Podcast: Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month: Conversation with Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri, TPG
In this episode of Ropes & Gray’s Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month podcast series, litigation & enforcement partner María González Calvet interviews Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri, partner and chief human resources officer at TPG. In her role at TPG, Anilu oversees the firm’s human resources function, and provides support and counsel to executives across TPG’s portfolio of more than 280 companies. Anilu is one of the highest-ranking Latinas working in the finance industry, and is recognized as an expert and prominent voice on both corporate culture and diversity, equity and inclusion issues. In this episode, Anilu describes her Puerto Rican background, formative experiences as a Latina at Princeton University and Fordham Law School, and transition from practicing law to cultivating an extraordinary career in human resources. She also shares insights about her leadership style and deep commitment to the people she works with.
María González Calvet: Hello, and welcome, everyone, to a special Ropes & Gray podcast celebrating Latinx|Hispanic Heritage Month. My name is María González Calvet. I'm a partner at Ropes & Gray and co-chair of the firm's anti-corruption and international risk practice, and Latin America practice. In this podcast series, we feature prominent Latinx and Hispanic clients who have had remarkable careers while also making significant contributions to their communities, and working to advance diversity, equity, and inclusion in their industries.
In this episode, I have the great pleasure of speaking with my friend and client Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri, partner and chief human resources officer at TPG, a leading global alternative asset firm. In her role at TPG, Anilu oversees the firm's human resources function, and provides support and counsel to executives across TPG's portfolio of more than 280 companies. She is a member of the firm's board of directors and serves as co-chair with CEO, Jon Winkelried, of the TPG Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Council. Anilu is also a director on the corporate boards of Upwork, a publicly traded company, and Greenhouse Software, a TPG portfolio company, as well as several nonprofit organizations including Teach for America Bay Area, the Vera Institute of Justice, and Charter School Growth Fund.
Prior to joining TPG, Anilu spent 11 years at Goldman Sachs, most recently as that firm's global head of talent and chief diversity officer. Before Goldman, Anilu practiced law for more than five years as an associate in the executive compensation and employee benefits group at Shearman & Sterling. Anilu is one of the highest-ranking Latinas working in the finance industry, and she has become a prominent voice on both human resources, and diversity, equity and inclusion issues. She has been named one of the most powerful Latinas in business by Forbes Magazine, and was recently recognized by the Association of Latino Professionals for America as one of the best corporate culture developers in their 50 Most Powerful Latinas list.
Anilu, it is such a privilege to welcome you to this podcast. Thank you so much for joining us.
María González Calvet: Thank you so much. We are so excited for the opportunity to hear about your impressive career and your journey. I definitely want to talk about that amazing journey. But first, let's go back a few steps and talk about your background, where you grew up, and your path to and experience in law school.
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: I grew up in Caguas, Puerto Rico, so Puerto Ricans are on my mind, given what's been going on there in the last few weeks. I grew up with my parents, my sister, who is an older sister, and very importantly, with my great-grandmother who lived with us, and who was a source of inspiration and mentorship, even when I didn't know when that was—and someone that became very important in my life, and I think in many ways, influenced the person that I am today. I went to school in Puerto Rico, and then from there went to Princeton for undergrad. So, I went from, I would say, even my English classes sometimes were in Spanish in high school, to being dropped into an environment where not only academically obviously very challenging and different, but even from a social perspective, culturally very different. And so I studied history, and I had a minor in cultural affairs as part of my history major. I really enjoyed my time at Princeton. I did a lot of different things, created bonds with many people that I don't think I otherwise would have intersected with. I would also say, being in that environment at Princeton actually, a lot of what I define as being Puerto Rican and the reinforcement of my Latini life came actually from being in that environment, and having for the first time to face and discuss what the Latino community really means to this country and my role in it.
I knew I wanted to go to law school. I didn't know what kind of lawyer I wanted to be, but I think that the only kind of lawyer I really knew was litigators. I didn't really have a lot of exposure to the corporate side of the law. I ended up going to Fordham Law School in New York City. My husband and I actually went together. We got married my senior year in college. He's also Puerto Rican. And we ended up both at Fordham, and we were in different sections, María, so this will resonate with you, but we ended up in a section that took a lot of their classes together. We have different last names, so people at first didn't know that we were married. So that made for a lot of funny stories in the classroom in law school.
