Local Hispanic, Latino leaders put life experience to work for othersNational Hispanic Heritage Month is Sept. 15 to Oct. 15

One of the most valuable and inspirational things about Tampa and the surrounding Bay Area is its rich cultural diversity. 

With prestigious universities attracting students from all over the globe, beautiful year-round weather, the resurgence of investments in Downtown, increasing job opportunities (Florida Department of Economic Opportunity reports the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater area as having the largest job gains in Florida post COVID), and a relatively affordable cost of living, it comes as no surprise that the city has become one of the fastest-growing in the nation.  

The recent rise in population driven by a growing local tech ecosystem, people escaping more expensive and crowded cities,  and the increasing ability for so many professionals to work remotely only adds to the city’s history of diversity, enhancing the melting pot of different cultures, languages, music, food, lifestyles, traditions, and voices from places near and far. 

The area’s rich Latin and Hispanic heritage especially, largely Spaniards, Italians, Cubans, and Mexicans in the past, now includes people from every country in South and Central America, the Caribbean islands and Puerto Rico. 

Here we’ve set out to introduce our readers to some of Tampa’s Hispanic and Latino leaders who may not be well-known but nevertheless are creating and leading and change that will help shape our future.

Each shares their own unique story of how they’ve taken their passions to better our community and the hardships that transformed them into the influential leaders they are today. 

Diane Cortes
President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa, Founder of Acumen Strategist, a marketing and staffing firm

Diane Cortes, President of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa; Founder of Acumen StrategistWith a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration, major in Marketing, Diane Cortes has over 20 years of experience in sales and marketing with coarse knowledge in market penetration for Florida and the Caribbean. Her community outreach work is what got her appointed as the President of HCCTB where she helps entrepreneurs, start-ups, and all Hispanic businesses thrive within the Tampa Bay Area’s growing economy. With marketing always being her passion, Acumen’s vision is “founded on the belief that every business deserves to succeed,” and works “to implement an effective and profitable ontology of business,” to help all companies. 

“I’m so proud to be part of this time and place to see the great things and the transformation that not only the city, but the Hillsborough County is going through,” Cortes says. “It’s beautiful.” 

In addition to a deep religious faith, her passion and inspiration come from the way she was raised, by a single mother who worked multiple jobs in order to give her all she could.
 
“Seeing her passion, her passion became by passion. … She made it and thrived (later becoming a Vice President of Citi Bank),” Cortes says. “She put nothing in front of her to stop her, she always said that anything is possible, just go for it, and keep moving.” Born in New York, but raised in Puerto Rico, she completed some college education there before she came to the United States to attend the University of Phoenix.  

Starting as a volunteer at the Hispanic Chamber, one of the biggest pieces of advice she gives to not only her kids, but to the younger generation is to volunteer, learn what it takes to make it. 

“I found my passions [through volunteering] and saw everything I can do for the community, and that’s where everything started. I saw that this is the place I need to be in order to help others,” Cortes says. “Seeing others succeed is my biggest inspiration, being a part of their success, and seeing them thrive makes me thrive as well.” 

She’s obtained many recognitions throughout her career including a proclamation as Hillsborough County’s 2019 Distinguished Hispanic during Hispanic Heritage Month, the “Movers and Shakers” list by Latin Times Magazine, “WOLF” Women of Leadership Forum recognized by Best Buy, distinguished recognition as Platinum Executive for Sprint Corp., and being named Account Manager of the Year 2004 by SME Marketing Association of Puerto Rico. However, what she’s most proud of is the three programs she’s started within the HCCTB: the Adelante Student Scholarship Award, Prestigio Hispano Awards Banquet, and Empresario Emprendedor Small Business Grants. In the next five years, she will be working to implement an accelerator program for the chamber and get more income and trustees on board to be able to have more paid employees and continue the growth of Acumen. 

Referring to her family of five children and husband as the Puerto Rican Brady Bunch, one of the hardest things Cortes went through was moving to Tampa from Puerto Rico when the status of her job became at risk.
 
“It took getting out of my comfort zone to become more and learn more. Simple things like where’s South, where’s North, East, and West, I had to learn,” Cortes says. “Getting out of paradise and going to a new paradise that I didn’t know. … A year after being without a job, I was like ‘what am I going to do?’ Well, you know what you have to do, you have plenty of experience, Tampa is the place of opportunities. You know what? Build your empire build your business, you can do it,’ and you know what, here I am.”

