As a part of our interview series called “Women Of The C-Suite,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Elaine Montilla.
Elaine Montilla, founder of 5xminority, a TEDx Speaker, and the Assistant Vice President and CIO for IT at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Elaine serves as a Forbes technology Council member and contributor. One of her main goals is to highlight the need for diversity in the field of Technology and expand STEM learning opportunities to all equally.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I grew up on a tiny island called The Dominican Republic. My father passed away when I was only seven, and I consider myself extremely fortunate to grow up within a family of tightly knit first cousins, aunts, family friends, and vecinos (neighbors) who were around to support us. After high school, I moved to the US and had to learn the language and a new culture simultaneously, which was extremely challenging at the time. My younger self had no way of predicted she would one day be a CIO because I had no role models growing up and saw it as an impossible dream for someone like me to achieve ever. I always loved helping others, and that naturally moved me into management. Still, I can tell you that I got started in IT customer support and slowly worked my way up the ladder without ever knowing what was coming next in my career path.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
One of the most exciting stories involves having vendors come to meetings and addressing the man at the table, thinking they are in charge instead of me. I used to get upset, and now I am fascinated by it. The many years of conditioned thinking and bias have affected women everywhere. I founded 5xminority to ensure future generations do not suffer the same way some of us do today.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh yes, I will never forget this one. It is one of the reasons I am so passionate about mentorship and even gave a TEDx talk about it. I recall being furious and sending an email while I was angry instead of waiting a day to respond. My boss and mentor called me into his office and asked me to sit down and read the email I sent. I felt so embarrassed and grateful at the same time that someone took the time to speak to me about it and helped me see the lesson that came out of that experience. From that day, I never sent an email or called someone while upset. I use breathing techniques and mediation to remain calm and respond instead of reacting.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
My mom has been my #1 champion and the person that motivates me to be better each day. I wouldn’t have a life if my mom didn’t sacrifice herself to move to another country and give us a better future. My partner has also supported my ideas and believes in me 100%, which makes everything a bit easier on my end. I recall mentioning that I wanted to found my own company, and all I heard from my partner was, “when do you want to start, and what can I do to support you.”
In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?
My career has overall become a lighter journey for me because of my daily meditation practices. It starts when I open my eyes in the morning with gratitude, followed by meditation and then journaling. I go into meetings and handle all tasks with a lightheartedness that allows me always to be present, bring space and silence, and respond instead of reacting to whatever is happening around me. I can recall many meetings where everyone around me expected me to react, jump out of my seat, and get angry or anxious, and I bring silence instead while I am stepping back and looking at the much bigger picture. I am not perfect, but I am a different, calmer human being because of my spiritual practices.
As you know, the United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?
There are a ton of reasons why a business needs to have diverse teams; some of them include the following facts:
- Having a diverse team will help leadership better navigate times of crisis because of the input from unique backgrounds, experiences, and viewpoints at the executive level.
- Companies with diverse and inclusive cultures see more innovation, achieve better business outcomes, and exceed their financial targets.
- You build more cohesive teams when you hire people who can relate to a wide range of your employees.
- Companies can inspire lower-level employees by allowing them to see themselves as diverse leaders, increasing staff retention and motivation.
- A diverse executive team can bring unique connections, which leads to more networking opportunities for the company.
As a business leader, can you please share a few steps we must take to truly create an inclusive, representative, and equitable society? Kindly share a story or example for each.
Companies need to reflect the communities they serve. A lot of the inequities involve the lack of access to Education and the outdated hiring practices we continue to use today. Additionally, childcare costs make women choose between having a career and a family instead of both.
We also need to celebrate our differences and make room for the uniqueness each individual brings. I can tell you that when I started college, I didn’t have access to a computer at home and had to stay late to complete my homework at the computer lab instead. Low-income families are disadvantage at every level, and recruiting companies don’t even bother with public or community colleges. They go directly to Ivy league schools increasing the disparity even more.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. Most of our readers — in fact, most people — think they have a pretty good idea of what a CEO or executive does. But in just a few words can you explain what an executive does that is different from the responsibilities of the other leaders?
The primary job of any executive and what I spend most of my time doing is “making decisions.” You can try to add other words around it, but in the end, we are there to make tough decisions and have difficult conversations that will help move the company in the right direction. We then rely on the fantastic humans we hire to execute those decisions and support our vision. It is like a dance in a way, and we are leading the way.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a CEO or executive. Can you explain what you mean?
One of the myths is that we don’t have a life, and all we do is work. That is not necessarily true. We work really hard, but I book “fun” into my calendar and “mental health” as a priority. Another myth is that we don’t make mistakes and have all the answers, which is untrue. We are imperfect humans, just like everyone else, and probably recover faster from failures because we are constantly moving forward, but we don’t have all the answers for sure. We rely on intelligent people to guide us and collaborate with us.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women executives that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts?
