Silvia Rocha-Espino had her whole life planned out. The young student had just graduated with a degree in psychology from the Universidad de las Américas Puebla in her native Mexico.
A desire to help people with mental health disorders compelled her to start masters-level studies in clinical psychology. Maybe she would take a job in an established clinic or even open her own practice. But then, she attended a social event, and everything changed.
What happened? “Destiny intervened,” Rocha-Espino explains. That day, fate took the form of a business owner she met at the reception. After the two hit it off, the owner shared that he needed some new people on his management team.
“Have you ever thought about HR?” he asked, insisting she come in for a job interview. Rocha-Espino had never considered HR or even a career in business, but she liked the owner and she needed a job to continue her education and settle in Monterrey, Mexico, a brand-new city for her.
The next day, Rocha-Espino went to the interview, landed the job, and immediately fell in love with human resources. More than twenty years later, she’s leading the people and culture department at Watkins Wellness, the world’s largest hot tub manufacturer.
Despite the unexpected pivot, it’s hard to separate Rocha-Espino’s personality and life experience from her work. Before shifting to HR, she was an intern at a rural clinic for abused women. She later taught elementary students. “You’re not just in a classroom to teach ABCs, but you build trust and influence and help how children grow and develop,” she says.
Rocha-Espino continues to look for ways to help those around her. She had that opportunity in her first job, where her company employed women who lacked education and training. As she built basic selection, hiring, development, and retention methods, she implemented processes and protocols designed to include and elevate minority candidates and employees with nontraditional backgrounds.
Five years at Honeywell International Inc showed Rocha-Espino more about how to scale robust HR practices and taught her what it means to be a good business partner. She completed an MBA in global management, and in 2014, the company moved her from Mexico to Phoenix, Arizona, where she assumed lead responsibilities for over six hundred employees.
After six more years climbing the ranks of leading organizations in aerospace and healthcare, Rocha-Espino was ready for a new challenge. She joined Watkins Wellness in 2021 to build upon a strong talent foundation and align new HR strategies to the company’s overall vision and strategy.
“Culture is one of our competitive advantages, and I am part of a wonderful team here that works to find new ways to make a great company even better,” she says.
“The Watkins Way” sets the tone. It’s a guiding ethos that helps employees and customers understand that the company aims to be ethical, transparent, safe, accountable, passionate, and accommodating. It also talks about strong relationships, team players, and a healthy work/life balance.
While the Watkins Way already featured three lines about diversity, equity, and inclusion, Rocha-Espino says her department is working to create awareness of what the terms mean and the potential they can unlock within the organization. She’s been busy hosting DEI workshops, creating a DEI council, and coaching leaders about the expectations of candidates.
“I tell our leaders that DEI isn’t about changing their beliefs or feelings towards members of an underrepresented community. It’s about how our candidates and employees feel about our organization and whether they feel respected, supported, and advocated for at Watkins,” she says.
The Vista, California, company currently has about three thousand employees in seven locations worldwide. Everyone in HR works hard to localize and adapt all training materials, messages, and resources for each employee population.
Additionally, Rocha-Espino is always on the lookout for other women she can help, coach, or mentor. She invites younger HR professionals into high-level meetings to give them exposure to C-suite executives and other leaders.
Like other empathetic HR leaders, Rocha-Espino thinks a lot about how to guide her workforce and her company through hard times. “Everyone is doing less with more, and everyone is facing challenges,” she says. “Our job is to do what we can to help and support as many people as we can.”
For Rocha-Espino, communication is the first step. She instructs everyone within the people and culture department to get as close as they can to the business colleagues so they can really understand business nuances and changes in strategy. At the same time, they use informal and formal means to check in with employees to ensure all HR programs are working as intended.
Destiny may have helped put Rocha-Espino on the path to the American dream but achieving it has required both tenacity and persistence. She’s had her foreign credentials questioned, she’s been underestimated, and she’s had to make her way in a new country without the luxury of having friends or family nearby to help her raise her child.
She knows all too well what it’s like to feel “too Mexican” in the US and “too American” in Mexico. Still, she’s turned the chance she found into a beautiful and fulfilling career. Rocha-Espino knows others can do the same.
“Finding the American dream isn’t as easy as some people think,” she says. “It takes courage, resilience and patience . . . but I’m living proof that it can be done.”