Maribel Garrett
Director of Admissions at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS, a PreK3-8th grade independent school in Tampa, President of Tampa Hispanic Heritage Inc, a non-for-profit organization
 

Maribel Garrett, Director of Admissions at Corbett Preparatory School of IDS; President of Tampa Hispanic Heritage, Inc.“I have always been a believer that education is the foundation of everything we do. It opens doors, but you have to work hard at all times,” Maribel Garrett says. “Helping develop a strong work ethic is just as important, so helping students understand the balance is just as important as learning to develop a life balance that encourages you as a person to enjoy life.” 

Working in the field of education all her life, Garrett has worked with individuals of all ages. Born and raised in Puerto Rico, she gained her bachelor’s degree from the University of Puerto Rico in 1991, then moved to Florida to pursue her master’s degree from the University of South Florida. She strives to set an example that it doesn’t matter the color of your skin, that everyone can find their true potential. She wants us to acknowledge all of those who have come before us and fought for what they wanted; however, she knows that the color of our skin unfortunately can affect us. This just proves that there’s still more work to do, she says.  

Through Tampa Hispanic Heritage, Inc., she works to raise funds for scholarships for Hispanic students to attend college, many of them being first generation Latinos. “Seeing students on graduation day come up to you and thank you for everything you did that helped them get there, giving the support, sometimes financial, sometimes resources, sometimes just lending an ear while they worked through a challenge,” Garrett says. “Seeing them walk to their families with a smile on their faces and yelling, ‘I DID IT!’ What else can you ask for?” 

As one of the oldest Hispanic community organizations in Tampa, Tampa Hispanic Heritage organizes the Hispanic Women and Man of the Year Gala. She’s currently working with the organization on the planning Hispanic Heritage Month events.  Recently celebrating the winners in their annual Poster Contest, she shares that one of the best feelings ever is having their recipients become professionals, watching as they give back to the community. “It reminds you of why you do what you do,” Garrett says. 

Advice she gives to everyone reading this? Work hard for what you believe in. 
“Everything in life will take time and effort. Don’t let your past define your future. It’s a lesson, not a life sentence. Ask for help when you think you need it. Asking makes you stronger, not weaker as many of us think.” 

Araseli Martinez-Peña 
Coordinator of Hispanic and Multicultural Outreach for Hillsborough County Public Schools under the Division of Climate and Culture, Family and Community Engagement, overseas the HCPS and MALDEF Parent School Partnership, Director and Moderator of the Latinx Education Equity Community Roundtable

Araseli Martinez-Peña, Coordinator of Hispanic and Multicultural Outreach for Hillsborough County Public Schools under the Division of Climate and Culture, Family and Community EngagementGrowing up with limited “access” hindering herself, her family, and her community, Araseli Martinez-Peña made it her goal to prevent others from going through that. Knowing the importance of education and engaging in experiences that access brings, she believes that every child deserves to be exposed and encouraged to not only learn but partake in new things. To her, statements like “at-risk” or “not all kids go to college,” are just deceitful and untruthful.

“I believe that all kids have the potential to choose their own successful destinies if we provide them with every opportunity to be prepared and to choose,” Martinez-Peña says. This is exactly what she’s working toward.

Being an educator since 2000, she’s planning to work toward getting a doctorate, adding to her Education Specialist Degree from Florida State University, Master’s Degree from USF in Counselor Education, bachelor’s in social work, and most recently, a professional certificate in Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion from USF. Her passion stems from the feeling she gets while inspiring and watching children achieve progress toward their highest potential.
 
“While educators do not make millions, affirmation from children or their families on how my help has changed their life for the better is priceless,” Martinez-Peña says. Her expertise includes strengthening partnerships, policy, schools, and institutions while creating initiatives that build capacity for those that serve diverse communities. 

Growing up with both parents being immigrants from Mexico, she was born in Grand Rapids, MI, one of their migrant stops, and eventually moved to Tampa in 1998. Migrants, one of the most neglected and vulnerable populations in the U.S., often live undocumented, like her family once was, with no assistance, low wages, and bartered housing.
 
