Latina Leaders: Former intelligence officer in the Air Force pays it forward

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

Sandra Tibbs (Photo/Kelsey Borlan Lee)

At 34, Sandra Tibbs already served in the U.S. Air Force for 10 years, and now she is using her experience leading a crew of 1,200 as an officer in military intelligence to empower others.

Three years ago, Tibbs founded Neverest Solutions, a consultancy firm that trains corporate, government, and small business executives to be better leaders. Based in San Antonio, Tibbs travels the country giving workshops and leadership development training sessions which teach conflict resolution, strategic thinking, male-female dynamics, and how women can become influential leaders.

Where are you from originally?
I’m originally from Peru. I was born in Lima. I came to the states when I was 17 to live the American Dream. My dream was to join the U.S Air Force, because the opportunities in Peru in the military aren’t the same as here. I just had a little money my mom gave me, and I stayed with one of my mom’s friends for six months in Austin until I found my own place. My first job was Taco Bell. I worked there while I studied English in order to take the test to enter the Air Force. I joined the Air Force when I was 18.

What was your best experience being in the military?
I didn’t really believe in myself or my capabilities. For me, the Air Force was such a blessing, because it helped me find what I was capable of and people that believed in me. When I was enlisted, I was approached by one of my supervisors, and they thought I should apply for ROTC and become an officer. The military does a great job in investing in the development of their leaders in every level. I was taken out of my comfort zone. I was always afraid of speaking in front of people because of my accent, but part of my job as an officer was to speak a lot to other leaders. It pushed me so I could achieve and grow and have an impact. I realized leaders are not born, they’re made. And I began to think, “How can I help others?”

What were the skills you learned that helped you in your business today?
I was in charge of collecting important information needed for decision makers to make the right decision. You have to think a lot at the strategic level. A lot of pieces come into play to give the right recommendations. We never have all the facts so we have to gather what we have and make an objective, informed decision.

What did you study?
When I was in the Air Force for about a year, I started going to college. I got a bachelor’s in biology, because I was thinking I was going to be a doctor, but intelligence sounded like a lot of fun, so I followed that and got a master’s in organizational leadership. Now., I’m in my third year of PhD studies in organizational leadership.

What is the most important piece of advice you give to your clients?
One of the biggest things is we have to be aware of who we are and what we stand for, what our values are, and what we want for ourselves. Be aware of what we are willing to compromise and what we are not. As we move up in an organization, we’re going to have to make decisions that are difficult. Everyone should have an idea of their ideal leader. When you have that idea of who your ideal leader is, you have to ask yourself what would my ideal leader do in a difficult situation?

What is the most important piece of advice ever given to you?
We are the only ones who can limit ourselves. It doesn’t matter what others say. People are going to doubt you, because they don’t know what you are capable of, but you have to believe in yourself and your purpose. You are going to attract the things that go with you. When you try to be something for everyone and please everyone, you are going to be attracting people that will not be of service to you. If everybody likes you, you’re doing something wrong.

What’s your favorite part of your job?
Seeing people grow as leaders and have them have a positive impact on their organization. I just finished a group training program, and it was priceless to see how engaged those people were. For me to see that, and how they’re implementing the tools they learned, that’s amazing. The things you see in successful leader – they are always learning and growing. They are always thinking, “What can I do to be a more effective leader?”

Thoughts this Veteran’s Day?
I was blessed with the people I got to work with. I learned so much from the airmen, senior officers, everybody I became in contact with in my Air Force career. That is the reason I’m the leader I am today. I admire the people that are still serving. They are the heroes. They make so many sacrifices for us. I just want to honor them – those there right now and those that will come after us. Without them, we wouldn’t have the freedom to pursue our dreams and live the lives we life.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina Leaders: U.S. Army Colonel’s mission is to help others succeed

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Colonel Irene Zoppi (Courtesy U.S. Army)

Many of us have high ambitions, but very few aspire to be a U.S. Army general.

That is a goal Colonel Irene Zoppi is striving for next. Currently, she’s one of only 15 Latinas in the U.S. Army Reserve who holds the rank of colonel. She also happens to be a full-time professor at Strayer University in Maryland, a wife and mother of three, and a Gulf War veteran who holds a doctorate in education policy, planning and administration and a masters in business.

