Hilton’s Laura Fuentes Discusses Importance of Empathy in Allyship

Laura Fuentes, chief talent officer at Hilton (No. 2 on the 2020 DiversityInc Top 50 Companies for Diversity list) said empathy is central to being an ally to those facing racial injustice. Fuentes is from Spain and spent much of her life living and traveling around the world, first with her parents and later for work. She said her desire to connect with other cultures born out of her life experience became an integral part of how she integrated allyship into her career.

(Courtesy of Hilton)

“What originally, I think, was born more out of personal experience around allyship, bridging cultures, and learning from other cultures then became a personal, dedicated interest that I would bring into work,” she said.

Hilton founder Conrad Hilton held the belief that people can achieve world peace through travel. Fuentes said allyship ties into Hilton’s mission because it is an important component of connecting with and appreciating other cultures. “I think that requires allyship, and it requires a deep sense of empathy with others who may have different backgrounds, look differently, work differently, but ultimately contribute to the richness that is humankind and that is the tapestry of our business in particular,” Fuentes explained.

Race and ethnicity, in particular, come with nuances in how one can work as an ally with the Black community. As a woman in business and a Hispanic immigrant, Fuentes said she has felt the pressure of being the “other,” while also experiencing privilege due to the color of her skin, her education and her knowledge of the English language.

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Fuentes explained that these nuances have governed her journey toward allyship and working to understand other’s struggles.

“Many people, regardless of background, have experienced the feeling of being a minority, of being the other, of being the person with lesser power, less leverage,” Fuentes added. “And I think, in a way, those experiences are what can make people more effective allies because you come with a deep sense of empathy. You understand experiences that others may not. And that is the first step in bridging our differences.”

She also said she keeps in mind that no group’s experience is a monolith. “Every Hispanic immigrant experience is different,” she explained. “Every Black person’s experience is different. So really boiling it down to what is an individual’s sense of connection to this versus always just a broad stroke from a group perspective.”

Fuentes also identified that her privilege and position as a diversity and inclusion leader at a powerful company have made it necessary for her to constantly audit herself on her effectiveness as an ally. She identified four pillars of allyship that she constantly checks herself on.

  • Be authentic in who you are and recognize where you’re coming from. 

“What have you learned?” Fuentes elaborated. “What have you experienced? What are your gaps and blind spots that might not make you an effective ally or as effective as you can be? And being authentic and personal to how you’re going to best learn, how you’re going to best listen. For me, that takes the form of being open to other people, reading, trying to connect with folks who are deliberately different than I am.”

  • Make your allyship meaningful. Intent is important, but actions are crucial.

“For me personally, I’ve got to make it catchable … What are the actions we’re going to do in that work? Where am I going to donate to for my personal causes? How am I going to stand up and help an organization I believe in or reach out to a friend? Where am I going to use my voice?”

  • Be brave and willing to leave your comfort zone.

You’ll often have to choose between comfort and courage. “Choose courage when you have to in these matters. And I think to be a good ally, you’ll have to do that often,” Fuentes said.

  • Take sustainable action that has potential of longevity

When headlines and social media posts begin to stray away from the topic of racial justice, how will you continue to speak up as an ally?

“There’s a huge amount of effort, rightfully so, now,” Fuentes explained. “But it’s a sprint within a marathon. We have to be prepared to run the long-term marathon. This is the work of multiple lifetimes.

Related story: Understanding White Privilege and Being an Ally to the Black Community

Fuentes approaches allyship as a process of lifelong awareness. Instead of being reactive, she said companies must work to weave diversity and inclusion into the fabric of their business.

“It’s less about delivering at work on a project, but changing mindsets, changing the systemic infrastructure that needs to be changed and building in checks and balances that will endure beyond a hiring spree,” she said. “But what is the training? What are the conversations? What is the culture we’re trying to build?”

Fuentes added that she not only works to audit herself on her adherence to these pillars, but also invites Hilton employees to hold her accountable. In recent years, Hilton has taken action to support Black and other communities that experience prejudice by partnering with the NAACP, putting in place resource groups for Black employees, setting diversity targets and representation goals and tying those goals to compensation. Fuentes said she believes Hilton’s actions are a good start, but that the company’s racial justice work needs to be ongoing and adaptable as individuals and organizations learn more.

“The collective consciousness has evolved to a point where we’ve now made some declarations as a society, as companies. So, I think that will keep the momentum moving forward,” she said. As an individual, Fuentes admitted that she may make mistakes, but doesn’t allow those mistakes to stop her from taking part in conversations about race and representation.

Fuentes added that she leads, first and foremost, with a sense of humanity. “At the end of the day, when there is no playbook and there’s just a lot of hurt and sadness, then lead with your humanity,” she said. “Lead with your instinct. Lead with a question and a listening ear. And I try to remind myself of that, even as my own journey is full of learning and I hope — and good intent — but yes, learning and sometimes [making] mistakes.”

Related story: AbbVie’s Julie Osborne Discusses the Importance of Listening and Learning as a White Ally to the Black Community

Fuentes said she has made a quote by writer Maya Angelou her mantra as she has reflected on her allyship journey: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.”

“I think that’s a great way to think about allyship,” Fuentes said. “Always work hard. Do the best. You’re going to learn more. Things will change. You’ll have more insight. And then raise the bar. But don’t beat yourself up for the things you didn’t know a year ago. Just do better now that you know better.”

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