Head of Strategic Programs
Growing up in a working class neighborhood in New York City, Rosa Ramos-Kwok had no idea how hard her teachers were fighting for her behind the scenes. “Years ago I bumped into my third grade teacher, and she told me that she'd advocated for me not to be put in a certain class," Ramos-Kwok recalls. "I had done poorly on a standardized test because I didn't speak English at home, I spoke Spanish, and got some things wrong on the vocabulary section. So they put me in a lower class in fourth grade and she petitioned – petitioned! – for me to be moved back to the number one class."
Today, Ramos-Kwok—who was recently chosen as one of Business Insider's Top 10 Female Engineers in the U.S.—recalls that her third grade teacher was just one of the many people who helped her to become one of the nation's top Latinas in corporate America. She honors their hard work and dedication by trying to give back to others—including the young interns and employees that she mentors at JPMorgan Chase.
What does success look like to you?
I think there are multiple components to success. In my personal life, I see it as happiness, health, security, having a home, being safe, and having family around you—especially in difficult times like these. Professionally, it's more complicated. There's the feeling of professional challenges, and the gratification that comes from overcoming them. There's nothing better than that feeling of accomplishment when you're working on a challenging project or tackling a big problem and you figure it out.
Another part of professional success is recognition, whether it's being recognized for your leadership, or getting a promotion, or something else that enables you to say, "You know what, what I am doing in this organization is worth it."
The other facet of success is joy, and having things in your life that truly give you glee. For me, one of those things is giving back to your community and helping people who are on similar journeys as you. Just yesterday, for example, I spent time with thirteen interns we hired from the University of Puerto Rico. We are looking for diverse talent and here we have a U.S. territory with a top engineering university. I want more students interning here from the University of Puerto Rico, and talking with them yesterday was definitely my favorite part of the day.
Who has been the biggest influence in your life?
To begin with, there's my mom, and my parents generally. I wasn't born in the United States, and I was the first person in my family to become a naturalized American citizen. It was actually an 18th birthday present to myself to fill out the application to become a citizen. My parents struggled when they came here—they didn't know English, they didn't have any money, and we had to live with other family members until they got their feet on the ground. But my parents kept it together so we could go to school. That sense of working hard and giving your all for somebody is a very big influence in my life.
My teachers were also a big influence. Because my parents didn't speak English, they couldn't go to school and ask for me to be in a better class, or whatever else I might need. I had a number of teachers who took an interest in me, pulled me aside and said "You should be looking at this program or that school." As an example, I grew up in Washington Heights, in New York, and our local high school scared me. My teachers kept telling me that I should try out for other high schools, which were designed for students who excel. When I got into the Bronx School of Science for high school, it was the information that my teachers shared with me that I used to tell my parents how competitive the school was, and convinced them that I should be allowed to commute to the school.
What do you consider the most valuable piece of advice you've ever received and where did it come from?
My mom always said to me "Dime con quién andas, y te diré quién eres," which means, loosely, 'Tell me who you hang out with and I'll tell you who you are." We were in a really bad neighborhood, and when I was growing up, she would always remind me that my friends were a reflection of me. She also taught me to have faith in myself and my plans—that, whatever plan I made, I needed to make sure that I put my faith in it because I can't do anything without faith.
The other advice I've been given is to remember to be yourself and be the authentic you. I remember once, when I was promoted, one of my sponsors pulled me aside and said "Just be yourself. That's what got you here, so don't change. Be yourself and you'll get far with that."
What is the biggest obstacle you've overcome in life?
This one is a little hard for me to talk about, but I'd say poverty. I went to a prestigious high school with people from all different parts of New York City, people with a lot of money and people with no money, and it was always very clear to me that I was not part of that wealthy class, that I didn't come from much. And I think that it was a big obstacle for me to learn to believe in myself and not let that class difference define me.
That's one of the reasons why I give back and talk about my story. It's important for people to know that your socioeconomic class is not something that should define you as an individual.
Work-from-home, go to the office or a mix of both?
I'm working from home during the pandemic, but I'm usually an office person. I love the community that you have with your coworkers and colleagues at the office, and I miss that. I'm Latina and so I love celebrating. Celebrating things together begets camaraderie which I think is important to have on team. With the team I'm on now, I'd bring in sweets or something small, and my coworker would always tell me that I'm a breath of fresh air. You sometimes underestimate the impact that can have on a work environment.