the country.”
But Monteagudo’s mission doesn’t stop there. As she’s championed women to assume roles of power at influential global companies, she’s similarly made a case for the Hispanic market as one that should be recognized for its immense business potential—and reckoned with.
“I have dedicated my career to the understanding of millennial moms as well as US Hispanic and Latin American consumers—critical target consumers for CPG and retail companies,” Monteagudo says. “But I think companies today are holding back from really leveraging the Hispanic market, and that has to do with how Hispanics in general are perceived.”
Every successful brand in the world is known for one or two attributes, Monteagudo explains, key benefits like quality or cost that always come to mind when people think of that brand.
“Hispanics are more than a consumer segment. They’re a growth engine.”
“But in the US, there is such overwhelming media exposure that the word that comes to mind when people think of the Hispanic population is ‘immigration,’” Monteagudo says. “And that means that people don’t pay attention to the amazing transformation that is going on with the economic power of Hispanics.”
Because of this branding issue, businesses often don’t consider that the median US Hispanic income has grown by 21 percent in the last five years, Monteagudo acknowledges, or that over 20 percent of millennials are Hispanic. They aren’t aware that the US Hispanic GDP is $2.3 trillion and still growing significantly.
“A lot of companies are interested in investing in emerging markets—markets in Brazil or Mexico or Indonesia or Nigeria,” Monteagudo says. “Now, they’re realizing that there’s a market with the potential to grow at the same rate right here in the US.
“Hispanics are more than a consumer segment,” she emphasizes. “They’re a growth engine.”