Yai Vargas believes in the importance of legacy building. Part of the legacy she aims to leave for her community is access and education — to career development, wealth building, and financial wellness. With The Latinista, Yai does just that: A core pillar of the company, in addition to professional development, is financial education and wellness for Latinas and other women of color.
We spoke to Yai about how she’s built a company steeped in her Latina heritage and focused on women’s empowerment — and how she uses that platform to combat the significant pay gap that women of color face over the lifetime of their careers.
You founded The Latinista in 2012 — tell us a little about what sparked the idea and some of the challenges you faced in building your business. How have you shifted gears in light of COVID-19?
While working in corporate America, I realized there weren’t many Latinas attending professional development and industry conferences. When I asked my network the reason why they weren’t there, they always said, “We didn’t even know about it,” or “My organization doesn’t have the budget to send me.”
I knew for a fact these conferences were helping me find strategic mentors and had been a significant part of my career trajectory. I wanted my community to be there. So, I started The Latinista workshops to share what I was learning at the conferences — I made myself the messenger and also brought in subject matter experts.
My biggest challenge building this business early on was finding space to hold monthly workshops in New York City. But technology and the recent work-from-home structure has actually had one positive impact for our Latinista community: We’re now able to develop, present, and record all our professional development content online, so it can be seen by members anywhere on their own time. Going virtual has given me the opportunity to expand my workshops across the world, which is certainly a silver lining.
Your platform helps women build career and leadership skills. What are some of the barriers Latina and Hispanic women face in career development? How can these challenges be addressed?
From a cultural perspective, some Latinas are raised to “be humble, keep your head down, and work really hard — eventually, your work will get noticed.” This way of being in the corporate space oftentimes hinders their ability to speak up in meetings and stand out against the competition.
Being bilingual also challenges their ability to communicate freely and authentically — they don’t realize that being bilingual is a superpower. With that skill, they can help an organization create programs in Spanish, as well as gain market share in the industry. My workshops use cultural context to improve their executive presence, authenticity, confidence, and public speaking skills.
You’ve really woven your heritage into a pillar of your company. What advice would you give to women of color who are pursuing business ventures of their own?
When I left corporate America, I wasn’t sure how long it would take me to build a sustainable business with consistent revenue. I always tell women to make sure they have as little debt as possible and at least a year and a half of living expenses in savings before launching. I do realize that’s a big number, but when coronavirus hit this year, I was able to have peace of mind paying my bills for all those months without consistent income. This gave me the ability to focus on working with the right clients — instead of having to take on every client because I needed the income.
For every dollar white, non-Hispanic men are paid, white women are paid 79 cents, while Hispanic women are paid 54 cents. You stress the importance of women talking about money to face the pay gap head on. How do you address the pay gap with the women in your workshops in terms of their own careers?
This is a topic I focus a large part of my programs around. One of the reasons why we’re left behind in pay equity is because we never grew up talking about money or income at the dinner table. It was a taboo thing and still is.
My workshop members are concentrated in large cities and within high-earning industries. Even though they make a substantial income, that doesn’t transition into investments and long-term planning. The access to investment planning information is one of the ways I’m working on closing that wealth gap. Another way we work to close this gap is teaching women ways to research and articulate our value and what we bring to the table when negotiating for a position or salary.
The pay gap widens for women of color as they progress in their careers, which further exacerbates the wealth gap between them and their white counterparts. Do you have any words of wisdom for women who aspire to hold senior positions but may feel discouraged by the barriers?
Absolutely! Something I always tell women striving for leadership roles is to look for an executive coach to help guide their mobility strategy — someone with whom they can have some really honest conversations and who themselves have been in leadership positions. Doing a self-introspective assessment on achievements to date, as well as understanding what tools and resources are needed to get to the next level are also key.
What advice would you give to companies that are working to help break down racial barriers?
The first step in this work is to listen — to create programs where your entire focus and intent is to just listen to the experiences of your diverse employees. The second step is creating an anonymous survey that gathers information on you how you can best start building programs for their professional development.
Companies and brands are promising a lot of change right now. What are you hoping to see companies do to deliver on that change?
I’m honestly hoping they start changing their diverse hiring practices. They need to look outside of their usual local university scope or competitors and start including professionals that have transferable skills. An organization shouldn’t be looking for someone that fits into their culture — they should be looking for someone that adds to their culture. We need to start doing that without a biased lens.
Yai Vargas is the founder of The Latinista, a national network for Latinas and women of color invested in professional development and career mobility. Today The Latinista offers a series of skill-building, activity driven, hands-on sessions, specifically designed to help identify and sharpen career and business skills required to achieve professional goals. The Latinista has chapters in New York City, Chicago, Miami, and California.
Yai is also a career and diversity strategist. She helps organizations develop engaging programming focused on career and leadership development. With a background in multicultural marketing and communications, Yai is a natural-born community builder and is known as the networking and LinkedIn Ninja.
Yai has led the Financial Women’s Association Emerging Leaders Network of New York, worked to develop money investing workshops for women with Ellevest, spoken on Yahoo Finance, and featured in MakersMoney, as well as Forbes for her work in Latina Equal Pay Day. She also works in partnership with organizations like Luminary, WE NYC and The Financial Gym.
The views, information, or opinions expressed are solely those of the individuals involved and do not represent those of Ally Bank.