“We slept in church parking lots and depended on food pantries for food. We lived in migrant camps with shared bath houses and used outhouses for our toilet needs. … As we grew older our ‘extra-curricular activities’ were helping my family in the fields after work picking apples in Michigan or picking oranges in Florida,” Martinez-Peña says. “This experience shaped my work ethic, my grit, and my hunger for learning and new experiences. … Growing up, traveling from place to place in the most extreme versions of poverty have instilled a great level of resiliency.” 

A lot of her passion stems from her own personal educational journey as a former migrant student. With 20 years of K-20 experience, her goal has remained the same, committing to developing equity and access opportunities for students, while also empowering families and the schools that serve them. Her dream, she says, is to build a network of opportunities to lift young Latinas and Latinos and to help shape, and be a voice to shape, policy that impacts the Latinx community. 

Luz D. Randolph
Associate Vice Provost at Louisiana State University, member of the Board of Directors for Hispanic Services Council, member of the Board of Directors at MacDonald Training Center, Previous Positions: Executive Director of Development at St. Petersburg College Foundation, Assistant director of Development Diversity Initiatives, Director of the Candidate Empowerment Center at Florida A&M University, and Assistant Director of the Department of Multicultural Student Affairs at the University of Miami

Luz D. Randolph, Associate Vice Provost at Louisiana State UniversityDouble alumna from the University of South Florida, Luz Randolph earned her Bachelor’s Degree in Interpersonal Communication and a Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction-College Student Affairs. She also completed her Doctorate of Education in Higher Education and her Leadership Administration degree from Nova Southeastern University.

Her initial goal was to become an obstetrician, however, through her student engagement, she found that there weren’t a lot of individuals that looked like her in leadership roles, yet a lot of students like her needed guidance and support as they went through their schooling. Because of this, she chose to pursue her Master’s in Higher Education, leading her to the various roles she’s had in colleges around Florida. 

A first-generation student, coming to south Florida at the age of 9 from Puerto Rico, she wanted to build her career around helping students who face challenges, like she had, and provide them more access to success.

“I realized that there is a lack of knowledge in our community about philanthropy and how it can impact communities. That’s how the second part of my career has been added,” Randolph says. 

Some of her accomplishments include being responsible for the college-wide fundraising efforts at St. Petersburg College and the recently established Helios Titan Achievement Program (H-TAP), the Social Justice Institute Microgrant awarded by the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee, the SPC Emergency Fund, and many other initiatives. She strives to cultivate relationships between USF constituents and the Tampa Bay community in hopes to enhance the university’s diverse students’ experiences. Additionally, with her role with CEC at Florida A&M University, her team increased FAMU’s College of Education’s Teacher Certification passage rate by 75%.
 
“A lot of my focus has always been in the marginalized communities,” Randolph says. “Each of my jobs and positions have allowed me to work with marginalized groups and some of the biggest programs have tended to be, whether it’s with the Black community, LGBTQ community, or Latino community, really exciting to see [her work] come to fruition.”

Because she recently accepted a role at Louisiana State University, she’s working to take in the environment and culture there and make the changes the university hopes to see while bringing all the knowledge she gained while working in the Tampa Bay Area. Ultimately, she’d like to become a college president. 

“A lot of the people at the table, they may have somewhat similar experiences as far as working throughout college or having a single parent, but very seldomly do they look like me, look like the students who are coming to college needing access,” Randolph says. “A lot of the decisions being made, though well-intended, are by individuals who don’t have the experience. … I don’t want to be at the table for power, but I want to be at the table to make sure we can provide access to all students.” 

Her intent is to try and make things better for everyone, whatever race, or group you may represent.
 
“As a higher education professional who talks to students every day, [I know] students having different backgrounds, and are coming from all different types of communities. It was really hard to walk through [the death of George Floyd] and be a support system for them,” Randolph says. “I, myself, have had a very hard time processing this, as I have a Black husband and Black children. … But what made me realize that I was in the right space, doing the right work, was having the ability to have those kids call me and find solace in trying to figure out what to do next, who to speak to. I know I have their trust.” 

She wants all students to know they have support and someone who can help. 

“Community support and engagement is essential, and that has really driven the work I do and has helped me to be successful,” Randolph says. “I found the most support in Tampa. … I really honestly achieved a lot of my success because of the support I received from this community. … It takes a village, and, as much a cliché as that sounds, it really does. I know I will be coming back to Tampa because it is such an incredible place to call home.” 

