The Fulton Theatre recently presented a Broadway musical, “In the Heights,” which explores the journey of young Latinos born and raised in a heavily-Latino neighborhood in the U.S.
One of the primary characters, Usnavi, is divided between leaving his neighborhood in search of better opportunities for career success, or staying to make the community better.
We, Melisa and Jaime, saw our own personal stories through this character.
We are talented, driven, Millennial Latinos, raised in the south side of Lancaster city. We have faced these same questions as Usnavi: Do we stay in our local town in order to make it a better place than we grew up in?
Or do we seek out the dream of exciting careers in larger cities that lead the way in innovation and diversity — where we don’t have to fight against negative perceptions often carried around skin tone and last names?
We each have taken different paths, but we have both chosen the road-less-traveled. We have decided to invest here, at home, to make Lancaster better. Here are our stories.
Seeking opportunity to engage in a diverse community of leadership, Melisa left Lancaster after high school to attend Temple University, which, at the time, was ranked one of the most diverse schools in the nation.
At Temple, she was immersed in a culture that modeled her aspirations of developing a community where young people of color were encouraged and supported to be leaders. She also was exposed to national and international trends that centered around using business to more creatively solve social problems.
She saw massive numbers of young people looking to integrate meaning into their careers, especially those who came from economically difficult upbringings, such as hers.
Jaime grew up in Lancaster city, stayed local for his bachelor’s degree at Millersville University, then went on to work for several local companies.
Greater opportunities arose when he received his MBA from Drexel University. This was coupled with a change in perspective after spending a month in Australia on a Rotary exchange trip.
Jaime began to realize that the world is a lot bigger than his neighborhood and an opportunity to further his career outside of Lancaster was seemingly knocking on his door. Opportunities to move on to the “big stage” became increasingly attainable.
So what makes two bright, young Latino professionals decide to pass up on great opportunities in larger, more welcoming markets in order to stay and grow professionally here in Lancaster?
There are two primary reasons: First and foremost, we, like many of our generational peers, are seeking to integrate meaning into our careers. We could have both made more money in larger markets, but we wanted our work to mean something, beyond simply a paycheck, and we wanted to see positive change in our hometown.
Second, we have the ability to be leaders in our community and we want the opportunity to do so. We are young people of color, and that doesn’t diminish our ability to lead. In fact, our cultural fluency and diverse perspectives are incredible strengths.
The return on investment around diversity is well-documented: according to research by McKinsey & Co., racially and ethnically diverse companies are 35 percent more likely to financially outperform less diverse companies.
The Harvard Business Review says that nonhomogeneous teams are simply smarter. “Working with people who are different from you may challenge your brain to overcome its stale ways of thinking and sharpen its performance.”
We know this isn’t easy. McKinsey reports that only 3 percent of U.S. businesses have senior leadership teams that reflect the diversity of the country’s labor force and population.
But what is the missed opportunity in Lancaster around diversity? How many other young people, just like us, has Lancaster lost because companies were not proactive and intentional in building organizational culture that valued diversity? What is the economic impact of this local “brain drain”?
We’ve had the opportunity to gain global perspectives and have decided to apply our ideas and experiences in Lancaster. Our jobs provide the platform to do that. We believe Lancaster’s business community has an opportunity to offer similar opportunities to our peers. The research shows that investing in diverse teams can both boost the bottom line and make teams smarter.
And the benefits to the community overall of retaining its diverse talent are inestimable. There’s a scene in “In The Heights” when Usnavi realizes that it’s possible for “El Barrio” to change, that the people who were raised in it can be the same people who can improve it for generations to come.
Instead of leaving his neighborhood and never coming back, he proclaims “I’ve found my island. I’ve been on it this whole time. I’m home!”
• Melisa Baez is the Director of the Women’s Business Center at ASSETS and Jaime Arroyo is the Program Manager, focusing on Credit Building Microloans and Social Enterprise Development.