Rosa J. Nuñez has found her calling: building out high-performing, high-impact diversity, equity, and inclusion (DE&I) programs. Nuñez, who currently serves as director of diversity, equity, and Inclusion at law firm Foley Hoag LLP, says that her experience immigrating to the United States from the Dominican Republic as a teenager entering her senior year of high school molded her into someone who intimately understands how imperative it is for everyone to feel like they truly belong.
After building strategic DE&I programs from scratch at multiple organizations, Nuñez entered the legal industry in 2019 when she came on board at Foley Hoag. That industry, she notes, has fallen short and has a long way to go in its efforts to embrace DE&I. But Nuñez is helping Foley Hoag lead the pack and ensure that DE&I is more than an HR initiative—in fact, they’re making it a business focus.
Understanding the Challenge
To understand what Nuñez brings to her role, it’s imperative to examine where she came from. Nuñez’s mother immigrated to the US in an effort to provide a better life for her family, and Nuñez joined her in upstate New York when she turned eighteen.
“I was a senior at a predominately white high school where few people looked like me and where I had absolutely no point of reference,” Nuñez remembers. “I was not only an immigrant but a teenager, struggling to find my place and identity in a culture that I knew nothing about while trying to pursue my dreams. I always knew I wanted to be someone in life, but at that moment, the odds were stacked against me.”
Nuñez was determined to make the most of the opportunities around her, but she faced challenges nonetheless. From not speaking or understanding English well to trying to fit in with others in her class, more often than not, Nunez felt isolated, different, and excluded. “It was a horrible experience. There’s no other way to say it,” Nuñez says. “But because I didn’t allow my then circumstances to impact the dreams and goals I had set out for myself, I was able to finish the year on the honor roll. I won the PTA scholarship and earned a great scholarship to attend Marymount College of Fordham University—all in one year! ”
Nuñez’s personal journey has made her acutely aware of the struggles of those who feel somehow “other-ized” in a dominant culture, and the sheer number of challenges she overcame just to put herself on something resembling an equal playing field have motivated her to help tear down such obstacles for others.
More than HR
Nuñez has been in the DE&I space long enough to have watched the scope of the role change and evolve. While DE&I corporate programs originally focused mostly on meeting quotas around gender and race, she explains, many organizations have now embraced DE&I as a business priority and implemented a more holistic approach by broadening the definition of what diversity means. They are expanding their focus to include sexual orientation, gender identity, disabilities, and socioeconomic background.
“However, this evolution hasn’t gotten us far enough,” Nuñez notes. “We’re working to undo systemic issues that have been present for hundreds of years. But it has definitely helped the work shift from being an HR afterthought program into more of a business strategy with organizations large and small appointing DE&I professionals to guide and lead the change. It’s not just the Fortune 500 focusing on these issues anymore.”
While Nuñez never imagined she’d be working in the legal industry, she says she fell in love with the firm’s commitment to DE&I when she interviewed at Foley Hoag, and she knew she couldn’t pass up the chance to do what she does best. “This has been a chance to build a path where there was formerly nothing, and to help lead the journey,” she says. “I’ve been entrusted with a blank canvas, and that’s what truly energizes me.”
Collecting DE&I data, building awareness, and beginning to build out a strategy all require a significant amount of heavy lifting, and Nuñez says it’s imperative for those embarking on this journey to understand that if there is no buy-in from the organization, the work is ultimately pointless.
“The real challenge in building these programs is to find a way where the work feels owned by everyone,” she explains. “Embedding diversity, equity, and inclusion into the DNA of an organization takes a village as well as a lot of time, effort, and intentionality.”
This work isn’t for the faint of heart, Nuñez says. She herself admits that being the focal point of change can be a taxing and tiring task. “But what continues to motivate me is that I’ve been given the space in a room to advocate for folks who aren’t here,” she says, “and that I’ve been given the opportunity to revise and recommend policies and practices for the benefit of those who have been most impacted historically.”
Creating Generational Change
Many of the people whom Nuñez helps today remind her of her younger self. Her efforts include providing access to job interviews to students from underrepresented backgrounds who likely would have been overlooked by more traditional recruiting methods. “This can change someone’s entire trajectory,” says the director. “By doing this, we are creating the potential for generational change.”
In 2021, Nuñez and Foley Hoag’s DE&I efforts resulted in its most diverse summer associate class in history as a direct result of the firm’s commitment to widening its recruitment efforts, which it did so as to attract the best and most diverse talent in the industry. According to Nuñez, the firm has also increased the number of spots for its Charles Beard Diversity Fellowship Program to support more students of underrepresented backgrounds. Thanks to these and other initiatives, Nuñez has been able to build a strong DE&I team since coming on board in 2019.
“I have very talented people working with me to help drive this change,” she remarks. “We’re relentless in our pursuit of making Foley Hoag the most diverse, equitable, and inclusive workplace in the industry.”
Rosa J. Nuñez has built many D&I programs and initiatives from scratch, and she uses that expertise as a member of the INROADS National Board of Directors. INROADs, she explains, is a nonprofit organization founded in 1970 to address the lack of people of color in corporate America.
“INROADS was one of the first organizations to start doing this work with intentionality,” she says. “Being a member of the INROADS National Board of Directors has given me so much insight into what’s working, what isn’t working, and how organizations can effectively continue to help and support equity efforts.”