Welcome to FNEI Insights, a blog series where FNEI interviews thought leaders about issues informing sustainable and socially responsible business practices in a variety of industries. In honor of National Hispanic American Heritage Month Sept. 15 through Oct. 15 we talked to Patricia Villarreal Tamez, government relations advisor at Shell, about how her heritage has influenced her career and how she continues to honor the contributions of the Hispanic community.
Culture has always been an important part of Patricia Villarreal Tamez’s life. Born and raised along the U.S.-Mexico border in McAllen, Texas, Villarreal Tamez says she grew up in a traditional Mexican American family who took pride in their heritage. In her early years, she would travel back and forth to Mexico to visit with her paternal grandmother who lived on the other side of the Rio Grande.
Although her mother and father didn’t have access to resources like higher education, Villarreal Tamez says both of her parents worked hard to give their children the opportunities they never had. Villarreal Tamez’s current roles as government relations advisor at Shell and board member of the Hispanic Lobbyists Association may just be the proof that all of that hard work paid off.
“Everything I do, every success I have, is a reflection of my parents and the sacrifices they, and my ancestors, made to give me a better life,” she says. “Their hard work and sacrifice are reflective of the Hispanic community.”
At a time when everything feels divisive, Villarreal Tamez believes movements like National Hispanic American Heritage Month are the perfect opportunity to create a culture of understanding and encourage unity. She says that she and her siblings were always raised to celebrate their Hispanic roots while also celebrating the privilege of being Americans.
“To me, that is what Hispanic Heritage Month is about,” Villarreal Tamez notes. “It is to recognize the contributions, honor the history, and learn about the diverse Hispanic community, which is often not represented in textbooks, in mainstream media, or in our leading cultural institutions.”
In celebration of National Hispanic American Heritage Month, FNEI interviewed Villarreal Tamez about her heritage, how it has influenced her career, and how she continues to honor the contributions of the Hispanic community and give back some of what she has received.
How has your background shaped your passion for government affairs and for organizing and empowering diverse communities?
I believe our politics and passions are shaped by events that happen in our lives. I grew up in a low-income neighborhood and had a love for immersing myself in learning. My second-grade teacher advocated for me to move to a school with better educational opportunities across town.
There weren’t any kids from my neighborhood at this school and while I appreciated being there, it was also a burden. It was the first time I realized things weren’t always fair or equal. Whenever I would see an injustice, my Mom would refocus my frustrations into action and tell me, “Instead of complaining, do something about it.” That desire to “do something about it” led me to a career in public policy.
My first job was in the Texas Legislature. I enjoyed it so much I moved to Washington, D.C. While I worked on Capitol Hill, the focus was on the congressional districts that my members of Congress represented.
In my 12 years on Capitol Hill, I worked for members that represented districts very similar to the area I grew up in and with a large minority and Hispanic population. I thoroughly enjoyed letting their voices be heard and finding solutions to the challenges they were facing.
That passion is still with me working for Shell. Energy costs are often a disproportionate share of low-income families’ budgets, and they often live closer to industrial areas. Finding ways to provide affordable energy and ensuring Latino and low-income families aren’t left behind as we transition to a cleaner energy future is my daily motivation.
How did you get involved with the Hispanic Lobbyists Association (HLA)?
The Hispanic Lobbyists Association was founded in 2006 to advance opportunities for Latino professionals in the field of government relations. While the number of Latinos in government affairs has grown over the years, there are still many times our members are the only diverse voices in the room. HLA provides the opportunity for fellowship and fosters mentorship and professional development opportunities. Many of HLA’s members were my mentors and helped me navigate Washington, D.C. I subscribe to the “each one teach one” philosophy and was eager to join the board to help expand mentorship opportunities for Hispanic congressional staff and HLA’s members.
Why do you think it is important for the lobbying world to recognize and celebrate different cultures and their contributions?
By definition, diversity is the “practice of including or involving people from a range of different backgrounds.” As a lobbyist, your goal is to represent your organization’s interests, whether that is a corporation, a charity, or a health group, and answer questions policymakers have on the impact a proposal or regulation would have on the group. Doing that effectively requires you to establish trust with a broad range of lawmakers whose job is to represent their particular communities. That is where having varying perspectives is critical to your success.
What is your government affairs philosophy, and how does diversity factor into that philosophy?
Being honest and having integrity are the values I focus on in my personal and professional life. I am passionate about the work Shell is doing, and the diversity of thought allows me to bring a perspective to Shell and approach my work in a unique way.
We have a lot of challenges as a society, and I don’t believe any one of us — or any one party — has all the answers. Throughout my career on Capitol Hill, I worked for moderate members of Congress who focused on getting to know people and took the time to understand their viewpoint. I have carried that approach with me in the lobbying field and am constantly challenging assumptions (i.e., Democrats would never support that or Republicans will support this), seeking common ground, and trying to bring strange bedfellows together.
Bringing in different viewpoints and negotiating for the greater good is what policymaking should be. Congressman Solomon Ortiz, who I had the privilege of working with for many years, used to tell me, “When everyone is mad about something, that is when you have a good bill.” We’ve gotten away from that and now have zero-sum politics with the pendulum swinging hard one way or the other. That approach erodes trust in society and, for businesses, makes it harder to develop a long-term investment strategy.
What are some of the specific ways you integrate diversity into your role as government relations advisor at Shell?
My diversity of thought is unique to me. I am the only person on my team who has the experience I have and that is something I have worked on owning. It isn’t always easy. I didn’t grow up in a corporate culture, and I certainly didn’t expect to work for one of the largest companies in the world.
There are many times I am “the only” in the room and have trained myself to look at that as a superpower rather than some sort of deficiency. I have enjoyed participating in the Shell Hispanic Employee Network and showcasing the work Shell does in communities across the country (and world) to a diverse set of stakeholders.
What advice would you give other business leaders looking to better honor and celebrate different cultures and their contributions?
As the discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace has increased, the most important thing is to be vulnerable. We focus a lot on having a learner mindset at Shell, which at its core, is being curious and open to listening to others and learning about their experiences. Diversity in your company or organization is a strength, and inclusive leadership will bring greater results in the workplace.