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