Originally published on Forbes.com
This Trailblazers series takes a look at the pivotal milestones that make up the life trails of inspiring women from a diverse array of backgrounds and experiences. We all know what social media profiles display about the end results women have achieved. This series is intended to take a deeper, more authentic look at the journeys they have taken to get there.
María Teresa Kumar is the co-founding president & CEO of Voto Latino, the largest Latinx voter registration organization in the U.S. She is a first-generation Colombian American, a community leader, an Emmy-nominated MSNBC contributor, and a sought-after writer and speaker passionate about combining politics, technology and pop culture. In addition to the numerous national boards that she serves on and the many awards she has won for her impactful work, she is also the proud mother of two children.
After learning more about the trail that María Teresa has blazed, I got the chance to ask her some questions.
Rebekah Bastian: You shared the joy you felt in becoming a US citizen at age nine. Do you think your passion for politics and voter rights began with that experience?
“Even at age nine, I already understood that in the US, when given a shot, you are able to self-define.”
María Teresa Kumar: Absolutely. I knew that the opportunities that were afforded to me in America as a US citizen were so vast. My mother was a single mom with Afro-Colombian roots from the coast of Colombia, and in a country that is highly socially stratified by race, my future was already determined based on where I was born and my background. Even at age nine, I already understood that in the US, when given a shot, you are able to self-define. If you participate you can make change.
Bastian: You left your corporate career to co-found Voto Latino after realizing you wanted to make more of an impact on people’s lives. How did you evaluate the tradeoffs and ultimately decide to take the plunge?
Kumar: In many ways, working in Corporate America fulfills the dreams of immigrant parents. I came from a very modest family and my mother wanted me to be financially stable because she didn’t want me living paycheck to paycheck like we had; but at the same time one of the fundamental reasons we came to the US was so that she could give me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do.
I was in New York, about to start a new corporate job, when I witnessed the September 11th attacks, and I had a come-to-Jesus moment. I had told a mentor of mine that I wanted to give back and affect change in the Latino community. I was only 26 at the time, but I knew I wanted to lead a nonprofit. Up until that point, I had worked in Congress, spent some time in Corporate America already, and had gone to the Harvard Kennedy School, and I saw the vast divide in the information I was acquiring that was missing in much of the Latino community.
“I was looking to build something from the ground up that spoke directly to young Latinos in this position.”
Many first-generation kids are navigating the country for their parents and making difficult decisions on their behalf because they are the ones in their family that speak English. So I was looking to build something from the ground up that spoke directly to young Latinos in this position.
I met Rosario Dawson through my mentor when she first launched Voto Latino as a PSA on MTV for the 2004 presidential election. It was the first time I had seen a PSA that spoke to what I felt inside since I was nine years old: that I was Latina and American. I found it so powerful and sought to turn the initiative into something more. Rosario told me that they had PSAs and a name, but no salary and no funding, and invited me to run with it. I thought, “how hard could this be?” Shortly thereafter I quit my job and moved back in with my mother on the eve of my 30th birthday. I funded Voto Latino for the first three years with my credit card (don’t ever do that!). Along the way I found incredible mentors and allies that provided me counsel and pushed me to think differently. With them, we’ve been able to change not just the behavior of young Latinx people, giving them agency, but also changed how campaigns and policy leaders address the Latinx experience in the US.
Bastian: As a Latina in spaces that are often filled with white men, such as being a political commentator and guest analyst, what has your experience been and how have you navigated any dynamics that you’ve encountered?
“I was fortunate to grow up in a house of matriarchs – my grandmother, aunts and mother are incredibly fierce women.”
Kumar: My approach has everything to do with my upbringing. I was fortunate to grow up in a house of matriarchs — my grandmother, aunts and mother are incredibly fierce women. My father was ill and resources were tight, so we often had to wear several different hats and take on roles that were typically gendered.
My mother always said, “If someone is ever rude to you because you’re a woman or because you’re Latina, that is their journey. You must come into spaces being clear about who you are and being there with purpose.” If you’re always trying to prove yourself you’ll never be your best, because you’ll always be trying to figure out what other people think of you and that’s a losing battle.
Bastian: Why is the Latinx voter registration gap so important to address, and how is Voto Latino approaching this work?
Kumar: For the first time, Latinos are going to be the second-largest voting bloc in the US, but half of that population are not registered to vote. There are ten million Latinos under the age of 33 in the US that are not registered to vote, and of those, four million have come of age since the 2016 election. At Voto Latino, we target young Latinos in order to close the voter registration gap because we recognize they have the ability to influence even more votes as they navigate this country for their families. By engaging with young Latinos early on, we believe we can create real transformational change – not just for the individual and their family, but for the community and the country at large.
Young people are answering the call, and that’s what’s really beautiful. When George Floyd was killed, we changed all our marketing and outreach. We focused on turning our protest into our vote, and we registered over 97,000 folks in the month of June. We understood our audience, we knew what they cared about, and we knew that what happened to George Floyd was so personal because it could have happened to any of us. He will be commemorated for getting so many intergenerational Americans into the streets and creating real change in this country.
Bastian: We have a crucial presidential election coming up, in the midst of a global pandemic. How can we ensure that everyone has an equitable opportunity to vote?
“First and foremost, go to votolatino.org to register to vote.”
Kumar: First and foremost, go to votolatino.org to register to vote. Every single day, each person in our organization wakes up asking: ‘How can I register one more voter?’ And if you’re interested in being part of an army of volunteers to get your friends registered from the comfort of their homes, you can text ‘Volunteer’ to 73179. We’ve already trained over 2,700 volunteers, and through them texted over half a million voters with the information they need to prepare for their primaries and the general election.
Passionate about getting out the vote? Want to connect with a fierce woman and Latina leader? Connect with María Teresa to start a conversation, ask her a question and/or appreciate her journey.