Most people have not had a boss who looks like me.
A post for the past, present and future me.
I look like the woman at the laundromat. I look like the waitstaff at your corporate function. You might look at your home or office cleaning staff and see my reflection. I look like the front cover of the New York Times. A mother squeezed into a photo of migrants crossing the border.
When I started at ThoughtMatter full-time in 2018 after years of being a contractor, I looked like a young woman from what former president Donald Trump called a “shithole country”. While I was learning how to use my keycard and finding the best lunch spots in my new work neighborhood, my birth country was thrust into the cultural conversation. The reality of being born in El Salvador, a small, historically poor, Central American country, is that I look like many things — an executive or leader typically not being one of them.
Most people have not had a boss who looks like me.
As the newly-named Managing Partner of an award-winning, New York City design studio, why would I lead with what I look like? I’ve achieved this accomplishment through hard work, resilience, talent, education and dedication, yet I’m stuck with the label of being “exceptional” based on how I look. It’s more comfortable that way. More comfortable for everyone but me.
Being “exceptional” minimizes the roadblocks, racist comments and unconscious bias that the circumstances of my birth and the way I look have forced me to tackle. Being “exceptional” means people asking why it matters that I am a five-foot (on a good day), Salvadoran-American with a husky, opinionated voice? The answer, storytelling.
Many years ago, I saw a video of a prominent graphic designer taking the piss out of storytelling. I watched as a designer said that now everyone thinks they are a storyteller, even roller coaster designers. He was having fun at the expense of the design industry. His message: “Don’t take yourself so seriously.”
I bought into it. I vowed to never call myself a storyteller again. I was wrong.
Stories matter. The people telling these stories matter even more. Stories celebrate, inspire and clarify. Stories are affirming to those outside the dominant narrative and help turn condemnation for otherness into celebration.
Over the years at ThoughtMatter, stories like mine have helped inform our brand-building work with THINX, orgs like NKG Pace and communities in Downtown Staten Island. They are reflected in everything from our redesign of the Constitution for a new generation to protest posters we created for the Women’s March. I have also carved out a leadership role for myself amid our Founder’s assurances, “Jessie this is your studio. You are running it every day, do it your way.” To make those words official, I put together a proposal to be a partner. I searched every inch of the internet. The young, brown, adopted girl inside me, conditioned to question what’s real and what’s temporary, wondered if it was possible. Could I really be a partner? Imposter syndrome reared its ugly head. Why did I want to be a partner in a business I was already running?
I was raised in white spaces, but I am not white. In fact, I wrote an entire essay about it to get into grad school. It was fun and flirty, involved colorful brand references and got me into the MPS of Branding program at SVA. That was over a decade ago. Since that cute little essay, I have seen this country fracture along race lines, I’ve seen folks finally opening their eyes to what has been here since our founding. A bias, unconscious or conscious, against anyone who is not white. I realize it is important to name what is many times uncomfortable to discuss.
I have never had a boss who looks like me.
I’ve had a number of female mentors and leaders, but I have never had a mentor, boss or CEO who was not white or white-presenting. This matters because we become the stories we tell ourselves, as well as the stories we are told. Stories like mine can help empower a startup, organization or global corporation by ensuring such experiences are embodied in its brand.
As Managing Partner of ThoughtMatter, I am committed to telling a new story. An ever-evolving story where having a boss that looks like me is exceptionally unexceptional. I will do this with a narrative centered around the values below.
Be uncomfortable, do better.
Talented creatives need someone who is responsible for day-to-day decisions, and at ThoughtMatter that person is now me. I’m finding and defining my leadership style and voice, but I’m not the only one who has work to do. That means an end to interviews where prospects stand up when someone else enters the room but stay seated for me. No more new hires asking when they can have face time with the boss during our one-on-ones. No more vendors and clients assuming someone else has the final word. Together, we’re working to change these perceptions. We’re getting uncomfortable to get better.
Center impact and accountability.
When I attend an industry conference at a banquet hall, I go to great lengths to avoid wearing all black and having to tell people, “Sorry, I don’t work here.” Which has happened more times than I can count. What this exchange makes clear is that I’m not supposed to be at the table, in the room or at the event unless I am serving them. The truth is I am where I am today because I have always prioritized other people’s comfort at my own expense. I now have the platform, power and influence to be honest about impact and discuss accountability. This is ongoing work at ThoughtMatter and as partner, I am using my power and influence to keep us moving forward.
Making a difference is measurable.
Years of disappointments in championing diversity has taught me that making a difference is measurable. Good intentions are not. If someone says they want to hire a diverse team or support diverse voices, but everyone on their team or in power looks the same, then what they are saying is just words. I will continue to work every day at ThoughtMatter to make measurable progress. We believe in the power of design to make a positive difference in people’s lives and use our impact to hold ourselves to it.
I love being part of the design industry, graphic design specifically. My bookshelves are adorned with what feels like every Steven Heller book out there. I have Milton Glaser posters, stickers, buttons and I should admit I have posters and ephemera by most of the AIGA medalists over the last 20 years. I fangirl over the Design Matters and Clever podcasts. I go into the Rizzoli bookstore monthly to flip through Swiss and European design books. I know the late 90s and early aughts have shaped my aesthetic, like my love for platform shoes, and a piece of me will always be in awe of design’s power, influence and ability to shape the world around us.
But for all my love and adoration, the graphic design industry has not given many reflections of my lived experience in return. I now realize, like the clip clap of my chunky, decades-old platform sandals, it’s time to move forward and look for stronger support for my story (and my ankles).
With my new title of Managing Partner, I plan to honor design’s past, while adamantly and relentlessly pushing for progress.
The next time you see me at an industry event or come in for a visit, remember that I don’t look like what society has told us a boss looks like, but I am an equal partner. I am on a mission to show the industry and beyond that the top of the org chart should and can look like the world we live in. Full of people in all shapes, sizes, ages, colors, abilities, economic statuses and lived experiences, no matter how short, brown and loud.