María González Calvet: You've touched on so many amazingly relevant touchpoints for people within the Latinx and Hispanic community, whether really being anchored to your roots, your culture, and your family no matter how far away they may be. And of course I echo your well wishes and thoughts for the people of Puerto Rico, particularly now, who are wrestling with some real serious environmental challenges of course during this terrible hurricane season. But, in addition, you talk about the transition to realizing that that cultural grounding and who you are made you different once you were in an environment that was different from your own. Talk to us a little bit about, if you would, the people who helped anchor you in that experience—the people to whom, when you were far away from your family and your home, who gave you that mentorship and grounding and support.
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: First of all, I was very lucky that I started with a group of roommates that a big proportion of them were my roommates from freshman year until graduation. We added a few other friends along the way, but still today, I'm about to celebrate next year my 25th anniversary of graduation from Princeton. And they are not only my closest friends, but if you think about that experience and now you think about going through the pandemic where all of us were at home without the ability to connect physically with people that we love—having that support system still was very relevant for me and for my family. I'm the only person in that group of roommates that is not only Hispanic, but really not someone who had grown up in the States. So, first lesson of difference doesn't mean that people can't form bonds and be supportive, and actually learn from each other. And I think that if you were talking to my roommates, they would say they're highly educated in all things Puerto Rico, and through that lens, many other aspects of diversity. So, I think that not underestimating the influence that you can have, even at that level where it's just based on personal relationships, that they were a big source of support. There was a tremendous Puerto Rican community, not super big, but very tight community on campus. And we did everything from celebrate, dance, have each other's backs, mentor each other—and still to this day, again, those relationships continue. We're very focused actually on continuing to mentor the next generation of Puerto Ricans, for example, broadly speaking, but certainly with respect to Princeton.
I also was fortunate enough, not only to be a student of, but actually work for, the one Puerto Rican professor that was at Princeton at that point—his name is Professor Arcadio Díaz-Quiñones. He is very well-recognized in the world of literature—he’s an author himself. And taking his literature classes, again, I really saw the history of Puerto Rico and the history of Puerto Rico in the United States from a very different lens, because it was more global than what I understood growing up in Puerto Rico. So, it just opened my mind. Obviously, being in New Jersey, a big population of Puerto Ricans, not only in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and certainly New York—I actually ended up writing my thesis on the Puerto Rican population in New York and its influence on the culture, the politics, and the intellectual movements from 1900 to 1930. Because, María, most people talk about the Puerto Rican community actually from the 1960s onward, which is definitely a big inflection point, but there was a community of intellectuals that were in New York and other parts of the East Coast that were developing a narrative of what it meant to be Puerto Rican, as well. So, I just learned a lot about myself during that time.
María González Calvet: It's so compelling to think about the responsibility that you undertook for yourself and for the people around you, not just to live, breathe, and represent your culture in the best way that you knew how, but also to educate yourself and take it upon yourself to educate others. And that's a tremendous responsibility that I know that you took very, very seriously and do continue to take very seriously. It also requires, Anilu, a whole lot of courage, making fearless decisions, being willing to step outside your comfort zone, saying things and educating others about topics that might make them uncomfortable. Talk to us a little bit about what drives that fearlessness that I have witnessed firsthand in your decision-making.
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: I think that that's very characteristic of Puerto Ricans, in the sense of, I think that we're very transparent. And maybe not all of us have the same level of courage when put in an organizational context, but I think deep down inside, we are always more comfortable with putting everything out there. I also, from an upbringing perspective, my mom, my dad, my great-grandmother, as I mentioned, all were always emphasizing to my sister and to me the importance of being that way in your personal life and in your professional life. I grew up with the belief that it's always better for people to get maybe a little bit uncomfortable and mad at you in the moment, but for them to always know where you stand on things, and never to feel like you're talking behind our backs. That was the point that was very much emphasized, and I have carried that into my professional life. People know at TPG, at Goldman, at Shearman, wherever I’ve worked, they know that they're going to hear the truth from me to their face. Also part of the reason why I make that choice is because I actually truly care about the people that I work with, and I've always cared about the organizations that I'm a part of. I'm one of those people who is forever on the team, and I feel a huge responsibility.
