Innovate Employee Spotlight for Hispanic Heritage Month: Innovate President Lily Thomas
Why is it essential to celebrate Hispanic Heritage Month? What does it mean to you/why is it important to recognize it?
Well, as you can imagine I’m very proud to be Mexican, even though I’ve lived here, gosh longer than I lived in Mexico. For me, it’s very personal. I believe it’s important to recognize it and remind ourselves and raise awareness that this country is full of immigrants. Sometimes people don’t recognize it, or they just don’t want to. So, this is a great opportunity to remind us that we are all equal and that there are other immigrants in this country. I am very happy that they do it and I love the festivals that they do. I love all the events that occur during this time, because even for me, with my children, it helps me have another place where I can show them the traditions, the culture, the food, everything. I think it’s great that they do it. As a Mexican, I really thank the country for taking the time to celebrate us Hispanics.
What is one struggle you see affecting the Latinx people in our community and what solution would you recommend/what do you think needs to be done?
The first one that comes to my mind right away is that we’re not treated equally. We’re often seen as coming from third world countries and people who cannot contribute a lot to this country – when in reality, Latinos have made a long-lasting and very far-reaching impact on the world, not just here in our country. I don’t know a specific solution, other than educating people so they view all people as equal. That’s one of the struggles that I have and that I see other people going through as well.
What were specific challenges you faced starting Innovate as a Hispanic woman?
One of the first challenges I faced is people saw me as a foreigner. They look at your education as one of the first things (oh, you didn’t graduate from a well-known American university). Yes, we were denied certifications when we first started the company, because of my lack of a college degree at the beginning. Then the other challenge was speaking the English language. I was denied employment during my first years here in the U.S. because of my thick accent and lack of understanding of U.S. slang. So those were some of my struggles personally.
How has your Latin heritage influenced your professional career?
Growing up in a lower-income Mexico household, I learned to appreciate things early in life. You grow up with certain things and you live beneath your means, and I learned that I need to work hard to get where I want to go. So, that’s what I’ve been doing since we created Innovate, and I mean even before focusing on Innovate. I knew that if we want to go farther, it was like, “You gotta go, go, go, go, girl.” And that’s what we do, we just work really hard.
What is the one thing you hope others will appreciate about the Hispanic culture? Or what is one thing you’d like others to know about your heritage?
That we are a hardworking people and that we’re not here to steal anybody’s jobs. We’re very loving, compassionate people, and I would really love for other people to know that. I came to this country for love, but there’s so many, many people that come to this country for work and finding a better future for themselves and their family. And so, now, I just think that that’s one big thing about Latin people, that we are a very hardworking people. That’s one of the things that I’m very proud of.
How has your family’s Hispanic ancestry/origins influenced your life?
My family is really hardworking. I learned at a young age that if I really wanted to get somewhere or get something, I needed to work hard, and that’s what I did.
I started working when I was 10 years old, helping other people in flea markets to sell things and it’s because that’s what I learned from my family, that’s what I saw all the time. You want something, you go outside and you work. You don’t stay home. You don’t stay watching TV. You spend your week going to school and doing homework and then on the weekends I work all day Saturdays and Sundays. It’s just what I learned from my whole family whose always been very hardworking. I just love it because it’s something where you just watch and learn “if I want that, this is what I have to do. I’m not going to get it while I sit here and watch TV.”
What, if any, challenges did you face on your way to corporate success because of your gender or ethnicity?
My biggest challenge more than anything was the language, trying to understand and learn English, because it was not just learning English. It was the business English, all the terms and the acronyms. There were so many things getting into business – that was one of my biggest challenges, even understanding the culture of business. I fought to not just be seen as a Mexican woman. That was hard, because I’m a woman to begin with, and in the business world there are a lot of men out there. So you come representing Innovate, and they’re like, “oh, woman, Mexican.” So, I had to fight against some of those stereotypes of what a traditional businessperson was.
