I'm just taking this in a little bit.
27 years ago I was sitting on those same seats as uncertain and as hopeful about my future as some of you may be right now. What I knew for sure was that I would go on to graduate school to study public policy. But if someone had suggested that one day I'd be standing here delivering a commencement speech for a future class of Bucknell graduates, I would have said, "No way!"
Mine was NOT a carefully curated journey. I didn't set out to become a CEO and rise to the top of my profession. I wanted to dedicate my life to something meaningful, and though public policy was a good start. Most of you will also see some curves on the road. U-turns. Detours. And I’m here to tell you… that’s OKAY!
I was born in New York City to sixteen year old parents. My father is Dominican, my mother Puerto Rican. My journey took new turns EARLY when at nearly two years old I moved back to the Dominican Republic to be raised by my paternal grandparents.
In the early part of my life, my best friends at school were Dominican, Puerto Rican, Cuban, Chinese, Dutch, Israeli… you name it. At school we had to speak English, but outside we grew up sharing our different traditions, our languages, our foods… At home we spoke Spanish. My grandparents proudly grounded me in my Dominican heritage, and perhaps because they grew up with very little, they instilled in me a spirit of generosity and service for the underserved. I didn't realize it at the time but navigating these varied experiences, they taught me to be agile and to adapt at an early age.
Then my journey took me back to the United States — New Jersey to be exact — when I was 16. Imagine that. Moving to a new country and starting fresh as a junior in high school. Ugh! And as if losing everything that was familiar to me wasn't awful enough, this is when I discovered I was part of a new identity group - I was now Hispanic. I was immediately labeled as such, forced to check a box redeclaring my ethnic heritage every time I had to fill out a form or introduce myself to my new community.
I will always remember this particular warm and sunny spring day, when, on a bus trip back from some senior high school activity, a few of us huddled together to share our college acceptances. I quickly felt a sharp sting when one of my classmates said, "Of course you got into all those schools, you're Hispanic. It's called affirmative action."
In that moment, it was as if all of my achievements were erased and I was forced into the most marginalized sections of my identity. I couldn't escape his stereotype-filled version of Hispanics. What hurt the most was that he said it as if he didn't believe that I could actually earn the opportunity. It was as if my success was perceived as some kind of injustice inflicted on him. All I knew was I never wanted to feel like that again.
Like all journeys, life always presents a plot twist. For me it appeared again a few weeks later, when I received a letter inviting me to attend a summer program at one of the colleges that I was considering. The letter said "congratulations on your acceptance. We'd like you to join us this summer for a program designed for students of color to help you adjust to campus life."
Now getting to spend the summer on a college campus with college kids–I was all in. But then I learned that the courses I had to take were meant to help build general competencies in English and math. Why would I need those courses when I was about to graduate with honors!?! Yet again, an achievement gets knocked down. But this time, someone I love explained it to me. I can still hear my aunt, in her thick Spanish accent, saying to me, "They think you need that program because you're poor and Hispanic."
Instead of feeling welcomed, I felt ashamed. In that moment it was clear to me that was not the path for me and I needed to summon the courage to imagine a different path. I would go on to a university that would welcome the whole of me.
That path led me to Bucknell.
But instead of showing up full of confidence, I showed up with a sense of insecurity, instilled at the start by having to check boxes on my identity and reinforced at every turn by the worry of being categorized and weighed down by everything that's unfairly associated with my ethnic heritage.
However at Bucknell, I became part of two communities that would again teach me the value of agility, courage and compassion. First, I joined the social justice residential college where professors Teresa Amott, Linden Lewis and Erni Keen helped me discover who I was in the context of my racial, gender and cultural identity. They saw me. They challenged me. They celebrated me. And in turn, they helped me see the change I could make to help others feel seen, challenged and celebrated.
I am beyond honored today that Theresa and Linden are here today. And I want to say thank you. Thank you for helping me–
Yes, please applaud!
Thank you for helping me find my voice and purpose.
I also became part of an extended family I never knew I needed. I was adopted as a "Little" in the Big-Little program. This initiative — this family — was created and led by Black students, providing support and a sense of belonging deeply needed for the underrepresented students of color on campus. Finding people that not only looked like me but that also understood my experience as a Latina on campus helped me find that feeling of connectedness that we all crave.
7th street house and East street house, the black affinity homes — they were my safe spaces. They also happened to have the best parties on campus.
Everyone wants to feel seen, valued and understood.
Little did I know then that my life would be an evolving set of experiences, change and more change over the course of several decades and that those experiences, including the cultural and racial navigational tools I learned at Bucknell, would help me become a navigator of change for others in workplaces.
It was a wintry afternoon in a high rise building in downtown Manhattan. I was 26 years old, fresh in my new job as a credit risk analyst at Moody's Investors Service. In sitting in a meeting with about seven or eight clients and colleagues, I was the only Latina, only person of color and the youngest person in that room. A senior analyst turned to me and asked "Daisy, answer me this: why do all Dominicans play baseball?" I instantly felt my stomach sink. I felt minimized by that cultural cliche and embarrassed that I needed to respond to it in front of my clients and colleagues.
Words matter. He probably thought he was making a harmless comment. He didn't pause to think about how that could make me feel. I stumbled for a bit and weakly said, "Well, some of us become credit analysts." The room responded with laughter and we moved on. Or so I thought.
A few days later, when I was debriefing the meeting with my manager, I shared the exchange as an awkward experience. I was worried at first about how she would respond but to my surprise, my manager instantly expressed a deep sense of compassion and then jumped to action. She took immediate steps to ensure that senior analyst and everyone else on our team would never make insensitive comments like that again, including investing in cultural sensitivity training at a time that that it was not as common as it is today.
