Tinisha Agramonte stood at the front of a full room at the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission. Her eyes teared up. She smiled. It wasn’t a sad smile, but one of gratitude and honor.
As she blinked back tears, she shared her story of being the first in her family to enter the professional workforce. She talked about the obstacles she overcame while being one of the first to navigate a world of unknowns—applying to colleges, networking and communicating in a professional environment. Although her mother couldn’t provide a lot advice or resources because it was a world she didn’t know, she expressed how proud she was of her daughter.
The audience nodded in understanding.
They were all there for the First Generation Professionals (FGP) Workshop, an event organized by the SEC’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity (OEEO) and open to all SEC employees, as well as employees at other federal agencies. Agramonte, Director of the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Office of Civil Rights, is the architect behind the FGP initiative.
FGPs are individuals building careers without the model of a parent or caregiver in a professional career.
“FGPs are entrepreneurial,” said Alta Rodriguez, OEEO’s senior counsel and one of the organizers of the event. “They’ve had to rely on tenacity, resilience and innovation to get to where they are.”
Yolanda Gonzalez Lavery, an attorney-adviser in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement’s Office of the Whistleblower, and one of the panelists at the workshop, shared how her parents came to the U.S. from Cuba armed with grade-school educations and no English, but with a desire for a better life.
“They held a series of odd jobs from baker to seamstress, but always stressed the importance of education and a strong work ethic to their two daughters,” said Lavery.
Lavery went on to graduate with a bachelors in accounting and a masters in taxation from Florida International University in Miami, Florida, whose graduating class each year is approximately 50 percent FGP. After a few years in public accounting, she worked full-time and earned her law degree in the evenings part-time from the University of Miami School of Law. She has been in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, in both the Miami Regional Office and Headquarters, for the last 20 years.
“While FGP stories usually start with something their families or communities weren’t able to provide for them in terms of professional knowhow, they are usually replete with references to gratitude for what they did give,” said Hemma Lomax, a senior counsel in the SEC’s Division of Enforcement, and also one of the panelists at the workshop.
She described how her mother, who was born in Uganda, and her father, who was born in Guyana, told her stories of their points of shame, pain and discomfort growing up. Her father walked to school with no shoes, her mother started her life in the United Kingdom with no family, or friends, and with only five pounds in her pocket.
Lomax explained how she was inspired by these stories, and understood that given their sacrifices and achievements, she had no excuses and could do anything. At the age of 16, she was asked to name her ideal job by a business law teacher. She said she wanted to be Secretary-General of the United Nations and promptly reviewed the resumes of the seven individuals who had held that position and determined then to become a lawyer, a PhD, a teacher and a diplomat. Her perseverance paid off— she was offered her first professional job at the United Nations.
Lavery and Lomax’s stories were among many at the FPG Workshop that day. The audience also heard personal stories and experiences from SEC directors, including Corporation Finance Director Bill Hinman, Enforcement Co-Director Stephanie Avakian, Investor Advocate Rick Fleming, and Chief Risk Officer Gabe Benincasa. The Chairman and Commissioners also participated in the event, which attracted over 300 registered attendees—about 200 attended virtually, and over 100 came in-person. The response to the Workshop has been overwhelmingly positive and underscores the valuable impact the participants’ openness has already had.
“The Department of Commerce's FGP initiative is groundbreaking and I am proud that the SEC was the first agency to hold an inter-agency FGP Workshop,” said Peter Henry, Director of the SEC’s Office of Equal Employment Opportunity. “I deeply appreciate the many contributions to the SEC's FGP Workshop by the Commission's leadership and staff members that made the Workshop possible and so successful. The SEC's Workshop deepened my understanding of the FGP journey and I look forward to the growth of the FGP Initiative across the federal government.”
Rodriguez echoes Henry’s sentiment and added, “It’s important that we keep this conversation going and identify ways to better support FGPs at the SEC and across the federal government.”
The conversation will continue with the launch of a federal inter-agency First Generation Professionals network. The network will provide a space for FGPs to share their stories and resources, and to learn from each other.
For more information and to be part of the FGP initiative, please email FGP@sec.gov. Also, visit the Department of Commerce’s FGP initiative to learn more.