Alejandra Castillo was sworn in as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development on Aug. 13, 2021—becoming the first woman of color to hold this position. Leading the only federal agency focused exclusively on economic development, Castillo guides the implementation of over $5 billion in funding, powering the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA) and its mission to make transformational investments in America.
DiversityComm Magazine was honored to sit down with Castillo to learn more about her esteemed career in public service as a Hispanic woman, her accomplishments and her own embodiment of the American dream.
DiversityComm (DC): What inspired you to pursue a career in public service?
Alejandra Castillo (AC): Well, I didn’t start out necessarily thinking about public service. I started out thinking, “how do I solve problems that I witnessed growing up in my community?” But I also witnessed so much that needed fixing—when you open the newspaper, when you travel and you see people who, as I say, are hurt. My career started out more as an agent desiring to problem solve. But I realize that government plays a huge role and may not be the solution to everything. But it does have the levers to actually execute change, and that was very attractive to me.
DC: You’ve said previously that you consider yourself to be an embodiment of the American dream. Please tell us more about that.
AC: The American dream comes in various iterations. For my family, the American dream was not having the house with the white picket fence. It was building a business. Why was that the American dream? Because that allowed us to build new jobs and hire our entire family. That let me be a part of making a difference for everyone I knew and loved.
My whole life I’ve sought to build bridges and help others. I’m the first in my family to learn English, thanks to the help of PBS shows like Sesame Street and The Electric Company. Like many immigrant children, I was tapped to help her family and community navigate life in America. I accompanied non-English speakers to appointments and helped neighbors translate letters from landlords or the Social Security Administration. The American dream made a better life possible for my family; and put me on a path to a lifetime of service that has been the most incredible, rewarding experience.
DC: You’ve had an esteemed career spanning more than two decades, serving in leadership positions under three presidential administrations. What is one of your proudest accomplishments?
AC: Oh, so many. Some of those accomplishments are hugely visible, while many are very quiet and even silent. Back in the 90s, I worked on a policy change for the federal government’s health plan. At that time, it did not include mental health services or drug treatment. I was on the team that really helped incorporate both. It’s an accomplishment that has helped millions of people because the federal government was the first one to do it and now other insurance companies followed our model.
Most people are aware of the “big wins” that make the newspaper, like Tech Hubs. Or like the Build Back Better Regional Challenge or Good Jobs Challenge, or the Inclusive Innovation Initiative that I started when I was at MBDA. There are many accomplishments, but at the end of the day, these accomplishments are done with good teams, with people who believe in service and are relentless in that pursuit.
DC: What impact did you feel you made as the first Hispanic woman to lead the Commerce Department’s Minority Business Development Agency (MBDA)?
AC: Clearly, there’s excitement and pride being on the journey. But at times it feels sad that even in 2023, I’m still the first to hold several roles in my career. It reminds us that the work of diversity, equity and inclusion is never ending.
There’s a pressure of being the first, but I know so many take the responsibility seriously to ensure we’re not the last. We have to be role models and door openers. I often tell young women, especially young women of color, that you’re going to have to work three times as hard because all eyes are on you to get it right. You have to ignore that and do what you were hired to do, and shine because you’re the right and best person for the opportunity.
And sometimes it’s also being very mindful of the potential stereotypes that come with it. My name is Alejandro Castillo. I’m not Lisa Smith. So, before I walk in the room, my Latin culture is there before I even step into the door. I take pride in being able to show the most beautiful sides of my culture and what it means to bring all of who I am and represent to my work.
DC: What is one key piece of advice you would give to a diverse entrepreneur or minority business starting out today?
AC: If your dreams don’t scare you, you’re not dreaming big enough. And it’s ok to realize that breaking up the elements that make up your dreams into more digestible morsels isn’t cheating yourself of your ambition. Because sometimes when it’s a big idea, our investors, partners and teams can find it hard to wrap their head around it.
But if you can break it down into sizeable, digestible action, then you can get the buy in that you need to journey through it. Slow and steady—with the right help along the way—is the way to win the race.