Alicia Guevara, First Black and Latina CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of NYC, on Being an ‘Only': ‘There Was No Blueprint for My Leadership'

In 2019, Alicia Guevara made history by becoming the first female CEO of Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, the nation's first and city's largest youth mentoring program that serves 5,300 young people.

Guevara, who is Black and Latina, recognizes her CEO appointment is as historic as it is vital today to represent New York's youth given Covid's outsized impact on Black and Latino families.

Roughly 93% of young people served by BBBS of NYC identify as a person of color, with 38% identifying as Black or African American, 36% identifying as Latinx or Hispanic, 10% identifying as Asian or Pacific Islander, 8% identifying as multi-racial and 1% identifying as another racial group.

Investing in young people of color through mentorship isn't just a moral imperative, Guevara says, but crucial to developing a future workforce and leadership reflective of the people who make up the country. A recent Brookings Institution analysis of 2020 Census data shows that children of color now comprise more than half of the nation's total youth population, and youth of color will make up more than half of the nation's labor force by 2030.

Guevara says she champions investments in youth mentorship because of how it's benefited her throughout her life, starting with guidance from her parents, who immigrated to the Bronx from Cuba, as well as teachers and neighbors who supported her.

Here, Guevara, 49, shares with CNBC Make It how she confronts being an "only" in the room, the key to finding a mentor at work, her best career advice and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You're the first woman to be CEO of BBBS of NYC. What kind of impact do you hope that has?

As a woman, and as a woman of color, I'm hoping this will create access and opportunity for others. I am really clear that one of my greatest responsibilities is ensuring that I create room for others who look like me to know that this, too, is a possibility for them.

My success should never be the exception; it should be an expectation — particularly for young people across the city of New York who look like me. Eighty-two percent of young people in New York City identify as a youth of color, and not all of them have access to social capital and opportunities that will continue to shape the trajectory of their lives. That is the responsibility of leadership. And so with my appointment comes a great responsibility to ensure that their access becomes a reality.

How do you confront being the 'only' in certain spaces, especially as a leader?

I've often been in spaces where I am the only woman, the only Latina, the only Black woman in the room. What's increasingly clear is that there is no blueprint for my leadership. I've had to create the framework for myself, and one that authentically and unapologetically puts forth the values that I hold. These values are grounded in my commitment to young people and community. It's all the more reason why I'm compelled to continue to create room at the table so that I'm no longer the only one.

I was recently named to City & State's Power of Diversity: Latino Power 100 list, which was just released during Hispanic Heritage Month. While there are many accolades one receives over the course of their career, knowing that my leadership as a Latina is being recognized by the city and state is incredibly humbling, deeply gratifying and continues to motivate me to do more for tomorrow's leaders.

How can people find work that aligns with their values?

The two do not need to be mutually exclusive. I have found ways to intertwine both by leading with my passions and being uncompromising.

One of my first jobs was with Empire Blue Cross Blue Shield, the health-care corporation, through their management training program. Here was an an organization investing in its early career workforce. What mattered to me most at the time was that the company had a social mission of providing health-care coverage to all people, including those who lack access. And it was through that organization that I gained leadership and business skills that are still applicable in my work today.

My path has not been absent of mentors who have helped me to explore how I match those passions to career opportunities.

Particularly to younger professionals and professionals of color, it's important to align your work to your value set. Oftentimes, there are blueprints of success that are put before us. And the path forward may feel narrow because of those blueprints. What I urge you to consider is breaking outside of those blueprints and creating the ones that are authentically aligned with who you are.

What's the key to find a mentor at work?

Test the bounds that lie before you, whether you have access to traditional mentoring programs or not. Imagine a world that's perhaps different from the one you've been presented with, and then find yourself within that world of who you are going to be.

With that sense of clarity, then seek a mentor with whom you can confide in first draft, your thoughts, your ideas, your aspirations, someone who can guide you and with whom you can safely test those new opportunities.

What does it take to be a good mentor?

One, it takes a listening ear. Oftentimes, we are looking to solve. That's not possible unless we stop and we listen. Good mentorship requires mindfulness, being present for your mentee and truly listening to what moves and inspires them.

The second is an openness to receive reciprocal mentorship, to create a sense of vulnerability that allows you to hear and receive what your mentees are offering.

The other is a commitment to activate your network in service of your mentee, whether that network is small and intimate or broad and wide. As a mentor, you are uniquely positioned to create opportunities, access and social capital for the people you're mentoring.

How did youth mentoring change during the pandemic?

Within a span of two weeks, we completely pivoted and moved all of our mentoring programs into the virtual space. As a result, roughly 85% of our mentoring relationships remain intact.

Our bigs and littles found creative ways to connect with one another, whether it was through virtual homework help, virtual cooking, virtual museum tours, or using TikTok and video games. In this moment of isolation, when our young people were being uprooted from their school environments, they had a caring adult mentor with whom they could process the moment.

We also created training opportunities for our bigs to feel well resourced, not only with the impact of the pandemic, but also with respect to the racial recognition that was happening in our country. We had to answer: How do you help young people process what they were seeing in the media all the time?

You've said investing in youth mentorship is not just a moral imperative, but a good business move. Why is that?

Businesses aren't sure how to create mentoring opportunities or how to diversify their workforces. I would offer a couple of things.

One: Continue to invest in tried and tested mentoring programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City. Two: Engage in non-traditional recruiting. Seek out professional associations for Latinx professionals or other professionals of color. Three: Ensure corporations endorse certifications and other non-traditional paths to job readiness, and value them. And four: Really take a chance on your workforce to create opportunities anchored through mentorship and sponsorship, so that your workforce can navigate their career.

At Big Brothers Big Sisters of New York City, we run a workplace mentoring program where high-school students are mentored by employees of over 70 corporations across the city of New York, ranging in industry. It's an opportunity to explore career opportunities, to really see what skills are needed for career readiness — all anchored in the mentoring relationship.

What's your best career advice?

Push the envelope, test the bounds, go beyond what's been presented to you and really begin to explore what possibilities and opportunities may exist beyond those that are at your fingertips.

Check out:

6 powerful books to read during Hispanic Heritage Month — for yourself and your kids

How the first Hispanic woman in space dealt with 'people who didn't think I should be there'

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