NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?
MS: As a Latina, it plays into everything in my work, 110%.
I was born in Mexico City and at the age of 10, we came to the Rio Grande Valley. My mom was a teacher by trade, and my dad was an engineer, but they couldn’t do those jobs in the U.S. To survive and make a living for the family, they opened up a restaurant, and when you work in a restaurant business, it’s 24/7.
From a very early age, my parents ingrained in me that in every single role that you do, whether you’re washing dishes or mopping the floors or hosting somebody, you have to put in your 110%. You have to put in the work and the sacrifice and always be grateful for everything you have. So I think those values are very much with me in every part of my work and the way I see my work.
I’m always thinking of that experience, of the Latino experience in the U.S., and trying to bring it to the forefront. Not everyone has lived it, and I think it’s important for people to understand it. So, in the work that I do, whether it’s with the NFL or PepsiCo, or any of the other companies I’ve worked for, trying to bring forth that value that we as Latinos carry has been really important to me.
NB: How do you use your work as a vehicle to bring about change in our Latino community?
MS: I have always looked to go to companies and places that have a platform because I think it’s so important for big companies to give back. While companies exist for profit, they should be purposeful and should give back to the community that they serve.
I don’t think there’s anything bigger in terms of brands than the NFL, and coming here I feel a real sense of responsibility and obligation to take this platform and elevate our Latino voices, our LGBTQ voices, our Asian voices, the voices of any community that has been underserved and overlooked. To elevate and shine a light upon them, to instill positive change, whether it’s economic growth in those communities, education, or advancement. We have that power and therefore that responsibility.
I always say our time is now; it used to be “our time is coming.” But our time is now. The Latino community is driving this country and we’re injecting ourselves into the economy, whether it’s through our entrepreneurship or purchasing power. But most importantly to me is the power that our culture has to spread because now we’re culture creators and culture spreaders.
When you take a look at pop culture today, you see the Latino influence. Bad Bunny is the number one artist in the world, and he sings in Spanish. Ten of the top 20 most streamed songs on Spotify are Latino artists. The songs are a hidden influence across the board for this community. No one can ignore this community. It’s the future. And it’s exciting for us to finally hear that the time is here, the time is now. We have to do with that time the best that we can and hopefully elevate all of us.
NB: What is the biggest risk you’ve had pay off in your career?
MS: One of the biggest risks in my career was at PepsiCo. I was approached very late in my career by the head of PepsiCo beverages at the time to start a Hispanic business unit. He said: “We want you to start a full business unit, all Latino for Latino.” And I was very hesitant because I thought that I was being pigeonholed.
My first thought was ‘of course, you’re going to pick a Latina to go do this Latino thing’ and I’m a business leader, period. You don’t have to put Latina in front of it and put me in this job.
I was very, very hesitant and said no three times, until one of my biggest mentors, Al Carey, who was the head of all of PepsiCo North America at the time, said to me that I need to look past that because this is my chance to do something great and leave a legacy, not only at PepsiCo but for the community in general. He said, “We need somebody that deeply cares and deeply understands this community to do this, and you’re the only person that can do it.”
So, I went ahead and took the job, still hesitantly, and it was the most important job of my life and the proudest that I’ve been. I had to start a business unit from scratch, a unit that had everything from research and development to selling and marketing. But most importantly, I really understood the power of our community. I don’t think I knew it until we put together this business unit and it just took off.
We received an incredible response inside the company, from our retail partners and the external community. I’m long gone, but it’s still there. That was the biggest risk.
And now I took my second biggest risk, which was leaving a company that I so dearly love and that I was at for 18 years, to lead the NFL brand. It was one of those decisions where it truly was jumping off a cliff because why would you leave a great career and a stable thing to do something completely new? At this stage in my life and career, I just felt the calling. I feel that it’s the platform that can make such a powerful difference to the Latino community and all the other underserved communities. I just feel it’s time for me to be there, so it’s a big risk. We’ll see how it pays out.
NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?
MS: I was very young, pero me puse las pilas cuando tenía 25 años. I remember it dearly; it was actually in Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, and I was going to be in charge of my very first big advertising campaign.
We went to the agency to meet the owner and the account team and I remember walking in, with my boss, who is a man, to a room full of men. My boss introduced me as the campaign leader and the owner of the agency said, ‘Hola Marisa, nice to meet you. Meet Rosa, she’s my assistant. Why don’t you two ladies go have some coffee while we men talk business?’ I was floored and I looked at my boss because I thought he would say something and he didn’t. Y ahí fue cuando dije me tengo que poner las pilas. If I don’t say anything now, I’m never gonna say anything. So I said, “I’m not gonna have cafecito, I am going to stay in this room because it’s my campaign. I’m leading it and you guys are my agency.”
I had to claim that place. It was early in my career, but such a lesson. I tell people all the time now, especially young Latinas: nobody will give you that seat. Don’t expect it to come, because nobody’s going to give it to you. You just have to take it, and you deserve to be there. Take your place at the table and start contributing because nobody will give you the invitation, unfortunately.
NB: Who is your Atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e?
MS: There’s so many atrevidos and atrevidas. I will tell you, the very first atrevida was my grandmother. I emulate her every chance that I get because she was a very strong woman. My grandfather passed away very early, and she had to become a working woman in Mexico City. She owned a changarro and she would take me when I was very young. I loved watching her be so independent and run her business. So she was kind of my first atrevida and then over time, there have been so many.
I look at Paula Santilli who runs PepsiCo Latin America, and Ramon Laguarta, PepsiCo’s CEO. A big atrevido is Cesar Conde, who is doing amazing things at NBC and was a great mentor of mine. There are so many. I’m very, very fortunate to have a lot of atrevidas and atrevidos around me and my network because they push me, and I push them #latinasrising.
NB: Whose work right now do you find really exciting?
MS: In the world of art, Lin-Manuel Miranda, I think he’s amazing and I love the way he lifts his community with everything he does. Corporate-wise, I have always admired McDonald’s and what they do for the Latino community and how they lift our community in everything they do.
When it comes to artists, we just talked about Bad Bunny and how much I love him. I also love J Balvin. He’s launching a mental wellness app and I think that’s great.
Nike also just had a spot highlighting a Latina baseball player that was incredible. I admire either artists or companies that are doing things out there that are lifting and giving back to the community.
The last one that just blew my mind, and I’m still even trying to process it, was Patagonia and what they just did. An owner and business leader whose whole life has been dedicated to this company and, all of a sudden, he just gave all that to the earth and climate change. I think that was the biggest of statements. I don’t think we’re gonna see that very often, but my hope is that we do. I hope that he set that expectation for big corporations to do right by our community and our world.
NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work?
MS: Yo diría 90% sudor y 10% suerte. Yes, 90% sweat and 10% luck.
You need a little bit of luck because there were a couple of times in my career where it was just the gods or fate or something that made things happen, but all the rest was 90% sudor. You have to go after it. You have to work hard and you have to be relentless and resilient. Those are the two words that my parents ingrained in me: relentless and resilient. It’s not going to come to you, you have to go get it.
NB: Is there any piece of advice you want to give someone who wants to be an Atrevida/o/e and make it?
MS: I think you have to get right with the desires of your heart. It starts with your values and what you most want to give back, and once you have that right, you gotta go after it and not stop. Don’t be afraid. Don’t stop at every barrier; break through those barriers because there’ll be so many. But you have to keep going because people are right behind you. We all have an obligation to keep going and carve that path.