Recalling her days at Stanford, the winner of the 2010 Jerry I. Porras award from the school's Hispanic Business Students Association described one essential task: "To find our work, the passion of our work," Laura Sanchez said, "and to marry that with our passion for life."
That balance is crucial for Sanchez, MBA '94, a mother of two and a managing director at Goldman Sachs. "There is still the perception in society that you can't do it all. And that if you try, you're going to fail miserably at one or the other. Unfortunately, there is still the concern that having children might hurt your career, and that having a career might hurt your children.
"By trying to do all of these things, I do feel I am a better professional and a better mother as a result."
2011 Porras Award
One of the lessons she learned at Goldman Sachs was to cultivate her personal style, but it didn't come easily — especially after one training session.
"The instructor told me I had a 10-kilowatt smile, and I needed to hit the dimmer switch," Sanchez told the audience at the Feb. 27 dinner honoring Sanchez. "My manager called me one day on the phone and said, 'You know, you sound too nice on the phone. You need to do something about that.'"
She took the advice, but overcompensated. "Then the problem I had was that people told me, 'You're not nice enough. You're too cold. People don't like working with you.'"
Her "aha" moment came when she and a colleague were on the phone with a relatively new client. The colleague had a family background on Wall Street, so the family dinner conversations growing up were often about investing. Sanchez's family didn't own stocks, so dinner conversations were about relationships and community. The colleague did all the talking with the client, who suggested they meet to discuss the complicated topic. The client said, "I'm going to call your assistant, Laura, and schedule something."
"Truthfully, I wasn't surprised" that she had been taken for a staff assistant rather than a professional colleague, Sanchez said. "I didn't have a voice. I really wasn't present at the table. And so the client had no reason to think otherwise."
The client was "pretty mortified" that he had underestimated her, Sanchez said. "After that, I had nothing to lose, and the client was very open to getting to know me. That's really when I started to let my smile shine through and be myself."
But lessons from her family have also been crucial. Her husband tells her to be sure to do at least one thing for herself each day, and the chance to celebrate life took on added importance because she lost her father to cancer when she was 22.
"I vowed to myself that I would not just take life for granted," Sanchez said. "In the hecticness of building a career, it's really easy to keep striving for the next goal, the next promotion — What about the weekend? The next vacation? — and get off track."
At one point, as she was thinking about her father, Sanchez called the American Cancer Society and volunteered. "That's really where a whole new network of friends emerged, and a passion for giving back to the community. I suddenly had more energy, and I found that when you feel better about yourself as a person, you're so much more effective in your job."
An uncle with Lou Gehrig's disease taught her not to get bogged down in setbacks. "I've never seen him — not one day in my life — be angry or feel sorry for himself. My memories of him are pretty much always sitting in a wheelchair, but the smile and the zest for life that that man has is unbelievable."
Sanchez also knows a couple of lessons about judging people prematurely. At Goldman Sachs, she was assigned a mentor, Tom. Concerned that she wasn't assigned to a woman, Sanchez wondered if she could show any vulnerability with him. He had been in the military and worked as an investment banker, so their backgrounds were far different.
"I could not have been more wrong. This man invested in me over years. He gave me really honest feedback, and he built my confidence up. He showed me in an objective way that I stacked up pretty well against my peers."
On the other side, she said that when people meet her, some see her as a pure diversity hire because of being a woman and a minority. Even if she does well, attitudes die hard.
"Sometimes they look at me as an exception. What I really want people to know is that for those of us that come from different backgrounds and have had success, we aren't an exception — we really are the norm."
The Hispanic Business Students Association hosts the annual award banquet to honor a GSB alumnus who has made significant contributions to the business and Latino communities. The award is named for Jerry I. Porras, Lane Professor of Organizational Behavior and Change, Emeritus. An active member of the GSB faculty for nearly 30 years, Porras is coauthor of the best-selling business book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, as well as dozens of other publications. With Stanford GSB Lecturer David Bradford, Porras developed the highly successful MBA class Interpersonal Dynamics, designed to lead students through the process of understanding personal style and improving the way they relate to others.