I also think that people that do my job need to find the way. We all have different styles. You need to find a way to push people to make the right decisions for themselves, for the organization with integrity. And we're often in a role where we have to say what maybe other people are not willing to say, and so it's not always comfortable. There are situations where maybe I would use humor more than going direct at it, but I have always felt that this is very important. I have a lot of mentees and other people that say, "You can do that now because you're very senior." But I think that if you go back, even my first job before going to law school, I think that people would tell you that, so I've been pretty consistent about it, and I think my friends would probably describe me the same way. But I realize that not every organization provides the environment for that to happen comfortably, and I also realize that it's difficult to do. It's not something that it's your first instinct necessarily, but I think it's very important for all of us to challenge ourselves to do that.
María González Calvet: I couldn't agree with you more. As you well know and have also witnessed, I live by very much the same code. And my mother who is a huge influence in my life, always says, "Be careful if you ask María for her opinion, because you will get it."
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: In the context of us in our client relationships, I think that's one of the things that I like the most about working with you, because at the end of the day, you have to believe that the person had good intentions. So, there's a trust context that you have to build, and you have to be a consistent person in your good intentions. But I think that with that context, you want those people on your team, as your advisers, because you know they're not going to lead you on purpose, at least, the wrong way. And I felt very much that way with you and your team's counsel of us.
María González Calvet: Thank you so much for saying that. And I do think that it's a role that you, I know, take very seriously. We all know the statistics where only about 5% of law firm associates, only 2% of partners are Latinx or Hispanic. And similarly, we only account for about 4% of large U.S. companies’ most senior executives, less than 3% of corporate board members. You have done all of these things, and so you're one of a really small handful of people who can occupy that space.
We've talked a lot about role models and mentors. I'd like to pivot a little bit and ask a slightly different question of you, which is: How do you find yourself creating the space, which I know you do in your role at TPG, where others can feel the same degree of comfort of being open, honest, and candid that you ascribe to and that we both follow?
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: I don't know if I always get it right, but I do try to be very deliberate. I think that there are simple things that you can do, particularly if you have a team meeting or a team environment, also one-on-one, but specifically ask for people's opinion. And specifically, say things like, "If you are going to share your opinion for us, to state, 'this is my opinion, this is why,' but if others see it other ways, I really want to hear that, because it's possible that I'm just missing something." So, I think that it's a lot of what you say. I also think actions speak louder, and so if people in an organization bring up things, and then they end up ultimately either getting in trouble or being derailed a little bit from where they thought they were going for having spoken up, everyone's very smart, and they're going to learn not to do that again. And so, I think that both, again, as a personal leader, mentor and all of that, but also as someone who has a responsibility to make sure that things bubble up at our firms, I think that the way that the organization behaves when people speak up is really important. By that I don't mean just the absence of negative things, but also the reinforcement of that behavior as a leaderly behavior, as something that people will be rewarded for. So, I think that, again, people have different styles, María, of how they might do that.
I also have been privileged to have a lot of mentees throughout my career, and this is a topic that I spend a lot of time with people, particularly Latino MPs. Because this is, as I said, there are parts of our culture that encourage this, and then there's another part of some of our cultures within the Latino community that really the deference to seniority, the deference to your boss, the feeling that because of those statistics that you cited, the fact that our roles may be more tentative—but not in that you don't want to risk that, and you certainly don't want to risk it for those that may come after you. There's an internal dialogue that I know happens in people's head about this, and so I always tell people, "Make sure that you're choosing the right organization. And then once you do that, then you need to do your part and speak up." But I think that we all need to from time to time look at our behaviors and do a check. There are certainly times where I look back, and I'm, like, "I missed an opportunity of actually reinforcing that I'm okay with that." Because particularly, in your position, more senior, and mine now, people may assume that that's not what they're to do.
