Tell us about your role and organization.
I work for the Texas Conservative Coalition Research Institute (TCCRI) where I serve as the institute’s president. TCCRI is a 501c(3) non-partisan, non-profit think tank in Austin. We advocate for conservative public policies based on our LIFT Principles, Limited government, Individual liberty, Free enterprise, and Traditional values. In my role, I work closely with members of the legislature and our private sector members to accomplish our policy priorities. I serve as the public representative of the organization tasked with growing our name and influence throughout the state.
How long have you been at TCCRI?
I have been working in this specific role since August; however, I was previously the Interim President, and before that Vice President. I have been with the organization since April of 2018.
Where are you from?
I am from a small town in South Texas named Hebbronville.
What did you study in college and where did you attend school?
I graduated from the University of Texas at Austin (Hook ‘em) with a BA in Spanish Literature and a minor in Portuguese.
Wow, Spanish Literature and Portuguese? Why did you choose this path and have you used it in your career?
Yes, Spanish Literature and Portuguese… even more useless was the fact that I specialized in Baroque Spanish Literature, so Miguel de Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Francisco de Quevedo. At one point in college I could write in formal Spanish like nobody’s business. My plan at the time was to continue on and get my PhD, so I could write, teach, and travel.
I now call that my “retirement plan.” Knowing how to write and speak Spanish has helped in a limited capacity but really, it has proven to be a very pricey, weekend reading hobby. With that said, I don’t regret my major at all. I feel like my experiences with professors from around the world were life changing. There is one professor that I will never forget, Dr. Stanislav Zimic, who was born in Slovania. He had such a passion for not only the subject at hand, but his students and this country. He really is the reason I picked my major in the first place.
Tell us about your politics – party affiliation?
I am Republican, but it wasn’t always so. Growing up in South Texas, both my grandfathers were local elected (Democrat) officials, one Justice of the Peace and the other County Commissioner. I remember helping my Grandpa Arnoldo hand paint and stencil re-election signs and hanging out at the polls greeting people with him. In college, I really had the opportunity to step back and evaluate whether what I believed actually fell in line with the party I grew up with. When I got my first job in the capitol, it was an internship through MALC (Mexican American Legislative Caucus), and I was placed in the office of Rep. Elvira Reyna who was the first Hispanic Republican woman elected to the House of Representatives. While there, I was able to truly figure out that my values fell more in line with the Republican party.
While TCCRI is non-partisan, we do advocate for conservative policies, so we tend to work more with Republican members; however, we always welcome input and participation of all the members of the legislature and try to work with everyone who is willing to have us at the table.
How did you get your start in government?
As I mentioned above, my first job in the Capitol was actually a paid internship through the Mexican American Legislative Caucus. I was part of their second class of Moreno/Rangel Legislative Leadership Program interns. Because they are also a non-partisan, non-profit, I was placed in Rep. Elvira Reyna’s office. Rep. Reyna was an amazing mentor. She has a true “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” story of hardship to success and is incredibly strong, poised, and intelligent. I will never forget the first meeting I had with her. The internship required that we submit an essay describing a time of adversity in our life, so I wrote about an incident of discrimination that I experienced in college. Some of the first words out of Rep. Reyna’s mouth were something along the lines of “I read your story. I am so sorry that happened to you. And, now, I don’t want you to repeat that story. You cannot let that incident define who you are. We learn from these experiences and use them to move forward.” That lesson has stuck with me ever since. It was incredibly empowering.
After my time with Rep. Reyna, I went to work for Susan Lilly at her fundraising firm. She has become one of my lifelong mentors. Just like Rep. Reyna, Susan is an incredibly inspiring woman who has forged her own way in our political world. Susan continues to teach me so much and has been one of my biggest advocates throughout my career. If you ever need some humbling, may I suggest doing fundraising, whether political or for a non-profit. I have never been told “no” more than during that year and a half of fundraising.
Going into the 2007 session, I knew I wanted back in the building. I interviewed and was hired by then freshman Rep. Kelly Hancock to serve as his legislative director and later his chief of staff. I served as his chief of staff throughout his service in the House and as his first chief in the Senate. Sen. Hancock and his wife Robin have been second parents to me, and an interesting nugget is that Sen. Hancock married me and my husband John. They have been by our side throughout our marriage and throughout my career.
Sen. Hancock was in the waiting room with my family when I gave birth to our son and was by our side the night we were told our son would not make it to morning. They were some of the first people to meet our daughter when she was born, and both our children refer to them as Uncle Kelly and Aunt Robin.
(To clarify – Mia’s sweet boy DID make it well through that night. After 122 days in the NICU, a couple of surgeries and stays at Dell Childrens, John Mark is a happy healthy 1st grader at Hyde Park Baptist School.)
Because I had an inability to sit still, I took interims to go work campaigns. I ran Rep. Todd Hunter’s race in 2008, Congressman Lamar Smith’s re-election campaign in 2010, and Sen. Hancock’s senate race in 2012.
