Nathalie Rayes, VP of Public Affairs for Grupo Salinas: “I Don’t Like Leaving Things to Chance”
March 29, 2018 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
If Nathalie Rayes sounds like an obsessive planner, it’s because she has to be. In addition to her job as the vice president of public affairs for Grupo Salinas, a massive conglomerate based in Mexico, she’s the executive director of its philanthropic arm, Fundación Azteca America. (Their latest success: providing music education for more than 17,000 kids by funding symphony orchestras and choirs in low-income areas across Mexico.) Meanwhile, she chairs the board of directors of the Hispanic Federation, serves on the boards of Planned Parenthood, the Woodrow Wilson Center, Voto Latino, and the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute, and has two young sons. We recently chatted with her about goal-setting, how she stays focused, and what it was like to turn down a job offer from President Obama.
EVEN WHEN I WAS A LITTLE KID, I would create lists and cross them off. Now, I make lists of goals for the full year ahead. Every fall, I start to plan out the next twelve months, and I try to think big—what will be my greatest accomplishment? Then I write everything down on a big paper calendar, so that by January, I already know what 95 percent of my year will look like. I keep that calendar next to my desk, and it helps me visualize my progress and stay on track. I do the same thing for my family. What do I want for my kids this year? Do I want them to go to camp? Where are they in school? What vacations should we take? All of that needs to be thought through; I don’t believe in doing things willy-nilly. I don’t like leaving things to chance. I believe that we are the architects of our destiny, as cliché as it sounds.
I AM LATINA, AND MY PARENTS ARE LEBANESE. I grew up in Venezuela until I was nine, and then my family moved to Santa Monica. At the time, L.A. was not as diverse as it is now, and I spoke no English. I was so embarrassed by my accent and my inability to communicate. This was in the late 1980s, and I would show up to the playground with pita and hummus for lunch, which was mortifying—health food was not cool then! Very soon after we moved to California, my father passed away, which was devastating. My mother became a widow at age 37 and raised five children as an immigrant in a new country. Now, as I raise my own children and pursue a demanding career, I often think back on what she went through. She is one of my biggest inspirations.
I’M VERY DISCIPLINED, AND I KEEP MY TARGETS CLEAR in my mind. I think that if you approach tasks in a very strategic, piece-by-piece way, it keeps your focus strong and prevents you from falling behind. I also believe that people who work in isolation do themselves a disservice. I can accomplish almost anything, and it’s because I don’t do anything by myself. I’m not a superhero—I surround myself with superheroes. That’s why I’m on many different boards. It allows me to meet new people and see other ways of doing things, so that I can mix and match different relationships and strategies.
EVERY DAY, I WAKE UP AND THINK, “I HAVE SO MUCH TO DO, and so many different challenges on my plate. How do I move forward?” When things get very busy, I stop calling people back. I don’t listen to my voice messages—people ramble on!—and it’s a little sad, because I have family members all over the world and sometimes I don’t get to speak to them as much as I wish I could. I also used to write letters and thank-you notes, but I can’t remember the last time I wrote to somebody. That’s not to say I’m not thoughtful anymore—it’s just that you cannot do everything. Certain things have to go on the back burner, and that’s okay.
I BEGAN MY CAREER IN GOVERNMENT. At age 26, I was deputy chief of staff to Mayor James Hahn of Los Angeles. My portfolio varied from international trade protocol to liaising with the federal, state, and local governments. I was the first one into work every day and the last one to leave. That dedication and drive came because I felt like I was too young for the job. So from 26 to 30, that was my entire life: going to City Hall every day. It was such an honor, and it was a great job, and I served with incredible people. I learned so much.
