You’ve been adapting to new environments since you were little.
When I was 5, my mother and I moved from San Juan, Puerto Rico, to New London, Connecticut, where she was recruited to be a social worker. I spoke very limited English. I remember getting to kindergarten and the teacher speaking to me. I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Looking back, I see I was very lucky. My mother instilled in me a sense of flexibility—geographic flexibility and flexibility in terms of how you relate to people.
How has that affected your career philosophy?
If something isn’t working for you, you should do something else. I went to Tufts University and studied international relations. I started as an analyst in investment banking in Puerto Rico. I did that for two years, but the banking world didn’t fulfill me. It just wasn’t my tribe.
So what did you do?
I moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at a strategic communications public affairs firm. I started at the bottom, as an assistant. I scheduled meetings for the partners, and I would just join the meetings. No one told me not to sit in, so I kept doing it. I was able to gain an understanding of the business. That really helped shape my career. I was there for five years, and I was promoted to a managing director role.
How did you end up at Estée Lauder?
A dear friend and mentor was working here and had decided it was time to leave the company. We were having dinner, and I was pitching her that my firm could help when she transitioned into her new job. She just looked at me and said, “I don’t think you understand what this dinner is about.” She wanted to recommend me at Estée Lauder.
After eight years there, you were approached by the First Lady’s office.
Another mentor in my career put my name in the ring. It was totally unexpected. I had to pinch myself at every moment in the interview process.
You were communications director for Michelle Obama for two years. What did you learn from her?
She expanded my way of thinking and approaching problems and helped me look at things in a much more creative light.
What brought you back to Estée Lauder?
I am really proud to be my son’s mother, and I’ve come back to a company that sees value in that. It allows me to be committed to being an executive as well as a mom and a wife. In my new role, I report directly to the CEO and the chairman, and I get to work with people I know. I can go into the office and have “the real conversation.” I don’t have to mince words. When you start with a new company and a new group of people, sometimes real conversations are hard to have.
What’s a lesson you’ve learned?
Remain open to opportunity and be fearless in how you go for it. As you get older, it can be harder to be fearless because you have more responsibility. I have a husband and a son now. I think that’s when you have to push yourself even more and surround yourself with people who are equal parts encouraging and truth-telling.
What do you mean?
Sometimes we can believe our own PR. You need to have enough people around who are saying, “No, that opportunity isn’t the right one for you.”
What type of leader are you?
I really believe in the “servant leadership” approach, where you empower the team and bring out their collective best. That doesn’t mean consensus. It means playing to people’s strengths.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made and learned from?
At times, earlier in my career, I was too trusting of people and didn’t fully appreciate that sometimes what someone else wants isn’t the same thing you want. I’ve learned to be far more discerning.
How is your life outside of work?
My life is messy but fun. My son is nearly 5. He keeps my husband and me on our toes. I am really lucky.
Be courageous about going after what you think is important and transformative for your life.