Aon’s Carmen Ortiz-McGhee is bullish on the opportunities for women and minorities.
For Carmen Ortiz-McGhee, being an advocate for minority and women business owners is her passion. Driving market change to foster access and opportunity for underserved communities with sustainable impact for generations to come, is her mission. But there once was a time when she wasn’t even interested in business.
Upon graduating from the University of Virginia, where she majored in psychology, Ortiz-McGhee was approached by the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce with a job opportunity. “I had wanted absolutely nothing to do with business, interestingly,” she says. Nonetheless, she joined the chamber and stayed for five years.
From there, Ortiz-McGhee joined other organizations to further the cause of women and minority business owners. She worked for the New America Alliance, an organization of Latino American business leaders committed to empowering Latinos by expanding forms of capital necessary for economic advancement. She also served as president of The Marathon Club, which brings together private equity investors, middle market entrepreneurs, and senior-level corporate executives of diverse backgrounds to collaborate on deals.
By the age of 40, Carmen had created significant opportunities for women- and minority-owned firms with global impact –opening doors that were previously closed. Today, Ortiz-McGhee, based in Washington, DC, is the executive vice president of sales for Aon Cornerstone Innovative Solutions, a division of the global risk management and HR solutions firm Aon plc. One of her responsibilities is to source and vet certified minority businesses specializing in Aon’s core focus areas in order to develop expanded supplier diversity solutions for the company’s clients.
Diversity Woman spoke with Ortiz-McGhee about taking risks, the importance of developing strong networks, and access to opportunities for women and minority business owners.
DW: How have you gone about trying to network with minority- and women-owned businesses and connect them to Aon?
Carmen Ortiz-McGhee: I’ve been blessed with a career that has put me squarely in environments that are chock-full of minority- and women-owned firms. I started my career with the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, I served as the interim executive director of New America Alliance, and then I went to The Marathon Club. I had a brief stint in real estate private equity at a boutique, ethnically diverse firm. And then, of course, I landed here at Aon Cornerstone. My entire career has been in the activity of advocating on behalf of these firms, so my network is fairly extensive. We as a corporation support organizations like the National Minority Supplier Development Council, Women’s Business Enterprise National Council, and U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
DW: What sparked your passion for advocating on behalf of women and minorities?
CO: When I was in college at the University of Virginia, I was among a very small percentage of Hispanics. I think at the time something like 1.67 percent of the student population was Hispanic, and the lion’s share was Latin American nationals able to afford an international education. They weren’t Hispanic Americans like me, who were born and raised here in the United States. I wanted to create an avenue to increase the enrollment and access to institutions of higher learning for Hispanic Americans. I was one of the founders of the Latino Student Admissions Committee—and I’m proud to say that organization still exists. The experience gave me the ongoing commitment to creating opportunities for people like me, other Hispanic Americans.
DW: How much does access contribute to success or failure?
CO: While I can’t say that it’s everything, it is absolutely critical to find yourself in those networks that provide access to opportunities, to learning, that help mentor you, that open doors. New America Alliance and The Marathon Club changed my view of what’s possible and gave me courage to pursue things that were outside my comfort zone. I had always done that to some extent, but when I saw these people who looked like me—many of whom had similar stories or even more challenging stories—achieving at these very, very high levels, it concretized what was possible and what I was capable of doing, and what I should be doing. I think access is wildly important.
DW: Who are your female role models?
CO: My first and probably greatest female role model is, of course, my mother, who was a single mother. She left her parents and siblings behind in Puerto Rico in pursuit of a career in Washington, DC, that would enable her to provide the quality of life and opportunity for her daughter that she thought was appropriate. She took risk, calculated risk, and in doing so she ended up having a stellar career, rising to the highest ranks in an absolutely white male–dominated environment at the time: intelligence. She was an intelligence threat analyst for the Department of the Army. She went all the way up through the ranks, as far as was possible without presidential appointment, very quickly for a minority woman. That was because of her commitment to not failing.
My other role model is my 16-year-old daughter, Jordan. My daughter finds beauty in everything. She finds beauty in just wind blowing through the trees and possibility in everything. It’s important to see that beauty and truly find joy in simple things, in a conversation and in learning something new. It’s important to keep a youthful and joyful spirit about the world, even when contracts are falling apart, relationships at work might be tense, or you’re writing a proposal or facing a new challenge. In all of that, you can still have joy in the very simple things in life.
DW: Should gender matter when seeking a mentor?
CO: Yes and no. My first professional mentor was a Puerto Rican woman who saw something very special in me, poured herself into me, and taught me everything about professionalism and commitment to excellence. She was critical along the steps in my career by creating opportunities and ensuring that I was given the visibility that sponsors provide. She also understood, as a woman, certain things that I would face that are unique to us as women in male-dominated environments, and she provided insight into how you carry yourself. Having women mentors is important. But I’ve also had male mentors who have helped me grow and learn immeasurably and have helped me accomplish great game-changing things throughout my career. So I think both are equally valuable, but they can bring different things to the relationship.
DW: What do you tell the people who are coming up the ladder now?
CO: Oh, the future is so bright. The opportunities are limitless. We can do anything we set our minds to. We just have to be willing to put in the work. We have to be willing to step outside our comfort zone and take those calculated risks. We must, as women in particular, support one another. When doors are open for us and we walk in, we have to keep a foot in the door so that others can continue to come behind us. And we have to take the time to look around us and recognize women who have potential, who may not have the right exposure, who may need a little more grooming. It’s incumbent upon us as female executives to ensure that more and more talented women are coming up the ranks behind us and that we are leveraging our influence to create the right opportunities and open the right doors. DW
Pia Sarkar, who has been a journalist for nearly 20 years, has a career that spans newspapers, magazines, and online news sites. She currently works as a senior editor at The American Lawyer.