I grew up in Houston, where my father owned Arthur Murray Dance Studio franchises, in addition to Baton Rouge, Miami, Mexico City, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. I was actually born in San Juan, where we lived until I was four. My first language was Spanish, and I remember loving the wonderful culture there. My father is from Truxillo, Spain, and it is fun having a maiden name that originates from a small city! Our ancestors settled in Baton Rouge during the Louisiana Purchase, where they married Acadian-French settlers from France, and the Cajun ethnicity was born.
I was the first person in my immediate family to go to college. I attended Southern Nazarene University, where my goal was to be a businesswoman. I also knew that I wanted to be self-reliant and never depend on anyone. Graduating with high marks was also important, and I ended up cum laude with a degree in business administration. I always had straight A’s, and it wasn’t a stretch for me to do well, but my family was very proud of me.
Though I’ve now been in the health-care industry for over 28 years, I fell into the field by accident. Right out of college I found a job running the employee benefits at 3D/International, an architectural firm in Houston. In 1983, I was speaking with an account executive from Maxicare Texas, and asked if she liked her career. I expressed confidence in entering the sales field, and Maxicare gave me the opportunity to learn the industry, travel, lead a sales team, and run a profitable business. I opened health plans in three other cities, and was the youngest executive to be promoted to vice president in the history of the company at 29 years old.
Health care appealed to me because it was a field that was open to women; it wasn’t the “good ol’ boy” kind of culture. I also enjoyed helping people and mentoring up-and-comers and teams of people with diverse backgrounds. One of my mentors, Rita Duarte from Health Net, was a Latina businesswoman who taught me about self-confidence and leading other women by example.
Since starting with WellPoint three years ago, I have tripled the amount of business that I manage. In 2008, I started with WellPoint and managed a million lives. Now I lead an organization that manages 3.4 million lives, and 4,414 customers, with almost $12 billion in premiums. I work six days a week for over 75 hours, but I love it and I love my team.
The challenges that I’ve faced along the way are the same that many women of any heritage would face, Latina or otherwise. The glass ceiling is always present, and gender has even more to do with discrimination than heritage or race. Although women have a long way to go—only four percent of CEOs in America are women—we are making great strides in the fields of finance, law, and science. Women have accelerated their positions in the management ranks, and are becoming a more representative presence in the boardrooms of America. With great role models like Angela Braly, WellPoint’s CEO, and Pam Kehaly, the president of Anthem Blue Cross in California (WellPoint’s largest health plan), women of all diverse backgrounds see what is possible if we speak confidently about our vision and the value we can bring to any organization.