“I think that I’ve taken every opportunity given to me,” says the 47-year-old who moved to the U.S. mainland from Canóvanas, Puerto Rico 26 years ago, barely speaking any English. “Often, as immigrants, we don’t get every opportunity so we start looking for them. Once we find them, we continue working at them so we can get ahead.”

As a girl in Puerto Rico, she says she used to wander around the naval station where both of her parents were stationed, admiring the uniforms and the discipline around her. She ended up joining the Army at 19, while continuing her studies at the University of Puerto Rico, because it “had more opportunities for women” than the Navy.

By 21, she got commissioned as an officer and had a bachelors degree in foreign languages – which she calls her gift. She eventually learned five languages and earned the nickname, “the Visa card,” among her fellow servicemen, because she often served as the translator for them.

Zoppi says moving up the military ladder and learning to acculturate to American culture — especially as a Latina — was not easy.

“A lot of time I was put down,” says the tough but light-spirited coronel who admits to having had trouble deciphering English for a long time when it was spoken too fast. That, however, was the impetus for her to work harder.

“The diversity wasn’t there at that time — so it was difficult and a lot of work. I was battling everybody — I didn’t go partying like everybody else so I could do better.”

Zoppi has seen her share of tough situations as she has advanced in the Army, but she clearly believes in her mission.

 ”One of the most impacting moments in my life was being in combat,” says Zoppi who has earned countless metals for her service, including the Bronze Star. “Although I believe in peace and diplomacy, sometimes the ultimate price we pay for democracy and freedom and national defense is war.”

The military first began accepting women into its ranks in the early 20th century. Yet according to the U.S. Department of Defense, as of 2011, approximately 13 percent of active duty military are women.

Today, as a professor and colonel, Zoppi is very motherly and even hugs her soldiers. She says she really cares for them and often gives them advice.

“In order to become successful, you have to know yourself by going to school, taking advantage of career centers, taking personality tests, and then develop a plan — long term and short term,” she advises. Zoppi already planned her life to age 100. “I have created a map of things I want to do, but also remember to be flexible and adaptable and don’t forget to be spiritual and give back.”

The Puerto Rican colonel advises to continue seeking opportunities throughout one’s life.

“Don‘t just do what feels good, but contribute to the good of our Earth,” says Zoppi. “We have to consider each other.”

In order to do her part in giving back, Zoppi often offers her time as a keynote speaker, motivating women around the world. She says she enjoys helping other women, especially Latinas, to get ahead.

“I want to help other women see they can do it.”

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Dr. Irene Zoppi being promoted to 2nd Lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1987. (Courtesy Irene Zoppi)

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: From undocumented MIT student to satellite engineer

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana V. Albarrán Chicas (Photo/Susie Condon)

Diana Albarrán Chicas still remembers waking up at four in the morning to accompany her parents to their job picking strawberries in the fields. It wasn’t easy, she says, growing up undocumented throughout her school career. But she eventually made it to the prestigiousMassachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) — a school she never heard of before her school counselor urged her to apply.

At 31, Albarrán Chicas is the first Latina, and only the second woman, to be a test section manager at the 50-year-old company, Space Systems/Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, Calif. She oversees a team of 10 who design and build satellites and space systems for a wide variety of government and commercial customers, including DirectTV and DishNetwork.

“During one of the summer programs I attended as a Junior in high school, I learned about engineering and what engineers did,” says Albarrán Chicas, who originally dreamed of being an architect so she could build her own house when she immigrated with her parents from Mexicoat age 5. “I started to learn more and realized what I really wanted to do was engineering.”

If it wasn’t for that summer program, she says she wouldn’t have known careers in engineering existed.

“My parents only finished third grade in Mexico,” says Albarrán Chicas, who was the first in her family to graduate from high school, let alone make it to college. “I didn’t know about MIT until two weeks before the deadline to apply.”

At age 17, she packed up her bags and moved from Riverside, California to Cambridge, Massachusetts to take college courses in electrical engineering and electromagnetic wave theory.