Women need to prove themselves repeatedly while men speak, and everyone listens and believes what they say without any fact-checking. Additionally, when women speak up, they are often labeled as aggressive and do not have enough role models to follow. Well-documented and progression opportunities are often hidden, and we face a vast glass ceiling that keeps women away from leadership positions. The list is endless, and I look forward to not having to mention them anymore, but it seems that pay equity is a farfetched dream, and we will continue to deal with negative gender perceptions and the lack of mentors/sponsors for a while.
What is the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
I can tell you that I imagined myself being inundated in the financial part of my job and unable to connect with others because of time constraints. I still deal with that, but I never imagined how much time I would need and want to create a culture where everyone feels seen, heard, and valued. Creating psychological safety, being authentic and vulnerable by sharing my personal struggles, and seeing how valuable my guidance and coaching are to them is now invaluable to me and a priority that never goes down on my list.
Do you think everyone is cut out to be an executive? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful executive and what type of person should avoid aspiring to be an executive? Can you explain what you mean?
I do not think everyone is cut out to be a successful executive. It requires a commitment to help others grow that many leaders today lack. It also requires being humble, compassionate, confident, and having the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture. If you cannot trust others to do their job, you will not survive because we cannot be everywhere. I firmly believe that my success has come from allowing others to flourish around me instead of micromanaging every part of their job. Lastly, I would add that being flexible is the one trait all successful leaders have in common, and I don’t think I would survive in a field like Tech without bringing that mindset with me everywhere I go.
What advice would you give to other women leaders to help their team to thrive?
I believe in the power of authenticity and regret the many years I spent people-pleasing and trying to fit in, so be yourself, and the right people will undoubtedly follow. Your teams can always see through you and know if you are not honest. They will value your honesty more than anything else, especially in difficult situations.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
One of my most significant accomplishments was founding 5xminority and using it as a platform to elevate the often unheard and invisible voices of women and underrepresented minorities in the Tech field and beyond. My mission with this platform is to demonstrate how businesses can be powerful platforms for social change. I firmly believe that all companies must create workplaces that reflect the communities they are serving, and the voices of each employee need to be supported and celebrated daily.
Additionally, I make time each month to mentor young girls while working with the LALA Foundation, an amazing non-profit seeking to promote sustainable economic development in Latin America.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- You need a spiritual practice. I wished I knew the power of mediation, journaling, and yoga years earlier. I recall stressing after a meeting trying to develop immediate solutions to a problem that affected every department I supported. I later realized that “stillness” was the solution to every problem that ever came across my desk. Today, I rely on stillness and silence to guide me, and the noise of loud voices no longer influences me, as they did in the early years of my career.
- Don’t believe everything you think. The human mind is a powerful tool, and we never stop to question our thoughts or wonder if they are true. As women, we are very hard on ourselves, and it is worse when you were a perfectionist like me. I am not a recovering perfectionist who is unlearning all of the conditioned thinking given to me by parents, teachers, media, and society. I wished I understood this ten years ago.
- Make fear your BFF. Being brave and confident does not mean lacking fear at all. Fear is never going away, and it is best to make it our best friend. People grow up being told that fear is the enemy, and instead, fear is a messenger usually present to say that something important is about to happen. It is important to remember that most people who seem to have it together are just pushing through the pain and discomfort of dread. In the end, it is vital to embrace rejection and not take it personally when it happens, but instead, see it as a stepping-stone that brings you much closer to your ultimate goal.
- You won’t have all the answers. I focus on hiring smarter people than me, and I rely on them to help me make decisions each day. None of us can have all the answers, and I wished I understood that before getting prompted to CIO. I could’ve avoided multiple headaches that came from my tension, believing that I needed to solve everyone’s problems on the spot. In the end, you develop others by helping THEM think through the answer instead of solving it yourself.
- Learn to be comfortable being uncomfortable. We all need to step outside our comfort zone to grow. This includes making mistakes and learning from the lessons brought. Humans often want to avoid difficult conversations and shy away from anything that makes them feel uncomfortable. Another option is to sign up for something they never do and get through it. When women only say yes to roles they know they are good at, they disadvantage from learning new skills and gaining a heightened sense of confidence. Additionally, women tend to sell themselves short and avoid “bragging.” It is essential to understand that when people speak positively about their achievements and rely on facts to share their success, it is not bragging.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
A the end of my TEDx Talk, I asked everyone to look around and share their accumulated wisdom with someone who looks nothing like them. I believe that change will come when we remove all of society’s labels and begin to see humans as simply humans. Let’s start by acknowledging that we need to help the unseen feel seen until we get to a society where everyone is celebrated for their uniqueness and individuality.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite life lesson quote comes from the late Dr. Wayne Dyer and says: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.”
This quote completely changed the way I saw myself. As a woman who belongs to several minority groups, I grew up carrying lots of conditioned thinking that didn’t serve me well. After embarking on my spiritual journey years ago, I decided to change the narrative society created for me and instead create my own. Today, I am an influential leader, founder, and change maker who is here to help others feel seen and see the beauty they possess. Ohh, and a badass Latina too, let’s not forget that!
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them
It would have to be Gary Vaynerchuk from VaynerMedia. I love his authenticity, honesty, and his huge heart. Those are qualities I value a ton.