María González Calvet: No, that makes so much sense, as does what I think some of the undercurrent is to what you've been saying, which is not just looking at people's conduct or behavior, but trying to understand what motivates that behavior—and speak to that motivation, speak to those values that might be anchoring people's decisions.
I think I already know the answer to this question, and you may have already answered it even in this conversation, but I've asked you before about your transition from practicing law to working in the field where you are currently in employee relations. Tell us about what made you make that transition, and then, of course, if you ever miss the practice of law.
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: To explain this, I have to go a little bit back to my time in my law firm, because this goes to a little bit of the point of what we all can do for each other in terms of mentoring again, and in particular, in our Latino community where we may not have full exposure to senior people in a number of fields when we ourselves as junior people are trying to make some of those decisions. So, when I decided to join Shearman as a summer intern, I didn't realize that they didn't have an employment law group, so I did rotations through a number of groups. I ended up in the executive compensation and employee benefits group—that’s what it was called back then. And so I had a lot of my time on M&A and transactional work, a lot of time on executive comp. Then it just so happened that there was a partner and a counsel at that point that did a lot of the employee relations-like matters for our client, but because it was not a practice in and of itself, it was more of something that you did for your client, and so I got staffed with them. So in a way, it was life happening to me and a very good coincidence that got me started, because if it wasn't for that background, and the fact that I did that work, I think it would have been very hard for me to then move into my Goldman Sachs role in the employee relations group. When I joined that, I was the only person in the team who had not been an employment law litigator prior to joining the firm. So, it's a combination of being in the right place at the right time. Then I would say, that was one of those moments where I had to bet on myself and overcome the fear of being someone who didn't have that same background, but being extremely passionate about that work, and about doing it in-house where I felt that I could really become a more natural adviser and an earlier adviser to people in the business by living and breathing with them the challenges from an employee relations perspective. So, I have to say, hands down, it still is my favorite job that I've ever had. And I am very fortunate that I still keep doing it here.
I think that one of the things that I've enjoyed most is actually having opportunity to have people on my team learn how to do employee relations cases. I don't have other lawyers in this HR team, and so to have the opportunity to mentor them through how you handle a case and resolve complicated matters together with them is one of the things that I enjoy the most, even if sometimes the topics are not the most enjoyable. So, that was my transition. I knew I didn't want to continue to be a practicing lawyer in a law firm. I didn't think that I wanted to go in-house to do it, but the reality is that that was probably a pseudo-uninformed decision on my part, María, because I didn't know a lot of in-house lawyers. But I just fell in love with the employee relations work, and that obviously led me then to transfer more into the talent space and further into a more holistic human capital career.
María González Calvet: What would you say if you could describe the thing in your current role or the aspect of your current role that you are the proudest of, the accomplishment that you're the proudest of, or the contribution that you and the team have made to TPG that you think has been the most impactful?
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: The answer to that is the teams that I either am directly responsible for or that I work with closely, seeing them not only hone in their craft, but be so committed to doing an excellent job, even in the more difficult circumstances. COVID has been a challenge for everyone globally for many reasons, but when you think about the role of the human capital teams at the center of it, but many others in terms of how you communicate with employees (the communications team), making legal judgments on things (some of the legal teams getting involved)—really working across functional teams is something that TPG does really well. Seeing that in the context of COVID, which obviously, again, has a lot of very unfortunate undertones, but again, our facilities teams or everyone who touches the experience of our employees—and then to see that again in the process of the IPO where a different kind of team effort now is needed, and maybe perhaps some other different teams. But again, seeing the teams that I'm responsible for in HR and the communications team really contribute to the success of the firm through a very difficult process. Seeing everyone come out of that experience, not only closer as teammates, but also with a new level of experience, that makes me really proud for them, and it makes me really proud to work at a firm that is capable of doing things like that.
María González Calvet: I'm sure your teams are equally proud and grateful for you, as we are for the privilege of having had this wonderful conversation and learning so much about your career. Again, thank you so much, Anilu, for the time. And we just really appreciate you and all of the teaching. Thank you.
Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri: Thank you, María, again for having me. And thank you for celebrating the Latino community.
For more information or to contact Anilu Vazquez-Ubarri, please visit her LinkedIn profile.