Welcome to FNEI Insights, a new series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. In honor of Hispanic Heritage Month Sept. 15 through Oct. 15, we talked to Omar Vargas, Global Head of Government Affairs at 3M, about how his life experiences have shaped his passion for government affairs and his interest in helping people, including giving back to the Hispanic community.
If you ask Omar Vargas about his childhood in an urban and mainly African-American New Jersey neighborhood, you will hear stories about people from all over the world who chose to create a close community. Growing up, he spent hours playing chess on the stoop of a neighborhood building with older European, Jewish and Sicilian immigrants. A Turkish couple who lived on the floor above him and had few if any visitors doted on Omar and his brothers and insisted they refer to them as their "grandparents."
“There was an older German-American couple who lived next door and let us climb their cherry trees,” he said. “We’d pick cherries and Mrs. Vogel would make cherry pie and we’d eat some of the fresh berries.”
Watching the son of a blue-collar family who lived a few doors down from him get laid off and slowly destroy his life with drinking — something that devastated his family — made a huge impact on Omar and how he thinks about his work in government affairs.
“That’s just a small story of what can happen when someone's life falls apart after a job ends, after they're laid off when the economy is bad,” he said. “Economic decisions, fiscal policy, corporate decisions, they have an impact on people's lives. It's not just one life … we all have to keep in mind that multiple lives are impacted by a decision.”
When he was in high school, Omar and his family relocated to an affluent neighborhood in North New Jersey, where they were one of the few Hispanic families. He and his older brother “were maybe among only four or five Hispanics in a school of 500 kids,” he said.
A few years later at a high school reunion, some of Omar’s former classmates confessed they didn’t realize he lived in the town and had assumed he had been bussed in to attend their school all those years.
“From that point forward, I found myself really interested in and involved with finding myself in conversations about ethnicity and race,” he said. “And going all in with trying to help educate and elevate different diverse views and ethnic groups. ... I was also eager to learn more from others about their experiences and how they view the world in ethnic and diverse terms.”
Committing to Diversity in the Workplace
In college, Omar and his then-girlfriend (and now wife) organized Latin music concerts and Spanish poetry readings and focused on sharing the diversity of their culture, something they inspire their children to do today. To fully commit to celebrating different cultures at work, with everyone so busy at their jobs, he wonders if workplaces should create the equivalent of a student activities coordinator, “someone whose job is to coordinate activities, help gather the volunteers and just drive these things.”
For companies who are just now coming around to focus on diversity and inclusion, don’t let being late to the conversation hold you back, Omar advises. “There's no such thing as taking too long. Just go ahead and do it when you’re ready.”
Omar combines his laser-sharp focus on government affairs with a strong commitment to helping people. At 3M, he supports leading about 50 government affairs professionals throughout the 3M Corporate Affairs organization “who sit around the world, in different capitals, and in the markets that are really important to the company,” he said.
A Personal Commitment to Diversity
“My government affairs philosophy over the years has been thinking about how we are a cost center, we have to demonstrate our value to the people who work very hard to design and sell something every day. And so the most meaningful way a government affairs organization can support a company, especially a really robust, vigorous, diverse company like 3M, is how do we help to navigate the policy, legislative or regulatory environment, and the political environment, in a way that advances the company's goals,” he said. “And it's not about lobbying for special benefits or special interest deals. That's not it at all. As the government becomes more and more of a regulator and more and more of a customer, it's critical for a company to understand how to talk to and motivate that customer.”
Outside of his work at 3M, Omar has previously served as the president of the HNBA Legal Education Fund, the only non-profit organization affiliated with the Hispanic National Bar Association (HNBA). HNBA identifies and provides financial assistance to programs that address education and the law within the U.S. Hispanic community and the legal profession.
“For me, it was not so much about business development or professional development. … It was about developing a diverse pipeline for the legal profession. And advocating that not only do we need diversity in terms of lawyers, itself, but we could use diversity in legal support staff,” he said. “So legal assistants, paralegals, administrative assistance, we could use greater diversity in the fields like my own, where we are not a practicing litigator, or as a counselor at law, but we're informing, we're advising, we're developing policy, we're advocates for a company.”
Celebrating Diversity Year Round
Omar is a strong advocate of Hispanic Heritage Month but is also interested in continuing the conversation year-round.
“It’s like what I say about Valentine's Day … if you really love somebody, love them all year long, not just on one day,” he said. “If you really want to emphasize that you know diversity and inclusion, and elevate how we involve Hispanics and other minorities or other genders and gender types into the conversation, let's do it all the time.”
Acknowledging the diversity within Hispanic culture is also key, Omar said, whose mother is Puerto Rican and father immigrated from Ecuador to the United States in the early 1970s.
“We have a really diverse family. Our family today, my father’s brothers and sisters married Colombians Nicaraguans, Mexicans … one of my brothers is married to a woman whose family is from the Dominican Republic, and another brother married a woman whose family's Brazilian and Portuguese. My wife is Spanish. And so my point of sharing all of this is, if you want to see the pan-American organization of Hispanic culture, come to a family wedding because you'll see there are really profound, fun and interesting cultural differences. There are language differences, even mindsets and approaches that we look at differently. Ultimately, a passion for life is the common thread.”
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