A Latino gardener, his young daughter beside him, approached a bank teller in one of the country’s wealthiest enclaves. The man lived in the community with his family and wanted to deposit a check. “Are you even here legally?” the bank teller said, trying to shame him. Though only six, the little girl sensed the woman’s cruelty.
Mónica Gil never forgot that moment from more than four decades ago. Her family motivated the launch of a meteoric career, leading to her current position as the Executive Vice President and Chief Administrative & Marketing Officer for NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises, one of the country’s leading media companies targeting U.S. Hispanics.
Gil joined Telemundo in 2017. She is recognized for transforming the company’s marketing structure, supervising communication campaigns across broadcast, cable and digital properties, as well as playing a critical role in the 2018 FIFA World Cup strategy that resulted in record-setting viewership.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What did you want to be as a child?
Mónica Gil: I wanted to be a lawyer to help my parents and 11 brothers and sisters. I’m the youngest and the only one born in the United States. As I grew up, I saw the challenges they had, like opening a bank account. By being a lawyer, I was going to help them find the resources to figure things out.
I remember one time going to the bank with my dad. The woman looked at him and said, “Are you even here legally?”
You don’t have to be educated or a certain age to know what’s wrong.
Even a child can sense when someone’s trying to shame another.
Mónica Gil: I still get choked up about it. I always knew when people treated another person unjustly. Maybe it was because we grew up being one of the only Latino families in Santa Barbara, one of the most affluent cities in America.
What was that like for you?
Mónica Gil: You always knew you were an “other,” like being the only one in class with black hair. My favorite was back-to-school nights. They would have potlucks. Our family never knew what to bring. We don’t do macaroni and cheese. Because my parents never went, you were always made to feel that something was wrong with you or your family.
I also had older parents. My mom had me at 44. People confused my parents as my grandparents. So, definitely a feeling of “other”—while knowing that in a city that was recognized for being so beautiful, it was people like my father and mother that made it beautiful by the work that they did.
You were the only child born in the United States. Where was everybody else in your family born?
Mónica Gil: [The Mexican state of] Zacatecas, a small town—maybe a thousand people. My dad came in through the Bracero program. I was born here and everybody else was born there. They immigrated in 1971.
How did your career get started?
Mónica Gil: Because I wanted to be a lawyer, I always figured I would do something in government or politics. I started my career working with a very unknown name, at the time one nobody could even pronounce [former California State Assembly member and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa]. That was my first job out of graduate school.
There, I had an opportunity to see the power of television because to get his bills passed required media time.
The way I started in media is he was there because I was always early. He said, ‘Hey, I have this bill. I’m wondering—’ He didn’t even ask for me. He asked for somebody else. He said, ‘I’m trying to see if I can get this on radio.’
I said, ‘I’m the only one here.’ I got him on eight radio stations.
That’s the moment he said, ‘How did you do that?’ I realized the power of media—at the time, radio.
After that, I was included in the decision-making rooms. Because when you have a seat at the table, you can see the rules of the game.
You next went to work as the Community Relations Manager at KVEA, Telemundo’s Los Angeles flagship television station.
Mónica Gil: That’s right. Now you see the power of the stories and you see the power of giving back to community, everything that I was wanting to do to serve the community that I love.
Then I went to [political ad agency] GMMB because the company said, ‘Hey, we need a Latina to help us understand how you get these bills on TV, recognized and talked about.’
What was your next step?
Mónica Gil: Nielsen was being attacked for improperly counting people of color. They needed a Latina who knew media and who knew government and politics. At the time, there were probably five of us.
I came to Nielsen to solve a need that they had to fulfill: How do you properly measure Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans?
I found my love and passion for storytelling at Nielsen, because my job was to take very complex matters, and take out the hassle factor for everybody else. I became fascinated with the ability to use data to make your points.
And then you return to Telemundo.
Mónica Gil: César Conde [NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises Chairman at the time] and I started being around certain circles. We started having conversations about demographics, about having the most talked-about segment, yet the most misunderstood. He was looking for a partner to help with clients, with advertisers, but also to help continue to grow Telemundo.
If you think about it, Univision had been a giant for years. Telemundo was like The Little Engine That Could. Everybody knew that there was some new energy going on at the time.
I was sitting at an event next to César. We started talking about the event, the demographics, the country, where the media industry is going and—there you have it.
I swore I’d never do Spanish-language television after I left, but there was such an amazing energy. I wanted to be a part of that. Telemundo was also now talking about what my reports at Nielsen showed: the ambicultural Latino. They had Reina del Sur, they had Celia, which was the first [telenovela with an] Afro Latino cast. I wanted to go from a feeling of “other” to a feeling of inclusion.
What needs to happen for the U.S. Latino marketplace to become better understood by the general market?
Mónica Gil: The data. Absolutely. The measurement of Latinos is so outdated, it’s still using strategies from 1980s.
Can you share some specifics?
Mónica Gil: If you look at the way the data is broken up, oftentimes, it’s not even broken up by ethnicity, much less by language. When you don’t break up the data by language, you’re not getting a true sense of the diversity of Latinos. Forty percent of Latino households are still Spanish dom[inant].
Also, country of origin is often not used. Until you break things down by country of origin, the research sample may be skewed.
Mónica Gil: It’s the data, the measurement. The other thing is the language piece. People still get hung up on the language piece instead of the actual preferences, instead of the actual habits. They don’t understand that we can seamlessly transcend between cultures and languages without even thinking about it. Explain that to researchers that fundamentally don’t understand what you’re talking about.
Some studies show speaking more than one language changes the mind. A bilingual or polyglot person is wired differently than a monolingual person.
Mónica Gil: English captures attention. Spanish language captures emotion. As an advertiser, if you can fundamentally understand and accept that, then you are years ahead of everyone else as to how to grow your business.
You’ve risen to top management at NBCUniversal Telemundo Enterprises. How would you describe your journey?
Mónica Gil: That’s such a layered question. I really believe my foundation is: You’ve got to work hard, do your work diligently and sign your name proudly. Having that mentality growing up was critical for me.
You always have to be good at what you do. You still have to be smart. But the differentiator is you have to be comfortable in your own skin to do unconventional things. And you have to be vulnerable enough to be open about talking about it.
But that’s not what’s going to continue to get you to grow in your career. The second part is learning the rules of the game.
What does ‘learning the rules of the game’ mean?
Mónica Gil: As an immigrant, you realize you need to know the rules—whether you’re applying to college, filling out a bank loan, buying a new home, buying a new car. If you learn the rules of the game, you’ll get much better at knowing how to block and tackle the challenges that come your way.
I still consider myself an immigrant because I grew up in an immigrant family as the only one who was first generation. Immigrants must quickly learn the culture and how to adapt, how to fit in, but also how to find people who can explain the game, who can answer the dumb questions for you.
The second phase is being confident and comfortable in your own skin. My favorite saying is that ‘I have to be adamantly authentic and audaciously assured.’
What does that mean?
Mónica Gil: I had to be everything that Monica is—the good, the bad and the ugly. I have to be transparent about it with the people that I work with. When you have to be adamantly authentic and audacious assured, you have to dare to be confident in a world that tells you not to be.
That can be hard for all women, but particularly if you’re Latina, and even more so if you’re a first-generation Latina.
Mónica Gil: Being comfortable in my own skin and unapologetically Latina has become my biggest strength. It’s given me the opportunity to lead.
Originally published on Forbes.com