At the beginning of Innovate, when I was going to meetings, certification seminars, etc. and they’re like, “Oh, you’re a woman” – and then my name doesn’t help, Lily Thomas. Then they’ll see me that I come over here, dark skinned. And they are like “Oh, I thought you were Lily Thomas, not Mexican,” but it was one of the big challenges. Yes, the language was my biggest challenge, mostly because I had to learn it all, the language and culture of business.
Did you always know you wanted to be a businessperson?
I did, I always did. Well, while I was in Mexico studying, I initially wanted to be a lawyer, but then I began to think about having a business. It was a nerve-racking thing at first but thinking through what we could do to change the government was inspiring. I could picture it because I wanted to make a change in government – that was my main goal. Going through the immigration process, which was painful, and many who have gone through the process can likely relate. So, I was inspired to help fix our federal systems and make them better for everybody else. As a businesswoman I could see that we could make a change in the world, in the government, and make lives better.
Which characteristics do you think every leader should possess?
Determination, passion, strength and lots of patience. Those 4 traits resonate with me. You need a lot of determination and patience in getting things started and seeing it all through. For example, in the certification process there was a lot of patience in seeing if we were going to be approved, what other documentation we needed to provide. Patience also because when something doesn’t go well, I mean, what are you going to do, just smack your head against the wall? No, we have to think about what else we can do. Be patient; things that are not happening the way you want to happen, you need to be patient and have strength and hope. Things have happened. I think we’ve been doing pretty well, and we remain patient and hopeful together.
Is there anything that you would advise like another Hispanic woman who wants to start a business?
First of all, I’d say “Don’t give up.” In this world it’s really easy to give up once you hit a wall. You need to be strong and keep that faith up and just work hard. Show the world that you can do it. You are capable. That’s what I kept telling myself. I am so lucky to have my husband who is a big believer in me that I can do things that I didn’t think I was able to do. He helps me see how big I can be and where I can get. You know, it’s a lot of work on ourselves as I believe all that. So one of the first things is really don’t give up because we can do it.
What is your favorite thing about leading Innovate?
Getting to know people. I love getting to know who works for us. I’m thankful for the people I get to know internally, for our partners and clients.
Then it is all the changes we’re making in government. As long as we make a change, I don’t care how tiny it is, but each change we make impacts people. I just love it, and I’m very proud of it.
How did you come up with our corporate mission and core values? What do they mean to you?
It took us a while to pick those because we wanted something that really, really called to ourselves; that meant something to each of us when we were doing it. At the end, what we got, those values that were heartfelt. Even though you don’t see it out there very often as the typical core values and mission, this is what really called to us; this is who we really are. I am somebody personally who cares about people. When somebody says, “She’s my boss,” I say, “You know, we work together.” I’m not more than anybody just because I’m the President of Innovate. I’m just like everybody else. I’m very proud and grateful that I get to be a part of a group of people who are so committed to make a difference with others and with the world. And so, these core values are not commercial; they are not something that is going to sell maybe, but this is who we are, really great. I don’t care if somebody is going to judge us because we are not typical, but this is who Innovate is. So when our leadership team was all around the table, I remember everybody agreeing that this is what calls me, this is what I want. I’m truly very proud of what we are and our core values and our mission.
What’s something that most people don’t know about you?
There are so many things, but maybe people don’t know that one of my biggest passions is that I love to travel, I love to dance, and even though I love nature, I hate camping. I love salsa dancing. As you know, I was born in the north of Mexico, so we do a lot of what is called cumbia which is more like a traditional dance in every state. Whenever there’s music, I’m one of the ones who are going to be dancing at the side of the table in a restaurant.
Italy has been my favorite place that we have traveled. Its culture is very similar to Mexico – family oriented, very warm and the food is amazing. I love going to the little towns more than the big cities and I love history. I could spend months in Rome though, just learning about all the history. I’m all about people, so wherever I feel like I’ve been very welcomed with warmth is where I love to go.
Is there anything else you would like your employees to know that we haven’t covered?
One thing that I want everybody to know is that I care for each of them and that they are appreciated.