Embracing Challenges, Building Confidence, and the Power of Sudor

McDonald’s Chief Communications Officer and Atrevida, Sandy Rodriguez shares her journey on navigating cultural differences, overcoming self-doubt, and surrounding oneself with inspiración.

NB: How, as a Latina, has your background played into your work?

SR: I’m a daughter of immigrants, born and raised in Chicago. My parents came to the U.S. when my mom was 16 and my dad was 18. My mom was pregnant with me and they had decided that they wanted to start a new life in the U.S. I owe everything I am today to them and to that decision. I didn’t learn any English until about second grade. I was the only child for 10 years and then had a sister and a brother who came 10 and 17 years later. 

The fact that my parents are immigrants, and I grew up in an immigrant community, was great and has benefited my work tremendously; that’s a gift that I’d like to give to my children. I grew up with individuals who knew we had to work hard to make sure that we could just get through the door because doors weren’t automatically open for us. We saw the sacrifices that our parents had to make so we could be here.  We knew we had to fight to make every day worth their sacrifice.

NB: Tell us about your career journey. How did you get your first job? And how did you manage to get where you are now?

SR: My first job was when I was still a student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. I was trying to figure out who I was and what I was going to do next. I wanted to be a reporter, and that’s what I was determined to be, so I just started writing letters everywhere. I wrote letters to Latina Magazine, which had just come out at that time, the LA Times, and others.

I also wrote a letter to La Raza, which is a community newspaper based here in Chicago, about my parents and going to Madison, and the editor called me back and said, “You know what? Because you had the courage to write me a letter and tell me your journey, I want you in my newspaper.”

So that was my first job, and it was hard. It was a weekly publication. Mondays are when we put the paper to bed, so from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m. I was there, just going through the stories. Those days felt pretty intense as our editor would be reading through our stories. We all sat right outside of his office. He had an office with glass windows, so we could see when he was reading our stories. 

I remember a time when he got to my story and shouted my name. When I walked into his office, he had a printout of the story and said, “Did you write this?” and stared at me for the longest time. That particular time, I knew he didn’t like the story. As I stood in front of him,  he took the printout of my story, crumbled it up, and threw it at me. I remember he had a little mini-toilet he would flush in moments like this and say, “That’s what I thought of your story. Go do it again.” It was horrible. I remember going back to my desk and questioning if I was going to make it in that world and if I had what it takes to be a writer.

But it also built me up; it made me tough. I was so determined to make him proud. 

And I did. I worked really hard and had many more moments like that, but eventually, I got a story on the front page. I did a series on undocumented farm workers and the conditions that they were working under. That was such a proud moment. I can still see him holding up a printout of my story and saying, “This is good, and it’s going to be on the front page.” My dad still has a copy of that story. 

NB: What challenges did you face to get to one of the highest-ranked jobs, especially for a Latina at McDonald’s, one of the biggest corporations in the world?

SR: One of the first things that comes to mind is that I was the first in my family to graduate from college. No one in my family had worked for corporate America. I had no idea what it meant to work for corporate America. I always wanted to be a reporter or work in a nonprofit organization. And then I found myself in a corporation where no one else looked like me. 

I remember when people would talk about culture, I thought they were talking about what it meant to be Latina, but they were talking about corporate culture. I had no one to show me the way and when I was looking for people who looked like me and could give me some advice, I couldn’t find them. It was tough. 

I questioned a lot about how I showed up. I didn’t have confidence in what I had to say. Growing up, my mom would always say, “You have to be polite. You have to make sure that you’re not the first to speak. You have to let other people speak.” I had to learn how to overcome some of those learnings, as those expectations at home were very different from what I wanted and needed to be in corporate America. So that took me some time.

What helped me overcome that was encountering individuals who were kind enough to give me feedback, pointing stuff out to me, and investing in me. Like the president of a pharmaceutical company I worked for who made it possible for me to get my MBA at Kellogg. She saw something in me and because of her, the company sponsored me. 

I also tended to look at other people and compare myself, always thinking I needed to be less like me and more like someone else. That started to change when a leader of the company pulled me aside and said, “You keep looking to other people for the wrong reasons. You need to look in the mirror.”  That taught me to look at others to see what things I could learn from them, which was ultimately looking to be the best version of myself. That takes a lot of time and a lot of work. 

I’m still working on myself. I’m here today but two years ago I didn’t think that I had a story that was worth sharing. It wasn’t until I talked to people like you, Natalie, who said, “You have to tell your story because you might inspire someone else.” It is a journey, finding yourself and working on being that better version of yourself. It’s so important to surround yourself with people who are going to inspire you and push you.

NB: ¿Suerte o sudor? What percentage do you attribute your success to in terms of luck vs. hard work?

SR: I would definitely say a lot of sudor. 

I think about the different jobs that I’ve had, the late nights, the intensity, and being Latina, there weren’t many people like me. I always felt like I had to prove myself, and go in and deliver a little more. 

I always thought a lot about the sacrifice that my parents made and I really wanted to make it worth it for them. I couldn’t count on luck. Of course, when the president of Takeda said, “Hey, we want to invest in you,” that was luck. But I think that came because she saw how hard I worked. I was very fortunate that we got to work together, but I don’t think it would have happened if I hadn’t given all that sudor and worked as hard as I did.

NB: Is there any last piece of advice that you want to share?

SR: As hard as it may be, stop looking to be the best version of someone else. Be the best version of you. While important to understand what you need to work on, also spend time knowing your strengths and learn how to speak about them and when they come in handy. 

Finally, I always think it’s important to remember what sacrifices someone had to make to allow you to be where you are. Let that serve as motivation so that you don’t waste any opportunity to make their sacrifice worth it.