Inside Track: Consultant draws inspiration from her roots

As a native of Mexico and a new resident of Holland, Ana Ramirez-Saenz repeatedly was told by childhood classmates, “If you’re not Dutch, you’re not much.”

Ana Ramirez-Saenz chose to pursue an M.B.A. with a concentration in finance so she would be “taken seriously” coming out of college. Courtesy Ana Ramirez-Saenz

Ramirez-Saenz — the third child of a hardworking single mother who brought her family to the U.S. for access to better opportunities — took these hurtful words and used them as fuel for her lifelong mission to advance the social and economic equity of Latin Americans.

“When I heard that (insult), it lit such a fire under me,” Ramirez-Saenz said. “I’m a gregarious, feisty person anyway, so I went home, and I told my mom, and she went, ‘OK, so what are you going to do?’ And I said to her, ‘Mom, I’m not going to let anyone tell me I’m not much. I’m going to show them who I am and what I can do.’ Mom said, ‘Ándele, adelante’ — ‘That’s right; go forward.’ It was that spirit of, don’t you let anybody tell you who you are and what you can and cannot do.”

From then on, Ramirez-Saenz pushed herself to be the best. In school, she was involved in just about every sport she could be, including gymnastics, diving, swimming, and track and field, as well as participating in orchestra and band and going to classes.

“I didn’t want to give (people) any excuse to say I wasn’t good enough,” she said.

One of Ramirez-Saenz’s earliest aspirations was to become a Spanish language interpreter for the United Nations. While a junior at the University of Michigan studying Spanish language and literature, she applied to take a test that would grant her admission to an interpreter certification program at Georgetown University. Unbeknownst to her, she was competing against diplomats and professionals who were fluent in four or five languages, and Ramirez-Saenz was not admitted to the program.

ANA RAMIREZ-SAENZ
Organization:
LaFuente Consulting and LaFuente Communications
Position: Founder and president
Birthplace: Tampico, Mexico
Residence: Caledonia
Family: Mother, Francisca Castillo; daughters, Amanda Saenz-Farfan and Catalina Ramirez-Saenz; one son-in-law; two grandsons
Business/community involvement: Ferris State University Board of Trustees vice chair and chair of Academic Services and Student Services Committee, Grand Rapids Community Foundation board member, Girl Scouts of Michigan Shore to Shore board member, member of West Michigan Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, member of Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce
Biggest career break: Being hired by Wells Fargo to begin its ethnic lending program

Undaunted, she finished her degree and went on to earn an M.B.A. with a concentration in finance from U-M after an undergraduate accounting class she took revealed she was good with numbers.

“I loved marketing, but in talking to my (college) advisers and to my mentor, I said, ‘I can’t do that. As a Latina, I must have a degree and a concentration where no one will be able to question my credibility, where no one will be able to question my education.’ I toughed it out, and I (pursued) a concentration in finance. I knew that as a Latina woman coming into the marketplace in the mid-’80s, when there weren’t a whole lot of us coming out of business schools, I knew that I needed to be taken seriously.”

Now, looking back on that choice, Ramirez-Saenz has no regrets, because her understanding of finance helped her launch and run her own diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) consulting firm, LaFuente Consulting, in 2000.

LaFuente Consulting helps companies compete in the global marketplace through aligning the organizations’ diversity and inclusion strategies to the corporate strategic plan, assessing the skills and knowledge of managers responsible for multicultural teams, designing and developing programs to increase staff members’ awareness of the need for respecting differences, and coaching senior leaders to work with multicultural teams in multiple time zones.

She created a language services division within the firm in 2003, and last year, spun that division off into its own company, LaFuente Communications, which offers translation, interpretation and multimedia language services for businesses and organizations to communicate with their multilingual employees, connect with customers, and reach prospective clients worldwide.

Ramirez-Saenz is proud of her roots and her family and said she draws inspiration every day from her mother, Francisca Castillo.

Her mother was one of six children in a family that could only send her to school up to third grade. After Castillo divorced her husband, Ramirez-Saenz’s father, when Ramirez-Saenz was a toddler, she followed her brother, Juan, to Laredo, Texas, where she landed work as a domestic. As Castillo began settling into life in America, she made a friend named Irene, who was from a migrant family that followed the harvest throughout the U.S. Irene told her about the small town of Holland, Michigan, which she described as clean, pretty and full of flowers, with a church on every corner.

