By Sandy Chase
“Dreaming big”—the foundation upon which UnidosNow thrives—captures Hector Tejeda. Readily identifying with the organization’s youth, Hector continues to mentor college-bound students—providing the best opportunities for success. He’s also been a role model for UnidosNow staff.
Echoing many community leaders, Kelly Kirschner says of UnidosNow’s director of education initiatives: “UnidosNow has been transformed thanks to Hector’s leadership and contributions.”
Kelly adds, “Hector fostered an environment that gave UnidosNow students an Ivy League, best-in-class experience in preparing for college.”
Future Leaders Academy (FLA) Barancik Scholars—many who struggle because of social and economic obstacles—have benefited from Hector’s inspiring mentoring and willingness to do whatever it takes to support them.
- Last year, for example, he drove a student to and from Flagler College in St. Augustine for scholarship interviews, resulting in thousands of dollars in much needed financial aid.
- More recently, he assisted a FLA member in preparing for a virtual interview with Harvard (his graduate alma mater).
But Hector’s mentoring hasn’t been reserved only for college-bound students, as past director of education initiatives and associate executive director, Catalina Kaiyoorawongs attests.
“I hired Hector as a part-time advisor in 2014. Within a short time, it was evident that Hector had a gift for inspiring others—critical to the UnidosNow organization.”
Capturing how mentoring is part of Hector’s DNA, she says, “I trusted his judgment and advice—the essence of a mentor. He inspired me to get my master’s in business administration and to dream big. He always pushed us to dream big.—not just the students. We are indeed the Dream Team.”
“Dreaming big” is reflected by the well-established, structured FLA mentoring program—supported by the staff, educational consultants, volunteers, and community foundations. Mentor and mentee workshops and other dedicated programs enable students, parents, and mentors to think big as well.
FLA Barancik Scholars continue to earn scholarships—being accepted to such schools as Cornell, Yale, Johns Hopkins, and Barnard College (Columbia University). Closer to home, FLA alumni also attend Florida State University, University of Florida, and University of South Florida—some mentoring younger kids, especially during the pandemic.
UnidosNow has positioned itself as a role model for this and future generations—as Hector has proved that by “dreaming big,” dreams get bigger.
What has been your relationship with UnidosNow?
I joined UnidosNow in March 2014 as a part-time advisor. A few months later, I was asked to take on the role of executive director, which I held until December 2015 before retiring. Luz Corcuera, my successor, convinced me to return in May 2016 as director of education initiatives.
What prompted you to seek a position at UnidosNow?
Having moved to Sarasota in 2013, I noted a posting for an outreach- and education-program specialist at UnidosNow. I was excited about the prospect of working for a community organization whose core mission is to support the Latino community, especially with its focus on furthering educational opportunities for Latino youth.
After spending three years as an MBA career advisor at the Wharton School (University of Pennsylvania) and the prior 30 years working for such world-class companies as Merck, Pfizer, and Deloitte, I sought out UnidosNow because I wanted to give back to the community.
I‘m fortunate to have had such a rewarding career, but I could not have done it without the support of so many people along the way. Joining UnidosNow was the best way I could think of to give back.
How has the organization flourished?
The hallmark of UnidosNow’s positioning in the community has been and will continue to be our ability to gain the trust of the Latino population and, as a result, drive grassroots efforts to improve the community. Our founders had a vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream, starting with an emphasis on immigration reform.
Soon thereafter, Catalina was tasked with launching a new education initiative: FLA. With virtually no budget, she recruited the first class of students in the summer of 2013. Working with Robin Groelle, a local educational consultant, they put together a curriculum that set the foundation for our innovative programming today.
To support our longer-term vision of social integration for the Latino community, the board agreed that we needed to focus on our core competence of education attainment, more specifically, college prep, and then expand gradually to broader integration initiatives and community services.
This attention allowed us to build our credibility among key constituencies, including high schools and local colleges, community foundations, and other youth-serving nonprofits.
With the hiring of Luz Corcuera in January 2016, UnidosNow flourished in ways that none of us had ever imagined. Our services expanded to reach younger children and their families, but still with a focus on education and college prep.
Also, we started to reach out to broader student populations, including students planning to attend two-year and technical colleges. And now we are looking to expand our presence in middle schools and increase our support of our students currently in college.
How has your background contributed to its success?
Originally from Guatemala, I was raised by my teenage mother, who at times had to place me and my brother in foster care. As a first-generation, low-income student, I saw firsthand how education could change lives—as it has done mine. In many respects, I could be the poster child for UnidosNow.
With amazing support from the community, I was able to attend Marist College, where I graduated with an accounting degree. I then landed a position with Deloitte in NYC and received my CPA certification. Soon thereafter, I was accepted into Harvard Business School and earned an MBA in general management. My 30-year career was devoted to the pharmaceutical industry in marketing, finance, strategic planning, and management.
In addition to my own college and career journey, I developed a good understanding of the college recruiting and application process, as I guided my children into good-fit schools: Princeton and Colgate universities.
Also, after retiring from corporate America, I spent a few years as a career advisor at Wharton’s MBA program, where I built on my understanding of what it takes to gain admission to and be successful at a highly selective institution.
The common thread throughout all these experiences—and what I hope I have brought to UnidosNow—is the importance of dreaming big and having mentors to guide you.
What have been the challenges? Rewards?
- Creating awareness of the need to support an organization like UnidosNow relative to the many options people and organizations have for giving. It was initially challenging to create brand awareness and establish credibility.
- Addressing substantial needs—with limited staffing and funding.
- Convincing students with tremendous potential to dream big, something many of them have never been encouraged to do.
- Working within the political environment and tackling the hurdles faced by undocumented students and families.
- Helping students at UnidosNow is the most satisfying job I’ve ever had. We change lives.
- Observing UnidosNow grow from a start-up to an organization making a significant impact on the overall community—not only Latinos.
- Enhancing my life, UnidosNow has brought purpose to retirement.
How do you see UnidosNow evolving?
As we look to the future, UnidosNow is well positioned to expand its services in support of our longer-term vision of empowering Latinos to achieve the American dream. These offerings can include initiatives in healthcare, socio-economic advancement, and civic engagement.