“A Better, Fairer Way”
ALTA RODRIGUEZ WAS JUST TEN YEARS OLD WHEN SHE FIRST ENCOUNTERED INJUSTICE IN THE WORKPLACE. Her parents were migrant farm workers; as the oldest of seven children, Rodriguez began picking strawberries in the fields on weekends, school holidays, and during her summer vacations. Working long, arduous days in the hot California sun, she remembers employees often being denied a break to go for a drink of water or to use the restroom. Unless a laborer was among the boss’s preferred group of workers, conditions could be very unpleasant. Even as a child, Rodriguez recognized that there was “a better, fairer way to work.”
Today, Rodriguez is the Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) director for the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) in Washington, D.C. Created by Congress in 1934 in response to the Wall Street crash of 1929, the SEC’s mission is to protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation. As EEO director, Rodriguez oversees and processes complaints of discrimination, and develops programs designed to eliminate barriers to equal employment opportunities in the workplace. “I’m also responsible for diversity training,” she emphasizes, “including establishing a learning objective for SEC employees to understand that, by leveraging our workforce’s diversity, we can use the talents and skills of all employees to support the mission of our organization.”
She attests that her early working experiences left her with a greater appreciation of the impact that individuals can have on a community and future generations. Since joining the SEC a year and a half ago, Rodriguez has been focused on developing a diverse talent pipeline. Her focus is to ensure that the pipeline will supply a first-rate pool of talented men and women from all demographic groups and walks of life from which to draw for employment opportunities. Rodriguez’s goal is to enhance diversity at the SEC specifically, and in the securities industry in general.
With so many affinity groups and organizations active in developing talent, the SEC need not create and sustain a pipeline of its own. Rodriguez’s plan includes tapping into national organizations with extant constituencies to help disseminate information. For example, she has recently connected with the Hispanic Heritage Foundation (an organization that targets Hispanic undergrad and serving women and minorities. “My intention,” explains Rodriguez, “is to leverage those relationships, and to stress to these groups that we can always make a bigger difference and long-lasting impact when we work together. Frequently, I meet with other SEC stakeholders to develop a comprehensive talent strategy for the next ten to fifteen years. We realize that many of us may not be at the SEC by then and that a lot of our plans are still conceptual, but setting the foundation now is critical.”
Currently, Rodriguez and her SEC colleagues have agreed to implement initiatives aimed at increasing financial literacy among minority communities, teachers and, in turn, those teachers’ students. In addition, they want to better inform the public about the SEC’s role, and to reinforce the message that the agency is not some abstract entity, but rather the investor’s advocate and a potential employer.
Rodriguez was born in Mexico and grew up in Southern California. Her father has a sixth-grade education, her mother, less; their fervent hope was for their oldest daughter to finish high school and get a job away from the fields. During a particularly tough time, her parents’ wish was temporarily placed in jeopardy: When she was twelve, Rodriguez’s mother considered having her work picking strawberries full-time. She pleaded with her mother to allow her to remain in school. Ultimately, her father intervened and gave the final word: “Alta will go to school until she no longer wants to go to school.”
As it turned out, Rodriguez chose to continue her education for more years, and in more places, than her parents ever imagined. At the end of high school, she was courted by a pair of persistent recruiters from Smith College, who were eager for Rodriguez to accept a full scholarship. Despite her mother’s wish that she remain close to home, Rodriguez embraced Smith’s generous offer and left California for the east coast. “It was a bit of a culture shock,” she recalls. “Suddenly I knew girls who flew to the Caribbean on a whim; that was hard for me to understand. But I also met middle-class girls on budgets. And then there were those who, like me, could not have been there without complete financial assistance.”
At Smith, Rodriguez earned a degree in government and a certificate in international relations. Her senior year was spent studying at prestigious universities in France, and she remains in touch with her French “mother.” Rodriguez shares that “I will forever be grateful to Smith for paying for my top-notch education and for exposing me to so many things, things that in my wildest imagination, I never thought I would experience.”
Smith had given Rodriguez a new and unhampered outlook on the world; in turn, UCLA Law School offered an introduction to the legal profession. Going in, Rodriguez assumed she would concentrate on civil-rights law, a practice area about which she was very passionate. In her second year, however, she discovered an interest and talent for business law. Upon graduation from law school, Rodriguez was hired as a litigation associate at Ezra & Brutzkus, a small California firm. “It was an exciting experience,” notes Rodriguez. “Once there, I got trial experience right away. The job opened my eyes to what a litigator really does. I loved the adrenaline rush that comes with advocating for your client’s best interests.”
Prior to joining the SEC in October 2008, Rodriguez served in several capacities for the United States Postal Service (USPS). She initially joined the organization in 1999 as an employment litigator in Dallas, working for Doris Godinez-Phillips, who she describes as “a talented attorney and wonderful mentor.” After a year and a half, Rodriguez returned to California and private practice for a time as a litigation associate with Sanchez & Amador, where she benefited from the wisdom and experience of another mentor, Richard Amador.
Rodriguez would return to the USPS in 2003 to counsel managers and employees at its Washington, D.C., headquarters. Three years later, she was elevated to an executive position as Manager of National Diversity Initiatives for the USPS, where she led a network of 130 diversity specialists serving approximately 700,000 postal employees nationwide.
“The USPS was an amazing training ground for me,” Rodriguez states without hesitation. “Handling so many EEO complaints, I naturally had a lot of interaction with employees and management. It taught me about the importance of solid communication between managers and employees, and the benefits of helping the parties resolve the underlying issue so that they can move forward in their working relationship. It was also at the USPS where I first cut my teeth in the diversity arena, developing initiatives that clearly highlighted the financial benefits of leveraging the talents and skills of a diverse workforce.”
For the foreseeable future, Rodriguez’s desire is to remain with the SEC, either at her current job or in a position in another department where she can expand her skills and contribute to the SEC’s success. In addition to the excitement of returning to civil rights law, her old passion, Rodriguez is thrilled to be able to add value to the SEC’s mission and, in her own way, help to protect investors. “When I look to the future,” she concludes, “the possibilities here are endless. The SEC is a wonderful place to work, and I am extremely proud to be a part of the commission’s team.” DB
Patrick Folliard is a freelance writer based in Silver Spring, Md.
From the July/August 2010 issue of Diversity & The Bar®