Santiago Villegas is Co-Founder and Owner of 1903 PR. His award-winning PR strategies have motivated multimillion-dollar investments.
For historically disenfranchised and underrepresented people, one of the most common obstacles faced is navigating spaces we have never experienced or been exposed to. For those who grew up in families and communities where many people work low-wage jobs, higher education may be inaccessible or incarceration may be a common experience, you might believe this must be the only life possible. When you only see limited options in the world around you, it can be hard to imagine anything beyond it for yourself.
Underrepresented people can design a new life for themselves, but entering new spaces such as college or the corporate world is uncharted territory for many. There are rules and expectations you might have never come across before and have to quickly learn, such as how to speak, how to dress, how to act and so much more. The historical exclusion creates these cultural expectations for people from non-white backgrounds and can make places feel so foreign.
This can lead to people entering new spaces only to feel “othered,” self-selecting out or being gated from success. Being made to feel like you don’t fit in based on others’ ideas of what that looks like can be a roadblock. Take a look at the top of the corporate ladder: Despite 75% of Black women describing themselves as “very ambitious,” according to a study by SurveyMonkey and CNBC, they only make up 1% of the C-suite.
As a gay, Latinx, first-generation college graduate from a family of field workers, I had no blueprint to follow beyond that of my family’s footsteps. This is a reality that isn’t unique to me because many are feeling their way in the dark with no path laid for them. The realities I had to face throughout my own journey in my chosen career of public relations were fraught with lessons learned that, I hope, can provide insights to others who trek their own path.
Be fearless, and recognize what you’ve already achieved.
The fear of the unknown can be daunting, but ground yourself by taking the time to look at what you’ve already accomplished. Know your truth: You’ve already had to overcome more barriers than many others to make it where you are today. Celebrate every victory, small and large. There are more battles to face as you take your next steps, but fight the desire to have tunnel vision with the knowledge and confidence that you can accomplish your goals.
Reflection is also an important tool you can use against the imposter syndrome that I’ve found many BIPOC and LGBTQ+ people experience in majority white, straight, male spaces. As you face challenges and backlash, remind yourself — and those around you — of what you’re capable of and, more than that, you deserve to be here.
Venture on, even when people project their insecurities onto you.
Entering the corporate world was completely new to me and definitely an eye-opener to the types of obstacles and treatment I would experience. There was never a point in my journey that others didn’t weaponize my intelligence, ability, youth and identity against me. But the most demoralizing part was receiving that treatment from people I expected to be allies — people who shared my background, ethnicity, skin color or sexuality. This proved to me how toxic corporate culture could be and that even individuals who themselves were victims to this system could then perpetuate its prejudices against others.
I walked away from these experiences having learned this treatment is not a reflection of me, but of the perpetrators and their own shortcomings. I believe this all comes from a deep place of insecurity that has nothing to do with those targeted, so don’t let it make you feel inferior. You are not. Take insults and slights for what I believe they are: nothing more than a coping mechanism used to make people feel big. Refuse to carry others’ baggage and I believe your journey will be lighter.
Find allies where you can, and ask for what you want and need.
The heroes and villains in my story were not always who I expected them to be. Just as we expect others to check their biases against us, for our benefit, we must do the same for everyone we meet. Never judge a book by its cover because you might find support in the most unexpected of places.
Allowing others to show me who they are is probably the most valuable lesson I’ve taken from my journey. In my experience, people have disappointed me, but more crucially to where I am now, they’ve pleasantly surprised me, too. It was only by being open and receptive to everyone I met, rather than creating superficial judgments, that I allied with the people who helped me along my journey. Creating a network of people who are here to support you and champion you will undoubtedly help you along your path.
I guarantee that you are not the only person who sees or experiences systemic problems. I co-founded my PR agency with a white woman who was my senior at a previous firm. It was through open conversations with each other that we found we shared similar frustrations with our industry and desired the same things. Our partnership enabled us to envision a new future for us and what PR could be. Approach others with a willingness to listen and learn, and the fruits of those partnerships can put you on the right path.
Many of us face exclusion and insecurity in uncharted spaces because they were not built with a diverse group of people in mind. But I believe it is entirely possible to navigate it all with fearlessness, self-assurance and building/nurturing connections. As you make your own way and reach new heights, remember you are a pioneer who can tangibly affect the world around you for the better. Remember, too, to keep a hand extended behind you for those who are also navigating the unknown.