Being Adventurous, Adaptable and Atrevida

Sandra López, distinguished tech executive and media advisor, chats about how our culture is embedded in who we are and how to seize your moment.

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

SL: First, I would like to thank you and Atrévete for all of the work you do so that we can be both seen and heard. I love the theme of the podcast Atrévete because that theme embodies my life.

As such, it is such an honor to be here and talk about my background and my journey with regard to accepting my nationality because there’s a story behind that.

I’m a first generation Mexican American, both mi papá y mi mamá son de México. I was born in Silicon Valley, and now I work in Silicon Valley. Full circle.

I had a passion for the fashion industry. And while fashion shapes society and culture, unless you’re the creative director, the power that you have to shape is meaningless. The creative directors are the ones really setting the trends and the stage for their brand and for what their brand stands for. Look at what Allesandro Michele was able to accomplish at Gucci in the last eight years.

What a turnaround story. And while I loved fashion, I realized quickly going into my professional career that I was much more fascinated with industries that shape society and culture. Growing up in Silicon Valley I took some software engineering courses and having technology in my backyard I thought to myself, “I want to be part of that movement. I want to be part of technology.” Because I knew back then, in the late nineties, that it was gonna change how we will forever live.

And now we are here today and we’ve seen how much technology has changed our world, both for the good and for the bad. So I’m here, I am a proud Latina and, as I mentioned earlier, accepting my biculturalism was a journey. For most of my life, I hid that I was Mexican-American. I could walk in the room and unless you knew my last name, I could be Italian, I could be caucasian because of my skin tone, etc.

I hid a lot because I grew up in a middle-class neighborhood being one of the few minorities, and people always made assumptions about my family that were never true and I got treated differently.

In California back in the eighties, there was affirmative action happening and a lot of underrepresented individuals got into college because of their ethnicity. Many people assumed that I got into college not because of my hard work and my intellect, but because of my ethnicity. I got into college based on my own merit, and I really felt for many years of my childhood and evolving into adulthood that my nationality was going to hold me back.

So I hid, went into corporate America, tried to be one of the guys, played golf, and dressed in suits, and I also tried to hide my ethnicity. I did everything I possibly could to fit in.

And then Ernie Felix, a coworker at Intel asked me a life-changing question in 2006. He asked me: “What does it feel like to be a Latina in corporate America?” and I didn’t know what he meant. I never made my identity an issue. I never participated in an employee resource group. I never really leaned into the community, but that question bothered me for several months and one day I realized why.

For 33 years of my entire life, I was masquerading, I hid who I was and who I was destined to be. So, I went on a three-year journey of uncovering and really getting to know who Sandra Lopez is, and realizing that the fact that I’m Mexican-American is an asset to corporate America because I can see things from a bicultural standpoint.

I can see things from a diverse perspective and I can appreciate diversity and different experiences. I represent, as a woman, 50% of the population. I also represent a community that is essential to today’s economy, the new mainstream economy. We, as Latinos, contribute over $700 billion annually to the economy.

Once I accepted my ethnicity and who I was and leveraged that as an asset so I can represent my community, my career took off. It’s a wonderful yet painful story, in terms of my trajectory from rejection to acceptance and realizing why we try to fit in.

When we are born, we were all different. Accept your difference because that’s your contribution to society.

NB: What advantage do you think we have as Latinos to disrupt the collective zeitgeist?

SL: Being Latino is a superpower, and all those negative traits that we are associated with in terms of being a Latina or Latino or Latinx, I lean into those because it’s those exact traits that got me to where I am today. The Latino passion is what accelerates businesses, because we’re so committed.

We’re helping our economy. We’re helping our culture and the American culture understand how important our community is to the economy to keep it going. We contribute $700 billion annually.

This year at L’Attitude, Barack Obama made this point that made me laugh, but it’s so real. He said: “If Corporate America does not know who Bad Bunny is then they have something coming for them. They’ve already lost the game.” And we as Latinos, Latinas and Latinx have the obligation to reach out to the non-Latinos, Latinos, Latinx and help them understand the opportunity that resides for them within businesses, within society and within culture.

