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Almirca Santiago on forging and choosing a career path that fulfills YOU

Almirca Santiago is the Senior Director for Grantmaking and Operations at the Hispanic Federation (HF), with 15 years experience working in the nonprofit sector. At the Hispanic Federation, Almirca helps to empower and advance the Hispanic community, support Hispanic families, and strengthen Latino institutions through work in the areas of education, health, immigration, civic engagement, economic empowerment, & the environment. 

Following her family’s footsteps

Almirca Santiago, Senior Director for Grantmaking and Operations at the Hispanic Federation. (Photo courtesy Almirca Santiago)

Almirca has a clear vision of her work now, but it was not always this way. Growing up and throughout college, Almirca was not quite sure where her career path would take her. She knew she wanted to help others, especially fellow Latinos within her community, but what exactly her career would be, remained a mystery for some time. 

For a while, she thought she might follow in her family’s footsteps and become a business owner. Growing up in the Bronx and later in Northern Manhattan, Almirca was surrounded by immigrant and Spanish-speaking communities. Within these communities, small businesses were everything and Almirca’s own family was a family of entrepreneurs, pursuing business in all areas. 

“From owning bodegas to salons, check cashing/remittance, hardware stores, establishing home businesses, etc,” Almirca describes. “My mother, whose parents were business owners in the Dominican Republic, came to this country with the same desire while raising 3 kids, going to school and working a regular job.  She taught me what it means to be una mujer emprendedora.”

As a child, Almirca would accompany her mother as she purchased merchandise to sell from her home business. Everywhere she went, Almirca was known as “Rosa’s Daughter” by the vendors and clients. She was her mother’s little helper and this experience was both fun and incredibly educational and later inspired her to go to Norman Thomas High School for Commercial Business as a teen. 

“Throughout my childhood, I helped my mother with inventory, organization, and numbers. While she was always practicing her English, I also helped with paperwork and translation when necessary. She was the expert and talent; I was her operational support,” says Almirca. 

Growing up, she not only helped her mother, but also friends and family with a variety of tasks. Some of these tasks included helping immigrants navigate a system that was not immigrant-friendly. These formative experiences affected Almirca’s decisions and helped prepare her professionally for her future career in the nonprofit sector. 

Taking the unconventional path

Following her high school career at Norman Thomas High School for Commercial Business, Almirca then went off to Syracuse University to study International Business. Here she began to wander off the entrepreneurial path, into new territory. 

“Within my first year of studies, my major changed to International Relations.  I joined a sorority, Señoritas Latinas Unidas/Sigma Lambda Upsilon, because my mother instilled in me the importance of empowering ourselves and others as women and engaging in community involvement,” says Almirca. 

It was during her time with her sorority that Almirca’s passion for nonprofit work truly began to flourish. Within her sorority, she began working on social and political justice issues and helping underserved communities. 

“To serve the mission of the organization, we worked on educating students and providing resources to the community within the city of Syracuse.  We talked about social and political issues as Latinas and people of color. I completed an internship with the Onondaga County/Syracuse Commission on Human Rights.” 

Later, while studying abroad in Strasbourg, France, Almirca completed an internship with an organization that created community awareness on the issue of domestic violence. Each year and semester at university became a new exploration on how to merge her acts of service to the community with a potential career track. 

“As a student who did not receive much assistance from the university on an advisory level, it was very difficult to find direction,” Almirca says. 

I was on an unconventional track. Not pursuing law school, medicine, or accounting. Those were the common tracks my family would speak of but those were not the subjects that inspired me.”

However, a career path soon became clearer as she continued her service work. While her mother had always instilled in her the responsibility to help those in need, it was not until her sorority experience that she was able to envision a career based on her community service work. 

It was not the entrepreneurial path she originally thought she would take, and it was not the conventional paths her family spoke of, but it was something entirely her own. 

Searching for the right fit

Almirca forged her own career path into the world of nonprofit and service work. Post-graduation, with a Liberal Arts Bachelor’s degree, she began working for the Northern Manhattan Coalition for Immigrant Rights (NMCIR) after months of a challenging job search. 

“I began as a program associate and worked my way up to functioning as the Executive Director’s right hand. For 8.5 years, I worked on developing and running programs to help the community with their immigration needs and advocating on a political level.  I also learned a lot about the organizational functions which are essentially the same as running a small business.”

Almirca forged her own career path into the world of nonprofit and service work. (Photo courtesy Almirca Santiago)

 Her time at NMCIR helped her to grow and develop a diverse list of skills. Almirca learned to wear “all the hats” working at the nonprofit. She could tackle anything. 

“As a Latina who is trying to show off her talents and ‘prove her worth’ as we are often taught to do growing up, I made sure I was able to take on whatever task came my way,” Almirca says. “I can write proposals, provide immigration-related application assistance, run a payroll and hire all in the same day!” 

Still, while these diverse skills were incredibly useful, Almirca was searching for her “niche.” She would ask herself, “What can I see myself doing for the next 10 – 20 years?” As she began applying for other jobs, she soon found that many considered her “over-qualified” or “too green.” She had the skills and the drive, but there seemed to be no specific area of work that fit her variety of skills and interests. Once again she would have to forge her own way to land her dream career. 

Forging your own path

Almirca continued on her own career path, going after what she wanted out of her career, not what others thought she should pursue. 

 “As a Latina in the USA there are all types of pressures and milestones people try to impose on us but I have learned it is okay to forge and choose the path that fulfills YOU,” she says. 

