In this Opportunity Makers interview, Romina Bongiovanni, Global Director of Communications at New Balance Athletics, speaks about her experience as an immigrant leader. She shares her perspective on championing diversity, how to pave the way for future immigrant leaders, and even the ways she’s keeping her traditions alive with her daughter (even through cake!).
What was your “coming to America” story?
As a Latinx-American woman originally from Argentina, I came to the U.S. with a desire to travel and explore different cultures. I was encouraged by my parents, those who inspired me, and even those who upset me to take risks in life. My heightened sense of curiosity mixed with my inner drive brought me to Los Angeles in search for a clearer path forward and to evolve as an independent woman. I went from being a production assistant to my first agency position doing PR for major global brands like Levi’s, Microsoft, Starbucks, and Toyota. Two years ago I moved to Boston to take an in-house role at New Balance.
What was the biggest adjustment coming to the U.S.?
My biggest adjustment coming to the U.S. was understanding how to simultaneously navigate two cultures while finding meaningful ways to connect with others. I immersed myself in the culture as a tourist when I was a child, but now living here and being Latinx I needed to understand how my diversity would benefit my life and also be in service of the larger community. I think I’ve done a nice job blending the influences of Argentinian and American culture into my own approach to life.
How do you accredit your experiences as an immigrant to your current achievements?
I feel like my accomplishments in my over twenty-year career have prepared me for my current role at New Balance. In my role, you need to have an informed world view, and my experiences as an Argentinian-American of Spanish, Lebanese and Italian descent have prepared me for that.
It’s been proven that companies that exhibit both gender and ethnic diversity see an increase in performance by up to 15-35%. As an immigrant, I’m able to bring the diversity of thought, experience and cultural background that brands need to meaningfully resonate with consumers.
How does your identity as an immigrant shape your role as a storyteller?
Because my story is a little different than others in my role at New Balance and other brands, I feel like I challenge my team to approach storytelling differently, perhaps using different tools and different voices. Diverse and cultural stories are not a tactic for me, but rather woven into the fabric of our collective work. One example is that a few of us at New Balance are a part of the espnW and the U.S. State Department-sponsored initiative “Global Sports Mentoring Program.” Here, we mentor female leaders from around the world who are creating opportunities for women in sports.
How do you stay rooted in where you’re from?
My daughter is half Mexican, so we try to keep our traditions alive, and make sure she’s fully bilingual and embraces certain cultural moments. These include the Mexican tradition of “Día de los Muertos” or the Argentine way of celebrating Easter with “Huevos de Pascuas” – large, shallow chocolate eggs filled with candies and small toys. Recently, in lieu of the pandemic, we’ve been doing a lot more family Zoom calls where she gets to hear our respective accents in others and notice differences in our idiosyncrasies. And, of course, we’ve perfected a few traditional recipes as a family too, like the easiest cake in the world, “Chocotorta.” Google it and shop the ingredients at a Latin market. I highly recommend it.
What’s a common misconception people have about immigrants?
I’m not sure if there’s a common misconception people have about immigrants, but there is certainly greater awareness now on the need to relearn and keep our biases in-check when making decisions. I see this as an opportunity for growth for individuals as well as corporations, and this is something I’m proud to be driving alongside other leaders at New Balance as part of our own diversity, equity and inclusion journey.
People often say that immigrants are the bedrock of this nation. What unique value do you think immigrants bring to the US and help shape our culture?
Definitely resilience, and being okay with uncertainty. Immigrants aren’t always sure what’s coming next: they go from their well-known, comfortable life (although not always fair or safe) to changing their lives drastically by moving to another country. Immigrants embrace the unknown with courage, and this adds tremendous value to society, especially in a time of crisis.
We all are familiar with the “American Dream.” What was your early perception of the American Dream and how has it evolved over time?
My early perception of the American dream was the ability to control your own future, and that with hard work, you’d achieve success. Today, I’m proud of the “American Dream” I made for myself, and hope girls like my daughter are able to dream bigger because of what my Latina peers and I have achieved so far. I reinvented myself a few times, focusing on my goals. Ultimately, I landed at New Balance and am honored to help pave the way for a diverse talent pool as they pursue their own dreams.
Immigration in this country is often politicized, yet oftentimes we forget the humans behind the conversation. How can brand leaders better amplify the voices of the immigrant community?
Companies can no longer simply produce and market a superior product to attract a consumer base. Consumers expect to see purpose-driven corporate structures and actions that connect to the causes they care about. Similarly, championing the immigrant community and people of different races, gender, sexual orientation and body abilities and doing our part to ensure equal opportunity for all is what makes our work at brands like New Balance uniquely positioned to create systemic change. Brands should lead with their values and demonstrate measurable commitment to elevating rising voices in culture, such as the rich perspective of the thriving immigrant community.
What value would you say young immigrants can showcase as they continue their career journey?
I’d start with the ability to speak, read and write in multiple languages – and bring a fresh perspective to each conversation. Early in my career, I made a name for myself by helping brands connect with the Hispanic consumers in the U.S., not only by communicating in the language but truly navigating the cultural sensitivities and nuances that made the Hispanic community tick. As such, I traveled all over the country as a bilingual spokesperson, attended prestigious award shows, and immersed executives of the world’s largest brands into our diverse Latinx cultures. Don’t underestimate the traits and skills that come with who you are - lean on them to seize the moment.
What are your thoughts on the intersectionality that comes into play you’re your immigration story? a. If not intersectional themselves: What do you find is missing in the conversation surrounding immigration and the diverse experiences within the immigrant community?
As a Latina, mom, immigrant, and brand leader, I often felt like the only one of my kind and misunderstood. I learned to lean on what makes me different and focus on my personal vision to break barriers.
One of the most overlooked things in leadership is serving alongside your teammates, even if you’re the boss. For me it’s important to pursue common goals and champion the idea of the collective leadership as the product of the team. I believe this comes from my Latin roots and our passion for the collective, friends and family.
There’s little awareness of National Immigrant Day as a holiday. What are some ways we can work to increase the visibility surrounding the Immigrant Community and ways that they are celebrated?
A good start is conducting more interviews like this one, where we can share our learnings and hopefully inspire the next generation of entrepreneurs.