Alumni / Summer 2017

DU helps foster a new generation of Latino leaders

Stella Peterson found a network of support at the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute, a program designed to elevate Colorado Latino leaders into positions of influence across sectors and industries. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

By almost anyone’s account, Stella Peterson’s story was one of success. A first-generation college graduate, entrepreneur, triathlete and mother of two, Peterson already had an impressive resumé.

But she wanted more—primarily to expand her network and to make contact with other Latinos in Colorado’s business world.

“I wanted to connect with others who looked like me and shared similar experiences,” says Peterson, 38, founder of her own PR firm, Stella PR + Marketing. “I wasn’t sure I would ever find that community.”

She found that network of support, and then some, at the University of Denver’s Latino Leadership Institute (LLI), a program designed to elevate Colorado Latino leaders into positions of influence across sectors and industries.

Through its LLI Fellowship—an intensive nine-month executive leadership development program that holds classes on one Friday evening and one Saturday each month—the institute prepares graduates to advance to the next level in their business, government, civic or nonprofit work. The organization also invites nationally recognized experts in business, film, media and politics to campus to share their insights on the Latino community.

“We have Latino professionals throughout our state who are exceptional leaders in their respective industries,” says Joelle Martinez, executive director of the LLI, noting that LLI fellows have an average of 15 years of professional experience and nearly 70 percent hold an advanced degree. “They also possess a desire to grow individually while wanting to advance the Latino community and the state of Colorado.”

The context of Latino leadership in Colorado is more important than ever. Today, Latinos make up 21 percent of the state’s population. By 2050, according to population estimates, nearly one in three Coloradans will identify as Latino. Yet, as Martinez says, “demography does not determine destiny.”

This is because Latinos are underrepresented in executive leadership roles across all sectors, Martinez explains. Nationally, Latinos represent only 3 percent of trustees on Fortune 500 boards of directors and 2 percent of CEOs. In the nonprofit sector, not even 3 percent of foundation CEOs or presidents are Latino. Of Colorado’s 681 elected offices, only 7 percent are occupied by Latinos.

“When fellows graduate from the LLI, they are ready to serve on boards and commissions,” says Martinez, recently recognized as one of the 25 most influential women in Colorado by the Colorado Women’s Chamber of Commerce. “They also have a deeper understanding of public policy and how to work across sectors.”

The impact of the LLI’s fellowship program is quantifiable. To date, the more than 40 individuals who have graduated from the program have joined 21 boards and commissions across the state. Recent graduates include Melanie Herrera Bortz (BA ’88), who recently was named to the steering committee for the Center for Health Equity at Denver Health Medical Center; Alejandra “Ale” Spray, a new addition to the Colorado-based board of directors at Bellco Credit Union; and Antonio Parés, who was named to the Colorado Charter School Institute board.

After Peterson completed the fellowship, she joined the board of the Colorado Children’s Museum and was appointed to the State Lottery Commission, where she is the lone woman and the only Latina serving as a commissioner.

“Being in the LLI helped me to realize I could do and be so much more,” says Peterson, whose clients include Solite International luggage and Lifetime Fitness. “Even though I was a business owner, the old me would have often chosen the safe route. The mentorship, network and fellowship course material helped to push me forward.”

By 2020, the institute expects to have more than 200 fellows and alumni like Peterson, Martinez says. To support its mission and elevate Latino leadership, the institute also has created the Colorado Latino Hall of Fame. At its annual fall gala, the institute honors and recognizes the legacy of Latino leaders past and present in six categories.

As the LLI grows, it plans to continue partnering with researchers to share data and provide a deeper understanding of issues affecting the Latino population.

“Our efforts and outcomes are focused on one word—impact,” Martinez says. “By applying a blend of leading academic research and lived experiences to critical conversations, we can more effectively address issues that impact the everyday lives of Latinos in America with a leadership lens.”


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