In 2015, I went to work for Sabrina Brown Consulting as a government affairs consultant/lobbyist. Just like my previous bosses, Sabrina took the time to mentor me and help me build confidence in my abilities. She encouraged me when I told her that I wanted to pursue a position with TCCRI in 2018. I will never forget her sitting me down before my interview and telling me, “Be confident. You have the resume and experience for this job. You know what you are doing. Do not second guess or let anyone make you second guess your qualifications.” I don’t think I have ever told her, but that advice was life-changing for me.
I would be remiss if I didn’t point out a shared element of every single person that I have worked for… they gave me a chance. I was not always the most qualified or had the experience necessary, but they gave me a chance to prove that I could do the job. Sometimes all you need is the opportunity to prove you can do the job.
You’re the first female, first Hispanic President of TCCRI. What sort of significance has this had for you?
The last couple months have been exciting, but also heavy. I am personally very proud of my accomplishments, especially when I go back and think about where I come from. For me, it is an affirmation that the American Dream is real if you are willing to put in the work and not give up. I’m a small-town South Texas girl who grew up in a trailer home with a mom who refused to accept mediocrity for her daughter.
It is heavy because I had the realization that I have crossed over from someone looking toward others for inspiration (which I still very much do) to someone being looked at for inspiration. This is one of the reasons I share my vulnerabilities when appropriate. Other women need to know that it is ok to struggle.
The last year and half has been anything but easy, but after a particularly hard day, as we were getting ready for bed and my husband could see that I really struggling, he looked at me and my daughter lying next to me in bed and said, “Do it for her, so she never has to. Don’t give up. It is worth it.” Talk about not sleeping!! For all of us, no matter your title, that is quite the challenge! What is the legacy we want to leave behind? How will future generations be impacted by what we accomplished?
When did you know you wanted to work in government/policy?
Throughout my childhood and well into my teens, I used to tell people that I was going to be the first woman President of the United States. I remember a classmate telling me that I would make it to the White House one day… as the tortilla maker.
The year I started at UT was the year of 9/11. Something about the way the student body reacted to the tragedy made me swear off politics. I wanted nothing to do with it. I can’t really point to an exact why.
However, My Grandma Estela used to always tell me that I was destined to get involved in “la politica” (politics) just like my grandfathers… and, sure enough, I was hooked after that first session.
What do you find to be essential skill sets/personality traits for being a good lobbyist? What about for a good staffer?
In both lobbying and working as staff, really in this business in general, the same personality traits are key. You need to be able to listen, so you can then respond thoughtfully. You need to be humble and remember that everyone else is also trying to do their job. You have to value honesty and be able to gracefully handle truth when given to you. Above all, you need to be kind. Truth and kindness will get you far in life.
I’m a young woman and I want a job like yours. What do I do now?
Ask! Ask for a chance. More than anything, be willing to start at the bottom and work your way up. There are so many important lessons learned as you climb the career ladder, and as challenging and discouraging as some of these lessons can be, each lesson learned is part of who you become as you move forward.
Research the person and/or company you are interviewing with. Know the answers to your questions before you ask them. Remember when you interview that it is as much an interview for them as it is for you.
Always be ready with a salary number but be sure it is realistic and reasonable. Ask others in similar positions if they would share what they make with you. If it is a government job, those numbers are publicly available. A huge turnoff is someone who interviews, knocks it out of the park, then asks for a “pie in the sky” salary.
What is the most rewarding part of your current job? Biggest challenge?
All of it is rewarding and challenging. That is what is great about doing what you love. Each new challenge gives me the opportunity to grow.
Proudest moment from 86th session?
Between adjusting to a new role, stepping out of my comfort zone, and trying to manage my personal life with two young kids, this session was truly the most personally challenging one that I have ever experienced. However, one of my proudest moments was testifying for the first time before Senate Finance with my former boss and former colleagues on the dais. I was terrified and excited all at the same time, and Sen. Hancock, Sen. Taylor, and Chairwoman Nelson could not have been more encouraging. I think it was at that moment I knew that I was right where I was supposed to be in my career.
Anything you find to be misunderstood about your profession?
I hate that we are in a time when people see anything and everything to do with politics as unethical and deceptive. This could not be further from the truth. There are so many good people on both sides of the aisle in this business. I challenge people to look beyond the political party, job title, etc. and find the good that so many people and organizations are doing in and through the political world.
Do you mind sharing a little bit about your relationship working with other women (or supportive men) in this profession, how you learn from one another or share in success as a team?
I have been incredibly lucky to have worked for and with supportive people throughout my career. Each had a different approach to how they mentored, but their end goal was the same—to teach me how to be successful in my job.
It is also interesting that you specifically say “success as a team” because that has been so key in every job. Everyone I have worked with has really fostered that team mindset and my goal is do the same.
Ladies, can I preach a bit about who you pick as a partner? I hit the jackpot. My husband is supportive and willing to help me be successful. He is my best friend, my best mentor, and my biggest fan. He works in the business and gets it. It is also great to be able to safely bounce ideas back and forth and get a man’s perspective or advice on how to approach an issue like he would.
