It’s Never Too Late to Strive
IIn 1918 a bright, ambitious young Cuban, Elizabeth Suárez’s grandfather, Dionisio Suárez de la Portilla, made a decision that would change the lives of his descendants forever. His own family had immigrated to Cuba from Spain in search of new opportunities, but the young man wanted more, so he set off on a year-long solo journey by boat to upstate New York, where he enrolled as a civil engineering student at Cornell University.
Upon his return to Cuba, Elizabeth’s grandfather launched what became a thriving engineering firm and was appointed to the prestigious position of Secretary of Public Works. The family benefited from the wealth and status that came with his professional success until revolutionaries led by Fidel Castro overthrew the government and swept into power a communist regime. The life they once knew suddenly ceased to exist.
Elizabeth’s parents fled Castro’s takeover, settling in Puerto Rico with their three children. Their new life was not an easy one and by the time Elizabeth was born, their lifestyle bore no resemblance to the one the family had enjoyed in Cuba. Elizabeth’s father died when she was a child, leaving her mother to raise four children on her own. Determined that their futures not be defined by the family’s current financial struggles, she instilled in Elizabeth and her siblings the same drive and determination that had spurred on their grandfather. “You get educated, you help others,” she often told her children. Elizabeth, who had always had a hunger for learning and achievement, followed her grandfather’s footsteps to Cornell, later adding to her chemical engineering degree with an MBA from Wharton and a leadership certificate from the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Her career took off, but even as she rapidly ascended the corporate ladder, Elizabeth faced constant reminders of the headwinds she and others like her were pushing against. That reality came sharply into focus on a business trip in Brazil when the men on her team, while out at a strip club, revised the presentation she was slated to give the next morning, blindsiding her with the changes mere minutes before the meeting. Elizabeth maneuvered through the last minute change up seamlessly, but she never forgot the lack of respect and professionalism of her male colleagues. As a woman, and furthermore as a Latina, it was not the first time she had been subjected to attempts to diminish her power. Earlier in her career, a boss had insisted she take courses in accent reduction, only backing down when it became apparent that she had no intention of trying to remove the last subtle traces of Spanish remaining in her perfectly clear English.
After close to two decades in the corporate world and tired of finding herself the only Latino in a leadership role, Elizabeth decided it was time to do as her mother had taught her and put her education and experience to use doing something to help others. She formed a consulting agency to help others like her become leaders and decision makers. There is a lot the Latino community has to offer, she says. Not only are Latinos the largest minority group in this country, but they also possess a strong community-focused mindset that she sees as sorely needed in these individualistic, highly stratified times. Through advocacy and mentorship, Elizabeth intends to give more Latinos a seat at a table, preferably in the C suite, and a platform to make a difference.
Despite all of her successes, Elizabeth’s life has not always gone perfectly according to plan. During the height of the Covid pandemic, a difficult family matter unveiled a lingering depression that had long lain dormant. Diagnosed by a perceptive general practitioner, Elizabeth threw herself into her mental health recovery, channeling significant energy and resources into getting the help she needed, never forgetting how fortunate she is to have access to so much support. Far too many, she knows, do not have the same luxury.
It has taken a lot of work, but with the help of counselors and the support of a close group of friends she has come to think of as her “tribe,” Elizabeth is once again feeling hopeful, not only for herself but also for the inspiring up and comers she is mentoring, one of whom is her own daughter. In 2023, 100 years after her great-grandfather became the first in the family to graduate from Cornell, Elizabeth’s daughter, Bianca, will do the same.
Ambition runs strong in the family DNA.
It’s never too late to strive.