WHEN WE LOST OUR REELECTION CAMPAIGN, in 2005, I was so upset. I would put it up there with losing my father, in terms of how painful it was. I had to regroup. I made sure that everyone who had worked for me got a new job, and then I left L.A.—the city that I loved so much—because I was so disappointed with the electorate, that they did not support us and voted against a great guy. I took a year off. People were telling me, “You’re going to be seen as a has-been, going from the mayor’s deputy chief of staff to unemployed.” I said, “I don’t care. I’m leaving.” I needed to take care of myself. I went to Europe with then-city councilwoman Janice Hahn, who is now a county supervisor in L.A. We started a sister city program with Ischia, Italy; there’s a large population of Ischians in San Pedro, which is part of her constituency. Then I went to Beirut, Lebanon, and started a sister city there as well, with the help of then-city council member Eric Garcetti, now Mayor Eric Garcetti. My sabbatical year was not really time “off,” but it was very meaningful to me.
AFTER MY YEAR ABROAD, I had lots of job opportunities, but I felt like I didn’t know who I wanted to be when I grew up. I was 31, and I had already had a big job, but I wasn’t sure what to do next. Then this position fell in my lap. At first, I had no idea what it was. Grupo Salinas, Ricardo Salinas, TV Azteca—all of those names were foreign to me. That was 12 years ago, and when I met with the people who managed the company’s international relations, I fell in love with their mission. It’s a large conglomerate—massive—so you cannot be bored. We’re in banking and retail and telecommunications and energy, you name it. And we’re the second largest producer of TV content in the world. My job was supposed to be “government/public relations director,” and to oversee the foundation work, which nobody had done before, so I was able to create my own position—give birth to it, basically. I am also able to telecommute from my home in Boston, which gives me more flexibility and balance with my professional and personal life.
MY CURRENT JOB IS TO CREATE SYNERGIES between Mexico and the United States. At Grupo Salinas, we believe in no borders. We believe that partnerships between Mexico and the United States are critical. Over $1 billion is traded between the U.S. and Mexico on a daily basis. My goal is to ensure that folks know that Mexico is a friend to the United States, and vice versa—to build bridges between the two countries, and to see that they are sensitive to each other’s needs.
WHEN PRESIDENT OBAMA WAS IN OFFICE, he offered me the job of Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security. I spoke to Jeh Johnson, the Secretary of Homeland Security, and I said, “I’ll do it only if I can split my time between Boston and Washington, D.C. because my kids are so young.” And he was like, “Yes, no problem.” And then he called me back and said, “We need you here in D.C.” So I passed it up. But I will say this: If I’m ever offered an ambassador position, I’m not going to turn it down! My kids will have to move with me.
WHEN I WAS YOUNGER, I didn’t exercise or eat well—I didn’t prioritize self-care. But now it’s probably one of the most important things I do. I decided to make a change when I got very sick after my second son’s birth—I had a pulmonary embolism and pneumonia, and I was hospitalized for 11 days. It was very difficult. I was still trying to work and do things; I was taking conference calls in the hospital. When I got out, I realized that our health is what everything is built on. We work and work, and try to achieve, but if you are not healthy, then everything collapses. So I decided to put myself first. It might sound egotistical, but there’s actually very little ego there—you’re not able to take care of others if you’re not healthy. Now I have a trainer, which is so helpful because I work long hours and I travel all the time. He keeps me on a schedule and a routine, and even when I want to give up on myself, he’s like, “You’re coming in today.” It sounds vain, to have a trainer, but having somebody to whom you’re accountable makes a big difference.
MY STYLE HAS EVOLVED A LOT, and I think that dressing reflects how you feel about yourself. When I was younger, I would wear suits—pantsuits with a jacket and button-up shirt—because I wanted to look older, and I wanted people to respect me and take me seriously. I had a big job and I was a young woman, so I felt like I had to dress like a man. Now I feel very comfortable in my skin, and with who I am. I know that I belong in any boardroom. So I’m less concerned about what I wear, which is a powerful thing. I don’t really wear suits anymore. In fact, I avoid them. I wear jeans at times, or I’ll wear a dress if I have an event or a meeting. I don’t show much skin. I don’t wear anything low cut or too short. When it comes to clothing, I think erring on the conservative side is always better.
Photographs by Matthew Priestley.