My manager modeled courage, and compassion, by disrupting a seemingly harmless social exchange. By helping me feel safe and seen, she also helped me see the agency I had to effect change for myself and others in the workplace.
From Moody's, I went on to work at some of the world's most admired companies. Time and again I learned that it is possible to be hired at a top company, be part of the leadership team, be invited to important meetings and even be asked to speak, and still not feel that people like you belong there. The great driving force of my career has been helping others feel seen, valued and understood, and to help organizations minimize people feeling like outsiders, because it has been part of my winding path.
A few months into joining Google, a young Latinx woman of Venezuelan descent invited me for coffee. She had one of those bright, warm smiles, the ones that light up a room. We connected over our shared experiences as Latinas at Google. A few weeks later she shared what she had written about us in her diary. She mentioned being so consumed by emotion after we said our goodbyes that she cried the minute the elevator doors closed on us.
She noted that I wore a white dress and heels, had long flowing hair (that was a long time ago), spoke Spanglish and greeted her with a warm hug and kiss on the cheek. This was the first time that she saw herself reflected in senior leadership at Google. Prior to meeting me, she wrote, she thought she needed to sacrifice her culture, her looks, her identity to succeed in Silicon Valley. Meeting me changed that for her. This was also the moment that I realized my path had come full circle. I was now the source of support, hope and connection that would help take her to new heights. And I did that by showing up as my full compassionate, Dominican and Puerto Rican self. Nothing more to it.
Sometimes the turns in your journey are not by choice. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was consulting with Fortune 500s, startups and nonprofits. A dream gig. But overnight, the world turned upside down. And I knew that diversity, equity and inclusion would once again be minimized. Because these efforts, although they're gaining traction, they're still seen as a luxury instead of a necessity.
But a new path opened up when out of the blue, I was approached to join Vice Media as its Chief People Officer. I pivoted yet again. I had never led a full HR function but I knew that I had it in me to both lead and to adapt quickly. I am a Bucknell graduate, after all.
Here I was, in my biggest job yet. I was in the c-suite of an extraordinary youth brand at the edge of culture, responsible for a globally dispersed team. And after two weeks, George Floyd was murdered, igniting a global racial reckoning.
There are few times in one's life when one's work, purpose and skill set meet a unique need. And this was one of them for me. Every step of my journey led me to this moment.
I had to call on every bit of courage, compassion and agility that I had developed over the years to hold space for the people under me — the people under my watch who were hurting, who were confused and unsure of how to move on. I coached managers to pause before jumping to action, to listen to what their team members needed, and to show that they cared even when they didn't know what to say.
This is the compassionate leadership that I wish for every single one of you.
I was the right person for this company. And all the box checking, the self questioning, the dealing with doubters… my life, my career, my path, made me perfect for this role.
Now stepping into this work with confidence and resolve comes from years of navigating difference, challenging assumptions, including my own, and interrogating behaviors that often go unquestioned. Navigating my own cultural and racial identity, building my courage and the agility to build roadmaps when the urgency is clear but the path forward not so much, helped me find what makes me come alive.
Two years ago, in the midst of a global pandemic and racial reckoning, I put my whole body, mind and heart into writing Inclusion Revolution while I was still running a global people and culture function, because helping others navigate change with agility, compassion and deep, deep courage is what I am meant to do. It takes all of the stages of the journey to get to where I am today.
I have come to understand who I am and the role I both wanted to play and was asked to play on many occasions. Not through wins, but I learned through doubts, through losses and through hard earned lessons. I didn't always feel that I belonged. But when I felt like I couldn't make it, I drew on support and courage from my family, like my beloved father, stepmother, daughter and husband, who are here with me today. And my friends, mentors and teachers who said, "Persevere."
Now, the next steps of your journey, they begin tomorrow. How exciting is that?!?
You may feel the need to curate your journey like an instagram account, or whatever social media platform you use. I say, don't bother. The idea of a non-linear path may sound a bit terrifying. However, the only thing predictable in the future is going to be the constant highs and lows of life — and everything in between.
Sometimes the most circuitous paths, they lead you to where you are supposed to be. The opportunities you take and those you don't. The wins and the setbacks.
Listen to the voices, like those of my aunt, that recognize when someone is diminishing your value. Find the courage to stand in your truth by gazing at your own insecurities, then gazing right past them. When you make those seemingly soul crushing mistakes, because you will, learn to trust and embrace the ebbs and flows in your life path.
The lessons you learn and strengths you develop, they're all unknown today. But building the agility needed for a winding path will give you courage. The people you meet along the way, perhaps those sitting right next to you today, they will teach you compassion. Embracing your journey with curiosity will lead you to where you are meant to be — perhaps where I am today.
Dream extravagantly. Lean into your heart. Show up for yourself and the people in your life with unrelenting courage and compassion. You have the most to gain by allowing yourself to witness how all the dots connect together.
Everything under the sun, it's been said and done before, but your slant into the world is singular and magical. Embrace the curves on the road. The circuitous path. Your path.
That's where you'll find what makes you come alive.
Thank you President Bravman, faculty, staff and alumni. A special and loving nod to my Smith Hall 1A Class of 1995, to my big little family, and to the class leaders today who invited me to join you.
And to all of you, the Class of 2022, thank you for allowing me to be a part of this special celebration, the commencement of the next chapter of your lives.
Congratulations to you, your family and friends.