When 16-year-old Rene Hernandez traveled from Cuba to the U.S. in the Mariel boatlift in 1980, his first hope was that he and his family would not drown or be attacked by sharks. Inspired by the plight of his father, a political prisoner, he decided to become a lawyer, although most people told him his English would never be good enough. But a corporate lawyer? That was even more farfetched. "Minority lawyers tend to shy away from the corporate world," Hernandez says. "We don't have the road map or the playbooks. And we feel corporations may not really want what we bring to the table."
Then while he was at law school at the University of Wisconsin, he attended an Allstate presentation and decided to become a summer intern. On graduating in 1994, he joined the company, where he is now, at 37, associate counsel in the law and regulation department.
There were 14.6 million Hispanics in the U.S. when Hernandez arrived. Now there are more than 35 million. By the time his three-year-old daughter joins the work force, the Latino population will have almost doubled again, to account for close to a fifth of the U.S. population. It's a group with $500 billion a year in buying power, but one that is changing rapidly. While Mexicans remain the majority, at 58%, the number of immigrants coming from other Central and South American countries grows each year. Increasingly, they are spreading into states, such as Iowa, that never had sizable Hispanic populations. This has made diversity a growing challenge to corporate America. But companies such as Allstate, Wal-Mart and Andersen have made huge gains in the past five years with diversity programs that are notable for their depth and scale--and bottom-line results.
In a period of almost stagnant growth for the insurance industry, for instance, Allstate has made diversity pay substantial dividends. Its Hispanic business has nearly doubled, to almost $2 billion.
You don't do this simply by reshooting your English-language commercials in Spanish. Allstate's diversity program includes in-depth training for all employees plus work-and-family policies, educational opportunities and networking and mentoring programs that suit Hispanics well. The company also created an evaluation system that judges and rewards managers according to how well they promote diversity.
"The mantra is that we leverage diversity to gain competitive advantage, and the premise is that if you don't tie diversity programs to the marketplace, they have no substance," says Ray Celaya, Allstate's assistant vice president of ethnic marketing. Accordingly, the number of Hispanics on the Allstate corporate staff has increased 13% in the last couple of years, to 3,167 employees. In areas with substantial Hispanic populations, the company also encourages its agencies to hire Spanish speakers, with the result that 2,500 of its 12,000 agencies are now what it calls Spanish able.