We are influencing society and culture. You are starting to see some Latinos get into corporate positions and boards of directors, so I do believe our time is now. There are enough stats to prove that people should be paying attention to us, and we have the responsibility to help educate, evangelize and drive action.

NB: What is the biggest risk you’ve had pay off in your career?

SL: This is a lesson that I always like to share with the future generation. The IT (information technology) society will tell us that big teams and big budgets equal power and influence, and there was a moment in my career when I had a big budget and a big team. Then the guidance from my leadership team was to go from that to a team of one and build out new businesses.

And in corporate structures, that makes people wonder what happened. The water cooler conversations started. People had all these associations and perceptions of what it meant for me to move from a team to being an individual contributor. When, in reality, I decided to explore new business.

I didn’t really know exactly the role that I was going into; it was very ambiguous. But I knew that I was a builder and a creator, and if I had the vision of what my senior leadership wanted me to do, I could run with it, and I did.

It gave me the opportunity to go work with the business units. And in that scenario, I learned that I had other muscles that I never knew existed. I had the capability of driving business development. I was really leaning into the driving of P&L. So I went from a pure marketing role to eventually becoming a general manager of a business.

If I hadn’t pivoted from a large business to a team of one that eventually grew to a business unit, I would have never uncovered a capability that I didn’t realize existed within me; and I really learned what my true passion was: ‘the creation of, the transformation of.’

I could’ve let all that noise, all of those assumptions, be a significant setback and I could have just thrown in the towel and walked away. But I didn’t let that happen, because I know my life story and I am in control.

That was a credit to my parents, as my dad had many setbacks. I saw him when he had a massive stroke. I saw him have accidents in his career as a horse jockey, and I saw him get up and keep going. He always used to tell me: “Nobody will stop you, but yourself. If you have the passion and the drive, no matter how bad the situation is, you can move yourself forward.”

So I just moved forward and it is one of my greatest career moments.

At that time, it didn’t seem like it was a gift, but it was one of the greatest gifts in my life. So I always like to tell people, don’t get so overwhelmed with societal norms or corporate norms. It’s okay to kind of break the rules. In fact, breaking the rules is pretty good, as long as you do it with kindness and respect.

The universe always has a plan for you, and you might not know exactly what it is. It took me three years, and now I know why all that had to happen for me to be here now.

NB: What was your ‘ponte las pilas’ moment?

SL: There are so many to reference. I’ve had many setbacks.

When people question who you are, misrepresent you and misdiagnose you, it’s hard not to take it personally and think “maybe they’re right” and then you begin to sabotage yourself.

And what I’ve recently learned is that if you have a clear vision of who you are and what your purpose is, you have to lean into that no matter how much ugly is on the other side.

Like you, Natalie, you have a platform, and not everybody would agree with you. You can hear the good and the bad, and as much as you wanna lean into the good, you also lean into the bad so that you can understand different perspectives. But they can be hard to swallow.

Some people refer to me as the AOC (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) of tech, and it could be interpreted in many different ways. For some people, that’s a good representation because you’re trying to drive change. And for others, which was the way in which the person meant it, you’re too loud. And to that, I say “Yes, I am loud because I will not be silenced”.

These moments are hard to digest; I was upset for like a week. And I admire AOC for her ability to challenge the systems that are in place that do not allow us to progress. She communicates with facts and data and you don’t have to agree with her politics, but the fact that she’s willing to speak up and not be afraid to really lean into her power is something that I admire.

So a week later I thought: “That is the greatest compliment he could ever give me.” I just turned it into something positive and I was all in. So, you want to call me AOC of tech? Thank you. It is such an honor because of who she is and what she stands for, so I love it.

So for me, it’s those moments of ‘sudor.’ Stay true to who you are. Don’t let those gremlins that are going to come after you take you down or silence you. You keep on doing what you were meant to do on this planet, and that is to try to continue to open the doors so that the next generation has all the opportunities.

Some things are absolutely wrong in corporate America. You know, we’re not seeing us represented at the C-level or in boards of directors. That is the 1% that influences society, and yet we contribute significantly to our economy.

