Step by Step

With her eye on the prize and a strategy for how to get there, Melanie Montenegro blazes her own trail to the general counsel seat at Spanish Broadcasting System

“I was always trying different things, unafraid to fail,” says Melanie Montenegro of Spanish Broadcasting System.

It all started with a lilac-colored home. Awestruck by the Victorian home, which stood in stark contrast to her family’s cozy apartment in the Brooklyn neighborhood of New York City, a nine-year-old Melanie Montenegro realized early on that she’d need to work hard to make her dreams a reality. Before this moment, Montenegro, a native of Guatemala, never thought about becoming a lawyer. There were no lawyers in her family or other high-level executives in her neighborhood to emulate. Her path had a few twists and turns, but Montenegro explains she has always been working toward a specific end. To get there, she religiously set five-year plans. Her execution of these plans led to graduating college—the first in her family—then law school, a prestigious law firm, and ultimately to Spanish Broadcasting System (SBS), the largest Hispanic-controlled public entertainment company in the United States, with media stations in the top Hispanic markets. Here, the company’s pragmatic executive vice president and general counsel, shares how having a plan, and putting it in motion, paid off.

On the Agenda
A typical workday in the life of Melanie Montenegro


7 a.m. Get my daughter ready for school

7:30 a.m. Check e-mails or get on conference calls

8–9 a.m.  Put out the pressing fires and then prioritize the day

9 – 11 a.m.  Address urgent, time-sensitive matters and attend meetings.

11–1 p.m.  Attend to securities and/or litigation deadlines.

1 – 3 p.m.  Focus on media-station matters, confirm travel arrangements, review compliance matters

3 – 3:30 p.m. Grab a quick lunch.

3:30 – 4:30 p.m. Follow up on strategy and business matters; think tank.

4:30 – 6 p.m.  Review agreements, meetings with finance and HR

6 –7 p.m.  Review finance matters, budgets, and discussions with outside counsel

7–7:45 p.m. Wrap up outstanding pressing matters

7:45 – 8:30 p.m. Commute home; get on West Coast calls or call mom

8:30 p.m.  Read to my daughter and eat dinner (accompanied by a glass of red wine and music)

I came to the United States at age four after my father passed away. My family joined the many immigrant families living in the Big Apple. We took it one day at a time, hoping to make ends meet. In this environment, I matured quickly. The oldest of five, I assumed a great deal of responsibility, often serving as a second parent to my younger siblings. I was seemingly born responsible. I had no other option but to figure “it” out.

I was always trying different things, unafraid to fail. Following my first plan, I immersed myself in school, working hard at everything: math, science, and musical instruments, always trying to get a step ahead. I remember a time where I tried to figure out how I could avoid doing science homework for the entire school year. I read the entire science textbook in a weekend. I thought I was brilliant, and that the newfound free time would allow me to give the Glee Club a try. I quickly realized that I couldn’t carry a tune. Undeterred, I looked for a new challenge to tackle.

My competitive drive propelled me past others’ doubts. My high school guidance counselor advised that I “learn a skill because I don’t think college is for you.” The discouragement only made me work harder. I enrolled in AP courses and graduated early (at the top of my class), while taking on an assortment of jobs as a way to help pay for college. I was a mannequin dresser, a waitress, even worked at a fish market. Despite my counselor’s prediction, I fulfilled my goal of being the first in my family to attend college.

I credit my upbringing for not only my tireless drive, but for my commitment to give back. I tell my siblings and those I mentor that everyone needs someone to give them a chance, to open the door, and pay it forward. I also advise my mentees to invest in themselves; don’t do something or be someone because you have to, do it because you want to. Love what you do and master it. As the general counsel, I am an integral part of both SBS’s legal and business affairs. I advise the board of directors, the company’s executives, and senior management. My role is all encompassing, from securities and governance matters, to evaluating risk, to negotiations, litigations, and settlements. I’m involved in all facets of the legal department and my responsibilities spill over into business operations. I pride myself in that our legal department is known as the “how to get it done” department, and not the “no” personnel.

While working in the entertainment business has a glamorous side, it is also a competitive business pressed with the same legal and competition issues that all major corporations face. We compete among multimedia entertainment conglomerates. The competition centers on selling advertising time. If you don’t sell the spot, it’s gone forever—a dollar isn’t made. It’s a fascinating industry. I love the company and its mission. We are here to entertain and to celebrate the Hispanic community, whether it’s playing the latest salsa or putting together a concert event featuring Shakira. With my most recent five-year plan complete, I have set my next five-year plan. Let’s see what awaits me.