Castillo was enchanted with the description, and she moved with her three children to Holland in 1968 during Tulip Time — only later discovering the harsh realities of winter. She went to work in the Heinz pickle factory, while her friend, Irene, established the first Mexican market and restaurant in Holland.

“We had arrived, we got our own apartment; it was fantastic. We were living the dream,” Ramirez-Saenz said. “Those formative years were really the ones that cemented our character, cemented our values, because there was no shortage of people that were willing to help us, and they were willing to help us because of how hard my mother worked. They saw her strength and what she wanted to do for her kids — the dedication and the determination and the drive that she had.”

Ramirez-Saenz said Castillo is blessed with the gift of hospitality and friendliness, and people in Holland were attracted to that.

“Our house was the go-to house, so when anybody ever needed anything, they went to Kika’s house — that’s my mother’s nickname — because they knew that she would be able to help,” she said.

Although Ramirez-Saenz said growing up in Holland was wonderful in some respects — the safety, sense of community, the spirit of service and plethora of churches where she could attend Bible school — she also felt the lack of DEI — a theme that kept cropping up throughout her life and professional career.

As a natural extension of Castillo’s “relentless work ethic,” Ramirez-Saenz said she and her siblings all were expected to go to college. Her older sister went to the University of Michigan, then eventually on to law school at Rutgers University, and her older brother went to Hope College. 

When it came time for Ramirez-Saenz to choose, she decided to follow in her sister’s footsteps at U-M. The accounting class she took in her sophomore year assisted her in progressing through various part-time jobs that gave her more and more business experience and allowed her to help support her family. By the time she graduated with her M.B.A., she was ready to launch a career in banking. 

At her second banking job, Wells Fargo, Ramirez-Saenz seized the opportunity to work in the Los Angeles market, home of the largest Latino community in the U.S., where she helped the bank create an ethnic lending program. 

After a couple of years in LA, she returned home to West Michigan to a job at Steelcase Financial, so she could settle down and start a family. After a four-year career at Steelcase, Ramirez-Saenz was itching to take what she had learned about DEI in the workplace and apply those skills toward helping companies implement strategies.

“The groundwork had been laid over the years; I just didn’t one day say, ‘Oh, I’m going to be a diversity consultant,’” Ramirez-Saenz said. “All of the experiences that I had throughout my career in some way or fashion, I was involved in and being pulled into this discussion about diversity, about increasing recruitment of people of color, and I was always involved in some committee or subcommittee, with people asking me, ‘How do we get more of YOU into our organization?’ I had been building this knowledge base, and so I was really doing diversity work with my employers when it wasn’t called diversity work.”

Ramirez-Saenz also had experienced plenty of discrimination in the workplace, including some banking clients asking that she be removed from managing their accounts due to her race.

At the time she started LaFuente Consulting, Ramirez-Saenz said West Michigan companies were far behind when it came to implementing DEI policies and strategies, so most of her clients were from outside the region and outside the state. Up until 2015-17, she estimates about 60%-70% of her business was done outside the state of Michigan. Now, she sees West Michigan making more progress toward becoming a more welcoming and inclusive place, and she is gradually becoming more well-known as a DEI consultant in this area.

“Kudos to the chambers, to The Right Place, for a lot of the programming that has been done collectively to make Grand Rapids and West Michigan a more diverse and welcoming location,” she said. “I can see the results and benefits. But when you look at, in terms of the industry as a whole here, I would say that the intention has not changed. We still have to have the hard conversations. … We are making progress, but we’re still dealing with the same issues of race. We’re still dealing with issues of identity. We’re still dealing with the same issues of belonging, and we’re still dealing with the same issues of equity. What has changed is that more and more companies have started the conversation; more and more companies have started the work.”

Ramirez-Saenz said she looks forward to continuing to do this “vital” work in the region she has called home for so many years.

“There are a lot of people working on this. We’ve made a lot of progress, but if West Michigan is really going to thrive, more than we are now … if we are really going to get on that top list of the most diverse, inclusive cities, we all need to come together and recognize that we have to work together for the betterment of our community and for the betterment of our region. … We have to be intentional. We have to be strategic, and we have to be all open to each other.”

Inside Track: Consultant draws inspiration from her roots