I hope that I’m fortunate enough to live long enough to see a kaleidoscope of individuals at the C-suite and boards of directors. Latinos, Blacks, people with disabilities, people with ADHD, multi-nationality, people from Iran. I wanna see it all because, in the United States, what makes us such a beautiful country is that we’re cosmopolitan and we have so many different ethnicities.

NB: Who is your Atrevida/o/e preferida/o/e?

SL: I am a big believer that your experiences form who you become. I would not be here if it wasn’t for my father and my mother, so both of them. My father taught me the importance of pursuing your passion no matter what.

He had a choice in his life to pursue a very affluent business with his family or pursue his passion for horses at a very young age. So he did not go to school and he pursued his passion, and you could tell that he loved it no matter what setbacks he had. He was so passionate about his vocation that he was able to overcome any obstacle.

The fact that he chose a less expected path, and a path with lots of turbulence and setbacks makes him my atrevido preferido.

My atrevida preferida is my mom because both of them came to the United States at a very young age, not speaking English, and while my father was actively pursuing his passion, my mother had to figure out infrastructure. She had to be the CEO of the household and developed the power of resilience.

I always tell her she doesn’t take enough credit, that she was so resilient. She learned how to speak English on her own, she figured out how to get her driver’s license when nobody would tell her how to do it, she came from a small little town and survived in big L.A. and big San Francisco. I admire the resilience of her not giving up one day, wanting to pack up and just go back to her small little town because she would have a safety net.

So both of them are my atrevida and atrevido preferidos, and their character traits have enabled me to become who I am today, and I’m forever grateful.

NB: Whose work right now do you find really exciting?

SL: For me it’s not a brand, it is the fearless leaders in Iran speaking up for their freedom and autonomy to be who they are born to be. That is courage, the courage to speak up. They could be examples for us in the Western world. We talk a lot about things that we’re not happy with but I have yet to see us all go out on the street and protest the way the citizens of Iran are protesting.

I’ve been reading about the gravity of what’s happening over there and it just breaks my heart. So they are my heroes because this is not just an Iran thing; this is a global thing, and I want to thank them because I do want my daughter to live in a free state. We are one world.

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

SL: I’m going to add another variable to it. Networking. Because I think it is important, especially for females.

I have always stated that 40% is your intellect. You have to show up, and as Latinos, Latinas and Latinx, we have to recognize that we have to work much harder. Because there are biases, you’re not in an equal level playing field, so you gotta work harder. Bring your intellect, and show your impact.

Then, 30% is luck. Sometimes, you just happen to be at the right place at the right moment, and in this scenario, I always tell people to say yes to the meeting. You never know how that one meeting is going to transform your life.

I like to use the example of several years ago, somebody in the World Economic Forum wanted to have coffee with me to talk about diversity and inclusion in my work. And that one meeting, a year later, led me to be a co-chair of the World Economic Forum AR|VR, which eventually led me to be a speaker at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

Imagine if I said no to that meeting., I would not have met the amazing, brilliant people trying to shape a better Web3.0. So I would say 30% luck, and that was a lucky meeting.

And then 30% is networking. Men do this well, and caucasian men do this very well. As Latinos, we put our heads down and work so hard, which I think is a great asset. Keep on doing that but also take a step back and network.

I always tell people to network in, network out and network wide. Networking is not about building deep relationships; it’s about high-level relationships in which the transaction is valuable for both. As Latinas, even as females, we try to make these relationships go deep and we don’t have to. Men don’t go deep in their business or networking relationships. They know the value that they bring to each other. You can reach out three years later and pick up from where you left off.

So I would say make sure that in your professional development career, you include networking as one of those opportunities.

NB: Is there any piece of advice you want to give someone who wants to be an Atrevida/o/e and make it?

SL: Atrévete to be who you are. That is very hard to do when society doesn’t want you to be who you are. Society wants you to put yourself in a homogeneous box and or in a classification of all these traits that misrepresent who you are. And my advice is to lean into why you were born on this planet and your purpose and let your star shine so that ultimately we create a better world.