For my series on strong female founders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nancy Maldonado who joined the Chicano Federation of San Diego County as a Senior Program Director in 2017. Her knowledge of community-based research and her experience in leading the strategic development of community-based programs and interventions propelled her to the position of Chief Operating Officer in 2018. Nancy worked to improve the quality of the Chicano Federation’s programs and services, and helped build a strong foundation for long-term growth and innovation. In January 2019, Nancy was named Chief Executive Officer of Chicano Federation.
Nancy holds a master’s degree in Exercise Science and a bachelor’s degree in Kinesiology. She formerly owned and operated her own business developing and implementing corporate wellness programs. Prior to joining the Chicano Federation, Nancy served as the director of community health for the American Heart Association and American Stroke Association.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
My work is centered around helping marginalized individuals and communities, and I believe that desire to make a palpable difference in other people’s lives stems from my upbringing. As a first generation Mexican-American, I remember being a little girl and noticing how poorly some people treated my parents because they had entry-level skills and spoke English as a second language. I was helpless to do anything about it, but I remember it vividly and it really impacted me. Since then, I’ve always had a desire to find ways to empower underserved communities. I don’t think that it is a coincidence that I am now the CEO of an advocacy and social services non-profit organization that serves low-income families and helps them achieve a better quality of life.
Can you share your story of Grit and Success? First can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
My life took an interesting turn when I unexpectedly became a single mother. While I have a very supportive and loving family, we don’t live near each other, so there I was: a single, working mom with no family nearby. Parenting in general requires grit, but being a single parent requires an increased level of grit and determination. There were countless nights when I was up all night with a crying baby, and then have to figure out a way to put my best foot forward at work the next day. Doing this night after night without any relief or help has certainly made for one of the most challenging times of my life. But I’ve learned that through hardships, we can receive the amazing gift of compassion — but only if we choose to embrace it. Because of my experience, I am particularly passionate about helping other single mothers. I already had an advanced degree and owned my own business when I became a single mother, and it was still extremely challenging. In fact, it still is. So, I can only imagine how tough it must be for single mothers who might not have the advantages that I do.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
My son was, and continues to be, my daily motivation. I want to be an example to him and raise a man who meets fear with courage and works outside of his comfort zone. Above all, I want to raise a man who is kind and generous. I hope the example I set, and the work that I do, can help him to be rooted in empathy and compassion for others.
So how did Grit lead to your eventual success? How did Grit turn things around?
Grit gave me the ability to dig deep and find strength when I was met with challenges. It gave me the resolve to get up every day and try harder to be a better mom and working professional. Grit made it possible for me to juggle work meetings, preschool drop-offs, work deadlines, and pediatrician appointments. It definitely helped turn things around for me, and it still plays a role as I try to balance leading an amazing organization that so many people turn to for assistance while still being an active and present mom.
So, how are things going today? :-)
Today, I have a beautiful, healthy, spirited six-year-old boy. I have the honor of leading a non-profit organization with a deep, powerful history of empowering others and helping people find their voice. I’d say things are going well and I am thankful for that every day.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes the Chicano Federation stand out is the impact that our programs make in people’s lives. Just last week, I had a conversation with a man who told me that his family utilized Chicano Federation’s services many years ago. He talked about his father, and how reluctant his father was to accept assistance, but that he trusted Chicano Federation because of the history of the organization and the wonderful people who were associated with it. Today, this man has a beautiful family, and owns and operates his own business. He is also very active in the San Diego community and gives back in so many ways. He described Chicano Federation as an organization who supports and encourages families when they need it most. I regularly hear stories about the real, life-changing impact that Chicano Federation makes and how our programs and services address critical needs for our community.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
For me, the key is finding an organization whose mission you truly believe in. I love what I do because the important work my team does has a real, tangible, life-changing impact. When you believe in the cause, it doesn’t feel like work. I truly believe that spreading kindness is the most amazing way to find a healthy sense of importance in our lives.
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?
I was fortunate enough to be raised by parents who dedicated their entire lives to ensuring that me and my brothers had every opportunity to succeed. My parents came to this country with very little, but through hard work and determination, they built a beautiful life for our family. They left a country that they knew and loved for the sole purpose of ensuring that their children would have opportunities that they never had. It was an incredible act of selflessness, and through their example, they instilled in me a relentless determination to be better every day.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I try to be an inspirational leader to my team because they in turn can encourage and motivate the families we work with. I lead a team of 65 individuals whose work directly impacts over 8,000 people each year. I believe that if I can help my team to see the small but significant role they play in the lives of the people who turn to us for assistance, together we can bring some goodness and positivity to our community and to the world.
Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit? (Please share a story or example for each)
1) For me it was extremely important to find something that feels like a natural calling. That required actively searching until I found what I was passionate about. I worked for and volunteered for numerous different non-profits before I found where I was truly meant to be.
2) It is also important to find a role model, mentor or coach to help you improve. I’ve had some incredible mentors along the way who have helped me discover the type of leader I want to be. One of the interesting things I’ve discovered about mentoring is that some of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned have come from coaching others. I’ve never met someone who didn’t have something to teach me.
3) One of the things I have found most helpful is to surround myself with gritty people. I am fortunate to have a network of supportive and caring women who inspire, motivate and challenge me every day.
4) Something that I’ve had to work hard at is reframing the way I look at mistakes or failures, and understanding that it’s ok to make mistakes and fail at something, but it’s not OK to give up or quit. I still have to remind myself that mistakes and failures are opportunities to learn, grow and improve.
5) The other thing that I’ve had to work on is being comfortable with being uncomfortable. Early on in my career, when I often found myself in a room full of executives who were mostly male and white, I had to reassure myself that it was OK to be uncomfortable and that discomfort didn’t mean I wasn’t qualified or didn’t belong in that room.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. ☺
I would start a national non-profit to educate, help, encourage and support single mothers. When I became a single mother, I searched for organizations or support groups that I could join, and I found that there wasn’t much available. I would start a movement that provides single mothers with resources and physical, emotional, and mental support. Not only would this help mothers, but it would also significantly help children. This would have a profound and lasting impact.
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