When Jennifer Rodrigues was growing up, she wanted to be an archaeologist so she could dig deep into other cultures. “I was and am fascinated with knowing that we can learn so much from our ancestors and ancient civilizations,” she says. Today, she’s applying that cultural curiosity to her colleagues and the Rutgers students she mentors by helping them feel comfortable celebrating their heritage. She’s also using it to build and foster diverse connections at Prudential Financial as a vice president and business ethics officer.
“As the world becomes more fluid, everyone will need to learn to embrace differences,” Rodrigues UCN’99 says. What that looks like in the workplace, though, can seem ambiguous, especially for those who began their careers in companies where corporate culture reigned supreme. Here, she offers some insights on bringing the best of her heritage into her work—and encourages others to do the same.
Look at corporate culture as a baseline
Corporate culture isn’t inherently a problem, says Rodrigues. It can help employees find a common ground and set expectations, such as what it means to treat others with respect. “Where we can go askew is when we dismiss our values or bifurcate, acting one way at home and another way at work,” says Rodrigues. “I think we need to look at corporate culture as a baseline, then bring the best of our personal culture forward and look at how it can support or influence our work.” For example, she says Latinos are known for being warm, personable, and family oriented, which are important qualities when it comes to showing empathy and emotional support for colleagues at times when other leaders may seem distant.
Her one caveat: Take time to understand the norms of any new environment before you open up too much about your own culture.
Learn to accept without judgment
Accepting others doesn’t mean becoming them or even agreeing with them. It’s about recognizing that people are exposed to different things over the years. “If you eat white bread and I eat wheat bread, there’s nothing controversial about that,” she says. “The idea is to open your mind to different traditions and absorb without judgement because that’s when you really start breaking down the barriers.”
The beauty of this, she says, is that you’ll have a wider array of approaches to draw from in any situation—at work, school, or home. “If you recognize ‘Jen does it like this, and I do it like this,’ you can look at a situation and decide which way might provide a better outcome,” she explains. “It’s not always about what’s right or wrong—sometimes it’s situational.”
Avoid pigeonholing yourself
While employee resource groups and business resource groups can be a great source of support, Rodrigues says to be careful you don’t let them create a deeper divide. “Put yourself out there among people who are different from you—whether it’s in a resource group or in your personal life,” she says. “It’s great to be in groups that have a commonality with you but try to learn from groups that are different from you, too.” Put another way, make it a point to join groups where you’re a supporter, and not just the main target audience.
In the same vein, be careful not to stereotype others. “The reality is that every single person has a different upbringing,” says Rodrigues, whose parents—from Peru and Spain—met in New York City and moved their family from New Jersey to the Canary Islands when Rodrigues was an infant. “Our family traditions are a blend of Peruvian, Spanish, Cuban, and American. It’s unique to our family,” she says. “Not assuming stereotypes for others will help you to acknowledge their individual journeys.”
Be deliberate about diversity in mentorships
Think about your past and present mentors, says Rodrigues. Is there any diversity in there in terms of culture, gender, or geography? “Your mentors tend to be the people in your circle, and the people in your circle tend to be the people in your community, and they are often the people who look like you,” she says. Breaking out of that rut and creating a diverse network has to be deliberate, she notes. “You need to consciously say ‘I want to get a new perspective’ so that you will have a broad array of people that you can tap into.”
Likewise, leaders need to support diverse ideas from people of all cultures—and that must be deliberate, too. “If we want to make real progress, we need to lean into this, and it starts from the top down,” she says. “That can look like asking people about their culture and opening up about yours. It also means calling out other leaders when you’re seeing inequities—not to embarrass them but to help the culture shift.”
Draw strength from your cultural heritage
Whatever challenges life throws at her, Rodrigues draws inspiration from previous generations—particularly her parents. “I am always in awe of their determination and perseverance,” she says. “They emigrated by themselves to a country that was a compilation of different languages, customs, and values. They opened their minds and hearts to learning about other cultures and celebrating differences. I often compare the challenges I have to the ones they have and come to the same conclusion: they persevered and worked hard to give the next generation more opportunities and options. I am committed to carrying that torch forward.”
If you don’t know much about your cultural heritage, there’s no time like the present to learn more. Ask family members to share their stories, research your family tree, or visit a place your ancestors once called home. The more you learn, the more you can draw from when you need a little inspiration of your own.
Learn more about Alumni Resources for Hispanic Heritage Month.
This resource guide is part of the Heritage Honors Series, which seeks to openly explore different perspectives by thoughtfully recognizing the beauty of individual differences as honored through a collective experience rooted in acknowledgement, understanding, and celebration. It was developed in partnership with Alumni Workplace Engagement and Alumni Career Resources and features prominent Rutgers alumni providing expert knowledge on timely topics.