“What I do now is work at the antennae department,” says Albarrán Chicas. “Through the antennae we are able to design how the satellites are going to define coverage on earth.”

She explains that satellites are launched into space and travel with the earth, linked with ground stations on the earth.

“That’s how the satellite communicates back and forth,” says Albarrán Chicas, explaining the full cost to test and launch a satellite is $500 million. “Once we launch our satellites into space, we can’t really fix them. We have to make sure they are designed properly and tested adequately.”

What she says she really enjoys about her job is the ability to be a problem solver. She says she is still is in awe that she is able to work with such a talented team and do such important work.

“It feels great to be able to come in and break some of the stereotypes that Latinas are not good in math and science,” says Albarrán Chicas.  Together with her husband (they met while students at MIT) they saw the need to introduce more young people to science, technology, engineering, math and science (STEM).   The couple created Empower Educational Services last year. “We’re trying to pay it forward in terms of everything we’ve learned — especially in under-served communities.”

She also works with Latinas in STEM, created by a group of MIT alumnae.

“The main purpose is to help empower Latinas to pursue STEM fields and thrive,” she says.  There’s a big push in improving the numbers, but there’s also a big trend in Latinas leaving STEM. We want to address why they leave – and raise awareness of Latinos who are doing well.”

Personally, she thinks immigration reform is definitely needed because there are too many talented undocumented youth in this country with so much to offer.

“It’s such a sensitive topic, because it could have as easily been me not being a citizen, and I can’t imagine not doing what I’m doing because of not having legal status,” says Albarrán Chicas who became a citizen at 21, when her parents were able to get their residency card and petition for her. “Ten years ago, there weren’t any scholarships for people who were undocumented. It was something that you didn’t talk about.”

She says sometimes remembering that time is still so difficult.

“There were some very dark moments — living in hiding for a long time, not saying anything to anybody,” she says. “My parents have been my source of inspiration — everything they sacrificed for my brother and I, I don’t think I can ever repay that back.”

Originally published on NBCLatino.com

Latina Leaders: From psychologist to online networking leader

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

Dr. Angelica Perez (Photo/India Perez-Urbano)

If Dr. Angelica Perez sees a young 20-something girl working in a store, it’s not rare for her to ask, “Are you in college?”

“That’s something I’ve always done, and I’ll do that forever, until I die,” she says. “That to me, is my life mission.”

Dr. Perez has always been an independent thinker. When she was a teenager, although all of her peers applied to the nearest high schools, Perez never limited herself. Instead, she thought, “I want to go to the best school I could go to.”

Today at 45, that way of thinking has taken her far. Besides having her own clinical psychology practice, she also is the publisher and CEO of New Latina — an online resource for other career-driven Latinas, and the newly created online ELLA Leadership Institute, which after only a week of existing, already has more than 2,000 members worldwide.

“What I love the most is when I can help a woman truly identify her potential and embrace it,” says Dr. Perez. “When I can help her see how much bigger she is than she thinks she is, that’s true empowerment… Having them own that, makes my day.

Growing up, as the eldest daughter of immigrant parents from the Dominican Republic, she says she grew up very fast in a neighborhood known for drugs and shootings in the 1980’s.

“You’re what they call the ‘cultural broker’ or bridge — I was always empowering people around me,” says the woman who as a girl made her bedroom a little classroom. “I never felt like I had a childhood or teenage-hood. I almost felt like I was a social worker growing up — putting fires out for a lot of people.”

She says little by little she learned by observing people, how to resolve issues.

“Psychology was a perfect match for someone who wanted to help people and intervene,” says Dr. Perez, who originally set out to be a pediatrician because of her father’s dream.

Eventually, she went on to complete her PhD in clinical psychology from Fordham University.

“The majority of my work is on women,” says the mother of four children, about her 25 year career.

“What I started realizing is that a lot of these Latinas coming to my practice were coming in because they were frustrated by the challenges they were facing in trying to become ambitious Latinas, and figuring out what they need to do,” she says. “So I found myself doing more career coaching than psychiatric evaluations.”

She soon realized what the underlying issue was.

