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December 29, 2013

CEPEDA: When mentors really mentor

(Continued)

I was flabbergasted. Usually such functions involve a lot of rah-rahing about how we’re America’s future, how this country needs diverse leadership and we’re the next generation of awesome.

It’s all good stuff, but the reality check about how much more we could be doing was even better.

“It sounds corny, but I see too many diverse leaders who accept their current level of success,” Nieto said. “They are told that they have made it.

“Don’t accept that advice. You need to stretch. You need to decide what dream you want to strive for, then embrace your dream and work for it.”

This, coming from someone who could have been written off as just another poor Hispanic and yet rose to be a corporate titan, is the golden ticket to creating success in the face of both discouragement and support.

One could write a book about Nieto’s incredible life, but I’ll stick to the basics. He was born in Crystal City, Texas, a small community chock-full of anti-Latino racial animosity and low expectations. His mother fought with elementary school authorities until Nieto was pulled out of his segregated classroom and into a classroom with the white children, who were learning at a more advanced pace.

He got into both an elite high school and college, all the while working hard to prove to himself, his teachers and his classmates that he was worthy of the opportunity because of his smarts and not because of some affirmative action initiative.

Nieto eventually earned an MBA from Harvard and went into a corporate world where the people who made promotion decisions were constantly steering him toward back-room supervisory roles instead of client-facing leadership positions. Years later, after fighting to get himself into high-profile roles, he was running multibillion-dollar turnaround operations for some of the biggest brands in corporate America.

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