What I've Learned: Pablo Schneider, CEO Fostering Diverse Leaders

by Esther J. Cepeda /  / Updated 

NAME: Pablo Schneider

HERITAGE: Puerto Rican-German and Irish

HOMETOWN: Dallas, TX by way of San Diego, CA

OCCUPATION/TITLE: CEO of The Wider Net, a firm dedicated to advancing diverse leaders in top executive leadership positions.

Intro: Pablo Schneider's life's work is focused on business, media, and leadership. During his 25-year business career he has served as a senior executive with BlueCross and Blue Shield, Delta Dental, and three growth ventures. He has served on private, non-profit, and governmental boards for the past 20 years and today focuses on his Chairmanship of the Renaissance Dinners, a national program convening top-flight Hispanic executives to establish a pipeline of future corporate and civic leaders.

You credit your grandmother for pushing you to realize your full potential, tell us a bit about her.

My abuela took a steam ship from San Juan, Puerto Rico to New York City in 1924 at the age of 20 so her children and grandchildren could pursue the American dream in the states and go to college. At the time it was probably unheard of for a single woman to be so bold and so courageous. And for successive generations our abuela was relentless, she was fanatical – totally driven to ensure all her grandchildren went to college. I was the rugged individualist of our family and when I was old enough I decided that I was my own man and would move out of my parent’s house, make my own paycheck. I decided I’d work at a restaurant so I could eat for cheap or free, and my abuela just went ballistic. She was beside herself – I was afraid to answer the phone…I’d pick up and she wouldn’t even say “hello.” It was just “Pablito when are you going to get to school?” She would harangue me.

What eventually got you back to school?

After washing dishes, mopping floors, cleaning toilets and sitting in gas stations for years my epiphany was: “This sucks.” So I started community college, got my bachelors and abuelita, she came shuffling up to me and I thought she’d say, “Oh Pablito, I’m thrilled” – because she used to say “I hope you graduate before I die” – but, no. She said to me, “A masters in anything will do.” She was a force of nature. (I did get my masters 5 years later.)

Abuelita considered it a given that us kids had to go to college and have success, but our moral obligation was to bring others along.

Things are so different today, college seems to be out of reach for many. What do you say to people who believe that college is simply unaffordable for them?

It’s definitely a formidable challenge and not one to be taken lightly. I’m very grateful that community college was available to me. Community college is a huge option for Hispanics to get their foot in the door, fully recognizing the gravity of the undertaking.

But on the other hand, where there’s a will, there’s a way. I worked and attended college for nine-and-a-half of 14 years, I was a Hispanic Scholarship Foundation scholar but other than that I worked during the day and even when the kids were little and at home, I went to school in the evening and paid my way. It was a big sacrifice. But every year big numbers of scholarship money go unawarded, plus there’s the option of attending community college and transferring, and other avenues. There’s no question it’s a big sacrifice but it’s an important life achievement and once you achieve it no one can ever take it away from you. It’s hard to give people an easy solution to the formidable cost other than that if you’re motivated and driven, you’ll do what it takes and you’re more likely to find the way.

So now that you’ve made it, what keeps you going?

I feel that my job is to help connect Latinos with the 10,000 board members who serve on the boards of the Fortune 1,000 companies. You get there by cultivating personal relationships in corporate America, so that’s what I work toward. But what keeps me going is that I’m on a mission from grandma.

We have to be successful but that’s just a given. Abuelita considered it a given that us kids had to go to college and have success, but our moral obligation was to bring others along. According to grandma, you must succeed but if you don’t bring others along, you’re a bad person. We can’t just keep success for ourselves, our mission must be to succeed and to promote success for others.

What’s your top secret to success?

Define yourself with power instead of weakness. Being half-Anglo, half-Hispanic, bicultural, at some point I came to the conclusion that being different is bad. But I realized being different is good because there are so many advantages to being bilingual, bi-cultural and being Hispanic. Always make the right choice in defining yourself when you are different.

Esther J. Cepeda is a Chicago-based journalist and a nationally syndicated columnist for The Washington Post Writers Group. Follow her on Twitter, @estherjcepeda.

Follow NBC News Latino on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.