“They were coming in without mentors at work and not having role models,” says Dr. Perez about her patients who had parents who have never worked in corporate America, or attended college. “I hardly have women who are depressed, they just don’t have a lot of confidence.”

She says just as our mother’s were pioneers in a new country, the new generation is now navigating their way into the unchartered corporate world.

“That’s why it’s important to give women connections to influential networks, and teach them what is the strategy to succeed in their career sector,” says Dr. Perez who has been working on creating the Ella Leadership Institute for about a year. “What I want to do is not have inspirational events anymore where women are inspired, and then go home and there’s nothing. What I want to do is create an event that’s value driven.”

She plans on hosting an annual conference and networking events that are TEDx style, with an exchange of ideas. What started off as a group on Facebook, is now an online network of more than 27 groups of like-minded women, grouped by region and expertise.

“I really believe that Latinas are going to globally take over the world,” she says.

Originally published on NBCLatino.com.

Latina Leaders: A social worker teaches to use your own experiences for empowerment

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago at a workshop. (Photo/Rachel Breitman)

Cynthia Santiago is not your typical clinical social worker, she works full-time as a program director for counseling in New York City public schools, she has a private practice, and offers workshops in self-development which has helped thousands of Latinas and families in the city. In addition to writing her own blog called, Latina Wellness, she contributes to Vidavibrante.com and SoLatina.com.

For Santiago, social work was a pretty obvious path, because she remembers clearly wanting to help others from as young as age 4.

“I was always a very sensitive, compassionate kid,” she says. “I would cry when other kids would cry. I couldn’t really see other people in pain without being impacted. It would kind of crush me.”

She grew up in a home where her step dad used to abuse her mom, emotionally and physically, and one of Santiago’s first roles as a social worker — after graduating with a master’s degree in social work from Fordham University — was working with battered women and children.

“I could think, ‘Oh I had a horrible life,’ that’s where a lot of people go,’” says Santiago, who instead learned from her experience — not to be a victim and to use bad situations to her advantage. “It’s a way of empowerment and dealing with life, because life is life and stuff is going to happen.”

Her life experience, trained her for her future career.

“I always loved helping people, but I didn’t like the models I was exposed to,” says Santiago, describing the theories she learned in school. “There was an idea that you start wherever the client is. There’s also this idea that you have to let people be, but just being doesn’t allow for change.”

So she says she made the decision to be innovative and started offering her patients alternative ways of thinking – at least to provide them with the opportunity to have another view. She would ask them, “Have you thought about this?” or “What if you shifted or reframed where you are right now?”

“That was very different from what I was originally trained to do, and that’s why I started coaching,” says Santiago. “I really believe in helping women, and people, be their best self.”

She says her job gives her complete joy. Her absolute favorite part is writing her blog, because of the fulfillment it gives her.

“My second favorite part is running the group coaching sessions,” says the 44-year-old. “There is such a wonderful tremendous energy I get from sitting in a gathering of Latinas who show up because they want to figure out how to live their dream life. They want to grow and change and improve. It’s so inspiring that I leave those sessions on a natural high.”

She says the other night 22 women came to her workshop, and it was so full of inspiration and energy that she had trouble sleeping afterwards.

“I was explaining to them how much I do, and over the years, I have not really thought about not being able to do it, but how to make room for it,” says Santiago whose typical day starts at her program director job counseling for schools, where she oversees about 24 people. “I’m not really in an office. I go out to the schools and move around. I do Latina Wellness and see clients in the evenings.”

She says she sees a lot of people wanting to make a change, but they feel stuck and don’t know how to start.

“Most people, when they are facing a challenge, will automatically think, ‘I don’t know what to do about this,’ but I help them think, ‘What are my options?’,” says Santiago. “There is always another way, but you have to be in a place to think that way to make that possible.”

Ultimately, she says everybody wants to live a life where they feel meaning and purpose, and that’s why she started Latina Wellness –  to give Latinas the tools to do that.

“I hear from women all the time that they feel empowered, and I can’t express enough how grateful I am to live my dream, and what it means to help others live their dream,” she says.

This article was originally published on NBCLatino.com, and was nominated for a 2014 NASW Media Award.