Tony Selvaggio
CEO and Founder of eSmart Recycling, board member, founding member, or advisory council of multiple local organizations such as Nova Southeastern University, Stetson University, Foundation for Community Driven Innovation, Gator Pit, Tierra y Ser, and Sustainability Tampa Bay

Tony Selvaggio, CEO and Founder of eSmart Recycling“We have the wonderful opportunity to use our business as a force for social good,” Tony Selvaggio says. “I believe we have a unique competitive advantage nowadays to think outside of the box in how we tackle everyday problems.… Most people think innovation means creating new technology, but innovation is often using new approaches to solve problems in a different way.”
 
Obtaining his bachelor’s in business administration in Venezuela, he migrated to the United States shortly after 2011 with the goal to continue growing his business. He hopes to get to the point where our economic and social impact naturally creates a model to be replicated across industries. 

As CEO and Founder of eSmart Recycling, his mission is to recycle old technology from companies at the highest compliance standards, and use a portion of the proceeds to fund tech labs for kids that don’t have access to computers. Since beginning, they’ve successfully deployed more than 2,000 computers not only in the Tampa Bay Area, but worldwide. 

“The most exciting part is that we are only getting started. We will not rest until every child in our community has proper access to technology, connectivity, and quality education,” Selvaggio says. 

What drives him? His appreciation for this country and the opportunity to leave a legacy that’ll help generations to come. 

As his business grows vertically with their mission, vision, and values going into their work regionally, nationally, and internationally, they’re also working to leverage resources and integrate their mission to expand their infrastructure and reach.

Selvaggio explains that while altruism is a wonderful human trait, it’s not sustainable. More needs to be done to solve the problems our community faces. Government, nonprofits, and public sector institutions aren’t the ultimate solution, we need to take ownership of these problems as a community and find ways to solve them ourselves, he says.
 
“The biggest opportunity is for businesses to align their purpose with the root cause of these issues and take an active part in solving them, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because it is the only way for the business to grow, remain competitive, and turn clients into champions of their cause,” Selvaggio says. 

Moving to Tampa at the age of 24, he’s since become a U.S. citizen. 

“Here, I found my purpose in life. This country and this community gave me my family and my business. I’m extremely proud of my heritage because my upbringing gave me an opportunity to see life through a unique lens,” Selvaggio says. “I believe one of my biggest strengths is understanding how to deal with multicultural scenarios, being able to build a bridge between the U.S. and Latin America. … I’m Tampeño now and am very proud of it.” 

Brian Serrano
Sample Insights leader for Nielsen, led Nielsen’s employee resource group Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Tampa Bay (HOLA), Chair of Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council, helped create the Development Acceleration for Latinos’ Education Project (DALE)

Brian Serrano, Sample Insights leader for Nielsen; Chair of Tampa Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory CouncilStarting out with the Nielsen company in Miami, Brian Serrano transferred to Tampa, Nielson’s global headquarters, in 2012 to pursue a management opportunity. At the Tampa location he was introduced to their internal volunteer groups and saw that the company was investing a lot of time and effort into diverse individuals.
 
“They would give you a certain number of hours each year to actually go out and make a difference in the community, and I thought that was wonderful. Not every company does that,” Serrano says. “I was proud to work for a company that encourages and enables its employees to go out and discover a little bit more about themselves and what makes them diverse, while at the same time making an impact out in the community.”

At Nielsen, he’s a TV sample strategist, building and maintaining samples of the population based on Census data across the country, while also advocating for clients and leading the business relationship between Nielsen and TV media clients. He uses data to identify and look at these large gaps we’ve had for many years in diverse representation. 

A recent project Nielsen has worked that was under their Diverse Intelligence Series, gave them the opportunity to look at how ethnic people are portrayed on TV. 

“I’m proud of the work that Nielsen goes into, it’s not just producing the ratings, but also the back-end work that goes into the need to properly represent diverse people on the screen,” Serrano says. We grew up watching shows that ingrained these stereotypes of different groups of people, Latinos often being labeled as the bad guys, the drug dealers, etc. Nielsen’s shown him the power of the data, the revenue that comes in when you’re working with ethnic groups, the ideas that are generated, and the impact that you’re making. “With the data, we are able to prove the power of diversity,” Serrano says.

