Juan Fernando Lopera is vice president and corporate business diversity officer at Tufts Health Plan. Here, he talks about how he leveraged his ethnicity as a business asset — and finally felt comfortable in his own skin. — as told to Katie Johnston
My first job was at Deloitte, which has a very traditional career path. It’s one of those “you’re moving up or you’re moving out” type models. Everyone had to do X number of years at every level, then go back and get an MBA, so they could move up. I didn’t pursue that path. I remember a manager who fit the perfect mold of a consultant — white male, Harvard Business School — telling me if I didn’t pursue the traditional path, I wouldn’t make it to manager, or director, or vice president. But I was very much against standardized testing and I knew the GMAT was a big barrier.
As an inner city Boston Public School system student, I had scored pretty poorly on the SAT. If you were well off, and you had the resources, which I never had, you could pay to prepare how to take a test. Some of the questions were so far removed from what I had experienced or learned in school: I had to know about specific English literature that as an immigrant from Colombia I never had access to. There’s been plenty written about how standardized tests are full of biases, they don’t work for everyone, especially if you’re an immigrant or a person of color. I knew that my full potential was not defined by a GMAT score.
I’ve had to really pivot, in many ways, to continue to climb.
At Tufts, I went to Tom Croswell, who was chief operating officer at the time, and I said, look, our region is becoming increasingly diverse, yet the data shows that our customer base is not keeping up with that demographic shift. In 2015, Massachusetts was 28 percent ethnically diverse, and our customer base was about 15 percent diverse. Tom recognized the importance of diversity, and we worked together to build a case that put that gap into business terms: If we reflected the population, we could potentially enroll an additional 270,000 members and bring in $2.2 billion in revenue. And if we were able to address health disparities — diabetes occurs at a higher rate for Blacks and Latinos, as does hypertension and high cholesterol — then medical costs would come down and outcomes would improve.
My big concern was that people would say, well, that’s the exact population we want to avoid. So I also pointed out the healthy attributes of diverse populations — the fact that on average, Latinos, and African Americans are younger, which means that just by virtue of age you’re dealing with a healthier population on average.
In 2015, when Tom became CEO, he established a five-year goal to increase the diversity of the membership by 50 percent. Fast forward five years, we hit a 50 percent increase. I honestly think that, if I hadn’t leveraged my own life experience and taken on this initiative, I probably would have waited a long time for the traditional path to promotion, one that isn’t as accessible to people of color.
It wasn’t until I was able to make diversity the forefront of my job that I felt like suddenly I could be myself. I could proudly use my entire name: Juan Fernando Lopera, and double down on my accent without having to make it sound American. Once I could reflect my own experience and feel comfortable in my own skin, and use this as an asset for the company, I felt liberated knowing I didn’t have to try to sound like a white executive. Earlier in my career, my performance reviews would often be about communication effectiveness. Maybe that shows up for most leaders, but I’m sensitive to it as an English-language learner.
There are certain words in English that just don’t roll off my Spanish tongue, like “juncture,” so if I’m making a presentation I completely avoid them. Latinos can also be long-winded at times. The American style is you’ve got to say things in a succinct way with the least amount of words. I’ve had to adapt to the traditional way of communicating in the professional world, which tends to be the dominant way of doing things. It’s a subtle but damaging form of bias. I see that with my other minority colleagues, who feel that they have to become more white in order to fit in. The current racial equality movement is teaching all of us that we should be able to be unapologetically Black or Latino. We also have more white allies than ever before who are willing to advocate on our behalf.
I’ve noticed throughout my career that foul language is used freely by some white male leaders, perhaps as a way of showing dominance. I caught myself once or twice, feeling like OK, maybe for me to get my point across, I should use s---, or an F-bomb. But that’s just not me. I just felt like they had access to those words that I didn’t.
I’ve never been shy about letting my Latinoism or multiculturalism come out, but it fell on deaf ears for the most part until I’d say five or six years ago. Unfortunately, you usually have to be higher up in a position of leadership to get people to pay attention. I had to put the diversity work in business terms. I couldn’t simply say, you should do this because it’s the right thing to do. Today, more organizations are recognizing the moral imperative, as well as the business opportunity, that diversity brings.
I always felt like I made it to Boston College with a full-ride scholarship because they had spots that were reserved to check the box for kids like me. I think that same thought carried into my first job at Deloitte. It’s something that’s always in the back of your head as a diverse individual: Is the company simply doing this because they’re trying to check the box? Regardless, my attitude is always, OK, if I’m given the opportunity, I’m going to make the best of it. There was that chip on my shoulder that I needed to go the extra mile. That’s one of the reasons that drives me to do a lot of extracurricular civic-engagement activities, because I know the traditional employee at every place I’ve worked has been focused on the 9 to 5. My peers might be on one or two boards. But I’m on seven.
There have been those junctures in my career where I’ve had to reinvent myself and really become my own best marketing officer. I feel like more traditional white colleagues don’t have to be so proactive, so on their guard all the time. Their paths are usually more clear.
Juan Fernando Lopera can be reached at email@example.com.
Part of an occasional series of personal essays by people of color working in the Boston area. To tell your story, contact workplace reporter Katie Johnston at firstname.lastname@example.org.