Ana Rodriguez

Ana Rodriguez ’03

Prepared to Lead

Ana Rodriguez and the SMU Cox Latino Leadership Initiative are breaking down barriers and reversing the trend for Latino leaders – one promotion at a time

Passionate.

No other word is used more frequently to describe Ana Rodriguez '03, managing director of the SMU Cox Latino Leadership Initiative.

Spend a day in her office at SMU Cox School of Business, and you’ll see just how much passion fuels this Dallas native, community bridge-builder, business executive leadership adviser to some of the nation’s largest companies, spouse and mother of three school-age daughters.

Rodriguez is a boots-on-the-ground, grassroots difference-maker. She mentors 26 students, who frequently Zoom in before class to pick her brain for business and leadership advice – or just to confide in her when life gets hard.

“Ana is the right person at the right time with the drive and tenacity to make the difference we and our business partners need,” says Shane Goodwin, associate dean of executive education and graduate programs at the Cox School. “She is absolutely a force of nature.”

As the head of the Latino Leadership Initiative (LLI) – the nation’s only executive education program dedicated to the professional advancement of Latinos – Rodriguez helps students and executive-level employees from minority backgrounds transform their lives and careers. The program also helps more than 40 companies – like AT&T Communications, State Farm, and Walmart – retain and develop C-suite talent, so they don’t miss out on the market value and cultural perspective that Latino professionals bring to the workplace.

“Ana is the right person at the right time with the drive and tenacity to make the difference we and our business partners need.”

As of 2020, Latinos make up over 18% of the population, yet they represent less than 3% of executive-level positions in the United States. By 2025, one out of every two workers entering the U.S. workforce will be Latino, according to a report by the Society for Human Resource Management and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute, and in light of this trend, companies are looking to Rodriguez and LLI for guidance to nurture Latino talent.

Without executive Latino leadership, Rodriguez says, companies are unlikely to fully capitalize on the $2.3 trillion in buying power that Latinos currently hold. Research from the Center for Talent Innovation shows that companies with one or more executives who represent a particular culture are 158% more likely to understand consumers from that same culture.

“The business case for why it’s important to invest in minority talent, especially Latino talent, has been made,” says Rodriguez. “Now there’s an opportunity to work with both companies and their internal talent to see how they can take advantage and really leverage a robust minority talent leadership pipeline.”

Learning what it takes to achieve success

Rodriguez knows firsthand what it’s like to struggle to gain a foothold in the U.S. executive world – and what it takes to achieve success.

Born in the Bachman Lake neighborhood of Dallas, Rodriguez spoke exclusively Spanish as a child. She was raised by a single mother from Peru, and her father is from Mexico. Nuns at her small Catholic elementary school taught her English, which she spoke at school, and she continued to speak Spanish at home. She earned a scholarship to attend Ursuline Academy, one of Dallas’s premier private schools for girls.

“I never felt like I fit in,” she says. “I wasn’t white, and I wasn’t rich. But through that whole entire time, I met some incredible teachers that really taught me how to find my own voice.”

As an SMU student, Rodriguez says she had to dig deep to balance family expectations and cultural dynamics with the stress of working full time and taking a full load of college classes. Simple obstacles like having to go to the library because she didn’t have a personal computer made life far more complicated. Communicating with professors required crossing personal and cultural boundaries that would pave the way for a lifetime of building bridges.

“I’ve always been the outsider – the person that just never really fit in – which is why I love what I do now at SMU Cox. The work we do at LLI is all about how to find power in feeling like an outsider – how to make sure you know that you’re adding value even though you’re different than everyone else. That’s what corporate America needs right now.”

“I was used to being a wallflower. I never wanted to speak up,” says Rodriguez. “As soon as I realized that it would help others, that’s when I was more inclined to say something. If I spoke up, maybe professors would think about other students that don’t have the same background.”

With growing confidence and a ferocious work ethic, she became one of the youngest assistant vice presidents of Bank of America at just 25 years old. She quickly discovered that her outsider perspective and cultural background were not qualities she needed to suppress, but were instead some of her most valuable professional assets.

“I’ve always been the outsider – the person that just never really fit in – which is why I love what I do now at SMU Cox. The work we do at LLI is all about how to find power in feeling like an outsider – how to make sure you know that you’re adding value even though you’re different than everyone else. That’s what corporate America needs right now.”

Tracking progress one promotion at a time

The SMU Cox Latino Leadership Initiative approaches career advancement for Latinos through the lens of cultural awareness. Research indicates that Anglo-American values such as individualism, self-expression and “bigger is better” tend to dominate workplaces without diverse leadership. Companies that nurture Latino talent can add to their workplaces traditional Latino values, which experts describe as family-first, sacrificial, and with a stronger emphasis on modesty and listening.

Recognizing a deficiency in their company culture, businesses are now sponsoring their recently promoted Latino managers for a one-week program called Rising Latino Leaders that helps the managers see how their cultural identities can advance business objectives – and become a strength that helps them achieve further promotion in the future.

Other businesses pay for employees to participate in LLI’s signature offering, the Corporate Executive Development Program. Participants receive intense business education over nine months with seasoned, acclaimed faculty.

LLI carefully tracks the career progress of its program participants, and reports that 85% of those in the corporate executive development program achieve an additional promotion. Of those who participate in LLI’s program for first-time managers, 92% earn a promotion – nearly 80% within 18 months of completing the program.

The participants say it’s the hard work of internal preparation – beginning with a 360-degree review – that empowers them to transform their career trajectories. They leave the program with a deep sense of validation and confidence that equips them to be the leaders that they desire and their companies need.

LLI carefully tracks the career progress of its program participants, and reports that 85% of those in the corporate executive development program achieve an additional promotion. Of those who participate in LLI’s program for first-time managers, 92% earn a promotion – nearly 80% within 18 months of completing the program.

“You gain an awareness of aspects of your culture that may hold you back or uniquely position you ahead of things for your company,” says one participant in the executive program. “You develop a network of peers in other companies and realize you’re not alone. You’re positioned to make contributions to your organization and its business.”

Preparing future leaders begins in middle school

Despite their unprecedented success, Rodriguez and the LLI team aren’t resting on their laurels. That’s why LLI invites middle and high schoolers to the SMU campus for tours led by current college students. They also pair young Latinos with mentors who help them build the self-confidence they need to succeed in college and launch their professional careers.

“We really want to make sure that our students are future-prepared,” says Goodwin, who oversees the 15 degree programs at Cox and regularly communicates with major corporate partners about the skills they look for in college graduates. “The sooner we get to those students, like in high school, the easier they land into a university. It’s critical that we get to them much, much sooner.”

For Rodriguez, everyone has a role to play in moving young Latino professionals forward. “No matter where you are in the pipeline, you help,” she says. “You get rid of all of these barriers by helping those that come right after you.”

At LLI, Rodriguez adds, “We help companies encourage minority employees to find their voices and just be authentic, rather than to assimilate. I fell in love with that mission.”