When Fifth Third Bank welcomed Hortencia Banuelos in 2016, the company wasn’t just adding a future chief financial officer to one of its largest lines of business. Banuelos is, without pomp or exaggeration, one of the most motivated and empowering voices for Latinos in business. The senior vice president for line of business and chief financial officer of commercial finance has lived through enough worst-case scenarios of how monoculture in the corporate sector can impede the progress of minorities—or even inhibit it completely—to know the importance of diversity and inclusion.
Banuelos is used to being the only Hispanic woman in the boardroom, in the building, and in the company. It is an experience she has had several times over since moving from Juárez, Mexico, to the US in 1994. When she asked a local plant head if they employed any Hispanics, she was told there were a few on the work floor but that they were “not the kind of people” she would want to consort with.
She’s also well versed in the microaggressions that accompany a Latina assuming a leadership position in rural America. As a result, overdelivering became her default—not to prove her own worth but to try to open the eyes of her peers to the reality that Hispanics deserve the same shot at positions of leadership as anyone else.
After being hired by GE in Mexico in the ’80s, Banuelos was selected for a training program almost exclusively reserved for Ivy League graduates. “I really didn’t fit the profile,” Banuelos says, laughing. “They wanted single Americans, just out of the Ivy League. I was married, had attended a local school, and was working remotely in Mexico.” Every six months for the two-year program, she traveled to Connecticut for a weeklong test and wound up receiving an award for her high marks.
GE would go on to provide Banuelos with countless additional opportunities. But after moving to Indiana, she realized the complexities of what her heritage meant for her employment. “It’s been tough since the beginning,” Banuelos admits. “You were someone who didn’t speak the language the same as everyone else, and you could really feel the resistance at times. But when you deliver, you’re able to build the trust of your team. There were always those looks and those comments, but you just have to push through it.”
Later, Banuelos spanned two worlds for GE, acting as a financial and cultural intermediary at the US–Mexico border while also earning her Six Sigma Black Belt. “It was an explosion of two cultures, which gives you a lot of value to companies,” Banuelos says of her work on the border. “You’re used to Spanish and English; you’re used to the currency exposure and the responsibilities of working on both sides of the border.”
Throughout her career, Banuelos has pushed for more inclusion in the workplace. Now, at Fifth Third Bank, the SVP is finally seeing results. She has helped the bank lean into its diversity council, has mentored (both formally and informally) the sometimes dozens of diverse future leaders identified both within and beyond the company, and has regularly welcomed new voices, new perspectives, and new talent to the bank.
Someone to Lean On
No matter what has come her way, Banuelos has always placed a high premium on the value of mentorship. “It’s maybe my highest passion,” Banuelos says. “At one time, I was mentoring twenty-two people at once.” Banuelos’s mentees span the globe, from Switzerland to Mexico to Chicago, and the CFO still receives calls from old mentees asking for career advice and job interview pointers.
Banuelos’s focus on mentoring is partly due to the lack of representation she has seen time and time again throughout her career. “Hispanics have the highest number of entrepreneurs and small businesses,” Banuelos explains. “How do we support Hispanic business? How do we bring diversity to our business so that our people are more representative of what the actual community looks like?” The answer? Mentorship.
Banuelos says she’s extremely grateful for the opportunities she has been given at Fifth Third—not just to lead one of its largest business lines but to help the organization commit itself to diversifying its talent pipeline. “I’m so passionate about showing what Hispanics are capable of in this business,” Banuelos says. “It can be so tough initially because you feel like you have to overcome so much to earn the trust of your team, and I want to be here to give advice and help people move forward in their careers.”
Banuelos’s eight-person team, which has an equal proportion of men and women, is a reflection of that ideal. Moreover, in 2019, Banuelos was invited to be part of a panel at the Ohio Latino Summit. The panel aimed to encourage more diverse candidates in the Cincinnati area—sometimes a very challenging geographic proposition. Banuelos is also on the board for Every Child Succeeds, which sends home visitors to first-time parents for one thousand days prior to the child’s birth and through the child’s third birthday.
The CFO’s advice for future Hispanic leaders is clear and concise. “Be firm, overdeliver, and don’t take it personally.” This advice is forged in her struggle for recognition and respect, but Banuelos wants you to know she is here to help.
Editor’s Note: At the time of press, Hortencia Banuelos was no longer with Fifth Third Bank and was focusing on becoming a business professor and consulting leader.