As the young, female executive of such a prominent political organization – do you feel you’ve faced any unique challenges to getting where you are today?
Women are continuing to break glass ceilings when it comes to titles. Just look at who the chiefs of staff are in the building. However, we still have huge hurdles to cross and ceilings to shatter, including pay equity, respect in the workplace, and honestly, being comfortable in our roles.
Women are wired differently, which is the reason we bring so much to the table, especially when given the opportunity to lead. We need to embrace this and be comfortable with how we approach issues, management, and leadership. We need to stop taking on an uncomfortable persona because we think that is what people expect.
I have faced many of the same issues most women face in any business. We have all walked into that meeting where we were discounted from the very beginning, or we’ve shared an idea that was rejected until the same idea came from a male co-worker, or even better, being entirely ignored in a meeting while our male counter-parts are looked in the eye when spoken to. This is where the advice that Rep. Reyna gave me always comes to the forefront of my mind…. Learn from it and move on! If I went into every meeting and speaking engagement with a “poor me” attitude because of some adversity, I promise that I would not be where I am today. It is a little bit of tough love that I impose on myself, people I mentor, and especially my children.
There are so many women in this business who are willing to help and mentor anyone who asks. I have been fortunate that there has been no shortage of inspiring women who have “been there and done that” that I have leaned on throughout this journey.
You could never do your job without …
Coffee and my phone.
Best professional advice you’ve ever received?
I sound like a broken record, but “learn from it and move forward.” Additionally, I had the opportunity to meet Ann Richards during my internship. She taught all of us in the room that day to shake hands like you mean it and never forget to give your last name when you introduce yourself. That is pretty solid advice!
Advice you wish you could give your younger self?
“Relax!” I have always been wound pretty tight, but when I was younger, holy moly! It is a total blessing I didn’t give myself a heart attack. I wish I had understood that you can plan all you want, but at the end of the day, God’s plan always trumps yours.
Any leadership programs, mentorship opportunities or organizations you’d recommend?
I am actually going through the process of finding great leadership programs myself. There is always room for growth and learning.
I have a vision, with little time to execute, to create a mentorship program for women in this business. It is one of the reasons I love what Pink Granite is doing. Everyone is looking for inspiration and Pink Granite is bringing that inspiration directly to busy women through our computers and phone screens.
Best tip(s) for staying on top of your to-do list/staying organized?
May Books! They are great! I spend way too much money on them.
Best tip(s) for networking?
Show up. This has become increasingly difficult for me as my kids are getting older. I don’t say yes to after-hours events like I used to.
In regard to building your tribe, just look for people you have a connection with and follow-up, follow-up, follow-up. Again, ignore the titles and party affiliation and just find good, trustworthy people who share in your interests and values.
You can have dinner with anyone, living or dead – who and why?
Audrey Hepburn…. Because why not! I have been obsessed with Audrey Hepburn for most of my life. She was always the perfect picture of beauty and grace and her story is really inspiring. She was also a huge philanthropist. Confession… I am determined to find someone who will make me a replica of the beautiful cocktail dress she wears for her dinner date with Linus in the movie Sabrina. And when this happens, I might never take the dress off.
What’s always in your bag during session?
Lots of lipstick, safety pins (I have had my fair share of wardrobe malfunctions), bobby pins, my laptop, several May Books (I’m obsessed), gum, and this really nerdy glasses cleaning contraption I discovered a few years ago.
Favorite place for a business lunch?
Favorite place to get your news?
Favorite political TV show/movie?
I don’t spend a lot of time watching TV, especially after we cut the cord, and if I do, I am ashamed to admit that I will usually watch something in “The Bachelor” franchise or “The Voice”. However, our TV is usually tuned to Paw Patrol or Fireman Sam.
Favorite social media apps?
Twitter and Facebook are about all I can handle. Can’t say they are my favorite, but I recognize the role they play in our society!
Favorite book for career advice.
“You’re a Badass” by Jen Sincero was given to me by another woman in our business, and I have since passed along the same book to other women.
“Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown;
“I’d Rather Be In Charge” by Charlotte Beers;
“Girl, Wash Your Face” by Rachel Hollis;
and my favorite… The Bible— My faith is a priority in my life, and I always find the right answer when I dive into The Word. My faith is unapologetically part of who I am.
If you weren’t in your current role you’d definitely be a …
A professional Christmas decorator. No seriously! I start planning out home’s Christmas theme months in advance. I don’t repeat themes and I definitely don’t let anyone help me with the decorations, which my kids hate. During the non-Christmas season, I would love to professionally refinish furniture.
Any final thoughts? Anything we missed?
I go back to my conversation with my husband where he directed me to “Do it for her (my daughter).” What women accomplish today will entirely change the experiences of the next generation. The task at hand is not easy, but we are not promised easy in this world.
Oh, and BE KIND!