Now at the Hispanic Federation (HF) since February of 2015, Almirca works as the Senior Director for Grantmaking and Operations. This position allows her to pursue all her interests and utilize her skills to help the Hispanic community. Her prior experiences working for nonprofit organizations on all levels has also given her an advantage in her current position as she now works extensively with Latino-led nonprofits and small businesses. Through her work, she helps to connect these businesses and organizations to resources and opportunities for institutional growth. On some occasions she also consults with small organizations and businesses to address the fundamentals of business management. Being able to help her fellow Latinos and business owners is the fulfilling work she has always been seeking since childhood. 

Almirca leading a workshop. (Photo courtesy Almirca Santiago)

“Helping the Latino community feels like helping my family which I continue to do both professionally and personally,” Almirca says. 

You might be interested: Latinas leaving corporate America and succeeding as entrepreneurs

Her early childhood experiences sent her down one career path, toward entrepreneurship, but these experiences also paved a way for another path to emerge: a path of service work. 

Over the years she has learned the importance of being a quick learner who is able to adapt. These traits have been essential to her career growth and to finding her personal career path to professional fulfillment. 

The unstoppable Latina says she has had moments throughout the years where she would analyze the path she was on, check-in with herself, and make sure the path she was on was the right one for her, even if those around her did not understand her work. 

Now, after almost 15 years, she says, “ I think my family finally understands my work even though I am not in a traditional field or a business owner.” 

Almirca’s story is a reminder to us all that we each have our own paths in life, both professionally and personally. Only you know which path is truly right for you, so always remember: “It is okay to forge and choose the path that fulfills YOU.” 

career counseling

Latina Career Coach Bonnie Negron gives advice for achieving career goals

Inspire. Identify. Achieve. This is the tagline for Bonnie Negron’s company, Bonnie Career Services, Inc. The company aims to help individuals in their job searches and careers by inspiring them with the confidence to reach their career goals and achieve success.

career counseling

Bonnie Negron, CEO at Bonnie Career Services Inc.

Bonnie loves helping others and believes that her work goes beyond just helping people find jobs. She wants to help them feel empowered and bring them hope and excitement as they strive for their utmost career goals.

Bonnie is an Executive Leadership Award winner with a BBA in International Management from Pace University and an MBA in Management with Honors from Wagner College. Born in Brooklyn to an Ecuadorian dad and Italian/Irish mom, she began her career at the age of 16, working as an intern for an international law firm in New York City. From there she continued working, earning her first management position at the age of 19. It was during this position that Bonnie realized how much she enjoyed mentoring and training others. She loved helping people succeed. Since then, Bonnie was always in a leadership role.

Career goals for all

career counselingAs she continued to strive for her own career goals, friends, family, and colleagues would often ask her for help with their own careers. She often would help them edit their resumes, offer career advice, and coach them on opportunities.

“I took the time to provide insights for their career development because talking success and happiness gets me excited,” said Bonnie, “so I would happily divulge any knowledge I thought they would find helpful.”

In 2017, after years of working in the corporate world, Bonnie decided she needed a change. She no longer felt fulfilled in her job. Deciding to start anew, she sent her resume to a resume writer, hoping to enhance her resume to be the best it could be. What she received was disappointing.

“I received a document that was full of spelling errors and with minor revision to my original document. I was appalled that I had wasted hundreds of dollars on a service hat I very well knew I could’ve handled on my own,” said Bonnie.

It was at this point that Bonnie had the vision for her business.

“I realized that I had been doing this resume writing and career coaching since I was a teenager and I needed to expand my skills outside of family, friends, and employers so I could help individuals everywhere.”

career counselingShe officially began Bonnie Career Services in September of 2017 and the company has been growing since then. Of the obstacles she’s faced so far being a business owner, Bonnie says the biggest struggle was the transition from employee to owner and setting up all the benefits she was used to having.

 

“Medical/dental, 401K, payroll and other insurances– there are so many options and pricing for these services that I just didn’t know what was the best option for a small business owner,” said Bonnie.

She was able to overcome this obstacle by doing extensive research, asking for quotes, and consulting with various other business professionals as well as utilizing the resources within Statewide Hispanic Chambers of Commerce of New Jersey.

Every business has its challenges

Bonnie has not let these obstacles deter her from her ambitions. She continues to stay motivated and says her biggest inspiration and motivation are her daughters.

“Every step that I have taken in my career has been to be a mom that makes them proud and teaches them to be strong, independent women,” shared Bonnie.

Her daughters often help her with her business and they enjoy learning about resumes, different positions, and career paths. Bonnie hopes to inspire her daughters the way she inspires her clients, showing them the value of their skills and talents so that they may achieve their career goals. It is from this desire to inspire that the business’ tagline was born.

career goals

My strengths have always been in back office operations such as finance, human resources, administration and IT, Bonnie Negron said.

Bonnie enjoys helping people realize their true potential and harness the skills and strengths they have to better their careers. When asked what she would say her biggest strengths are as a Latina business owner, Bonnie cited her leadership skills and problem solving.

“My strengths have always been in back office operations such as finance, human resources, administration and IT…and performing as a hiring manager for many years.”

Its these positions she says that have given her the hands-on experience so that she can now coach others on their own career development.

Bonnie has some career goals advice to share with readers

“Don’t think about doing it, just do it! Set career goals and stick to them. Ask for that raise or promotion, network with industry professionals, have a positive support system, and always have an updated resume.”

She specifically stresses the importance of having an updated resume on hand as one never knows when an opportunity may arise.

Bonnie urges both her clients and readers to simply begin. Take those first baby steps towards one’s career goals. It’s the first steps that are the hardest.

“Once you make that first step, everything else follows directly after and you’ll question why you didn’t make that first step sooner.”