Through his work with the Tampa Mayor’s Hispanic Advisory Council, he’s gotten the chance to work and collaborate with different groups and represent the city throughout a variety of events. Though their main focus is on the Latino community, they still work with and exchange ideas with different ethnic populations. Two of the events that they host include DALE, a program specifically for kids K-12 where they get the chance to shadow professionals who look like them in different careers and The Latinos Unidos Luncheon. This is hosted to raise scholarship funds for Hispanics who need financial help to continue their studies in college.  

Working with the city has given him the chance to impact not only those in Nielsen’s line of work, but the entirety of the population that resides in Tampa. In the next five years, he plans on writing a book covering the measurable power of diversity in hopes to inspire these individuals. 

In the future, he wants to collaborate with leaders from various cities to see what they’re doing to tackle similar problems.
 
“We’re solving local problems in Tampa, but what can we do to increase that objective to make the biggest impact of all across the country?” Serrano says. “Maybe the problem is different [for other ethnic groups], but the pain and discrimination that comes with it is very similar to what everyone else, all of the other groups, suffer through.”

“If you look for it, every biggest problem, challenge, and pain in life actually has a silver lining that can yield a better outcome. You have to have the mindset for that, convince yourself that there is something good at the end of the road,” Serrano says. “Even though its painful today, there’s something good up ahead.” 

Jesus Vidaurri
Sr. Talent Acquisition Partner at Tech Data Corp., Vice Chair for the Latinx/Hispanic Business Resource Group within Tech Data’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion team, Chapter President of Blacks in Technology-Tampa, and member of the Young Professionals Board for Embarc Collective

Jesus Vidaurri, Sr. Talent Acquisition Partner at Tech Data Corp.; Chapter President of Blacks in Technology-Tampa A local graduate of the University of South Florida, Jesus Vidaurri earned his Business Management degree and has been in his profession for over seven years now.
 
“I didn’t choose my career, it actually chose me several years ago,” Vidaurri says. Starting out as a personal physical trainer, he transitioned into a technical recruiter and professional networker. As a technical recruiter, he works to bring the best talent to any organization that he supports, and most importantly, connect other tech talent to one another within the Tampa market.  

“As far as what gives me passion, it’s the technology itself and the potential it has to change an entire generation, but most importantly, I have made it my mission to bring more diversity to the tech industry and create opportunities for those that once did not have it,” Vidaurri says. His 10-year plan is to develop and lead his own team of Talent Acquisition professionals and/or work full-time on a Software startup idea he developed several years back. 

Growing up in a small Florida farming community, Immokalee, his parents, still farm workers to this day, had immigrated from Mexico almost 30 years ago to give him and his siblings the future they wanted for them. Although he doesn’t feel like his race or ethnic background affects his day-to-day life, he grew up with a background that shaped him to be adaptable and resilient. He learned the importance of appreciating the small things in life, embedding his core values of tenacious, humility, and graciousness. 

“I have many stories of struggle that I can share, but it’s the stories of others that have struggled from where I came from that truly shaped my perspective and mindset,” Vidaurri says. It’s the satisfaction he gets from helping others, whether that be matching them to their dream job or connecting people to one another, watching while their relationship/partnership blossoms, and in turn, enhancing the community. 

“I just want people to understand that anything is achievable and that despite your circumstances, you can make your life what you set it out to be. I never imagined a boy from a small immigrant farming community to end up in a bigger city like Tampa with an education and a career in tech,” Vidaurri says. He describes David Goggins, one of his role models, as being the very definition of mental fortitude. He’s someone he hears in his head when he feels as though he’s hit a wall, and as Goggins says, “We all have the ability to come from nothing and become something.” 
 

Read more articles by Lauren Wong.

Lauren Wong is a graduate of the University of Tampa with a degree in journalism who is freelancing while she looks for a full-time job. Originally from the Chicago area, she enjoys travel and aspires to be a travel photojournalist. During the summer of 2019, she worked for Premier Travel Media in Chicago and as a correspondent for Input Fort Wayne, another Issue Media group online magazine based in Indiana. She loves spending time outdoors camping, kayaking, and taking pictures.
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