Speech: Jesse Salazar, 2016 Young Professional Honoree

ANDRES PENA: Good evening, everyone. My name is Andres Pena and as a point of privilege, I have to start by saying that while it’s exciting to be here tonight, it’s exciting to be visiting Chicago. It’s also exciting to be here as a University of Alabama alum.


Yeah. You can clap. So, to The Plank Center, President Bell, Dr. Gower and staff and board, congratulations on this event and all the ones that you’ve held previously.

So, I am here tonight to present the Young Professional Award to my first boss. He’s a few years my elder, so aside from making me feel like an even younger professional or a baby professional, I’m thrilled The Plank Center has selected Jesse Salazar for this award. Jesse is uniquely well-rounded and a really interesting person that I could talk about for forever and cover endless traits that make him deserving of this award and that makes him one of the best mentors in the world.

But in the interest of time, I thought it’d be easiest to focus only on two of those traits– honesty and fairness. For anyone who has worked with Jesse, or knows him well, it is widely known he believes honesty is a virtue. You know, as a 22-year-old in my first job, I finished college, I moved to Washington DC. I’m very excited, ready to take on the world. And I almost had this silly, and quite frankly pretentious, optimism, which ended very quickly when I started turning assignments into Jesse.

He had no problem looking me directly in the eye and saying, this is just not good.


Or you’re better than this. But the best part of Jesse’s honesty is that this wasn’t limited to lower level staff like me. During an extremely busy and stressful day our boss, who is the President and CEO of a big national trade organization, let Jesse know that he was not excited about a scheduling development that had occurred. To which Jesse replied, tomorrow we can have a meeting about your feelings, but right now I need you to focus. [LAUGHTER]

And I mention these comments because, although most people have experienced them, I hope that they’ve experienced them in the same way that I have. Jesse’s honesty doesn’t tear others down. It’s quite the opposite. His honesty and humility as a mentor and as a boss to help everyone around him become a better person, a better professional. And prepares them for whatever they want to achieve. And when it comes to fairness, the organization Jesse and I used to work at was broad in recognition and impact, but actually quite small in size. There were only about 14 employees, and Jesse and I worked in a huge department of two. So, lots of autonomy.

After working together for a while we got to know each other. We started to click. We felt like we had had some great wins and were doing great work. And as a result of that, the moment came for Jesse that everyone in the workforce cherishes most– it was time for a raise. Of course, I wouldn’t have been aware of this because there were conversations that were not pertaining to me exactly. But as someone who truly believes in fairness, Jesse pulls me in our conference room. He shuts the door and tells me about the great news. Congratulations.

But he also says, the only way I would accept it is by instructing our boss to split it down the middle and give you half, effective immediately. He also said, I don’t really do sentimental stuff at work, but I have to say, you know I can’t do this job without your help. And this is what’s right.

What is true is that Jesse could have done that job without me. It had nothing to do with me. But he refused to look at me and several of our other colleagues who were young as mere subordinates. He looked at us through a lens of responsibility to make sure we were better prepared for whatever lies ahead, whatever we would like to pursue.

So, whether it’s through his current work at the Council on Foundations, helping advise the world’s largest philanthropic efforts. Taking time out of his day to visit with his mentees, or to bring on new ones. Jesse practices mentorship as a responsibility, and so many people, especially me, are better for it. And that’s really the only way Jesse knows how to live– as selfless as possible and as an honest and fair person.

So please join me in congratulating one of my best friends, my former boss, this year’s Milestone in Mentoring Young Professional Award– Jesse Salazar.


JESSE SALAZAR: So earlier over coffee, I was talking with Karla and I said, just how bawdy are these awards? Because I’ve never been. And she said they’re actually quite an emotional affair. And I was really not prepared for that. So, I guess you were right, Karla. Thank you. And Andres– it was just such a privilege to work with you and I’m so proud that you have become just a world-class thinker and man. And I thank you for those kind words.

I want to thank the folks at The Plank Center, Ron and Karla and Keith. And of course, the team at Heyman– TR, Virginia, and Bill. Thank you for bringing me into this group. It has been a real honor to have had the chance to meet some of you, especially the other awardees who have already, in just a few hours, taught me quite a bit about what it means to really be a leader within this profession.

This award means a lot to me. And I think all of us remember those moments in our lives when someone came to us and saw in us something that we didn’t ourselves see. And you all don’t know me very well, but you should just know that I didn’t always have the kinds of life experiences that would have made someone an optimist about the world. But thanks to the generous guidance of some really terrific mentors, I began to see in myself the potential to do something that I had never thought possible. I have had many people meet me and encourage me to try totally new things. And they’ve also helped me to figure out how to do that along the way. And I feel deeply lucky and deeply privileged that others have given so much of their time and energy to help me to learn and to grow.

And The Plank Center, I think, is doing a real service to the profession. Not by honoring how many tweets or how many hits people get, but instead what people do to give back to some greater good. Because–


Thank you.


Because all of us need help. And any of the successes that we have had in this world, I’m sure, came from the generosity and the time and the hard work of others. And so, I really view this as just an increased calling to give back more and do what I can to support folks. And to all the students in the room, you know, if you want a coffee, if you want to Skype, I’m more than happy to talk to you about philanthropy and the nonprofit life.

And I want to wrap with saying two things– one, as a person of color you are attuned to the signals that you get from those around you. And since I’ve come into this event and come into the earlier events today, I have numerous times heard the leadership talk about the importance of diversity and inclusion. And it is so critical that people continue to talk about the importance of including others in the work that we do. We are all storytellers of America. We tell the stories of our companies, of our leaders, of our nonprofit causes. And those stories really matter.

And when people look up to others who are using language that resonates, then it makes them feel like part of a family as opposed to an interloper from the outside. So, I want to thank you guys for repeatedly talking about the importance of diversity equity inclusion.

And then, because I’m a nonprofit guy, I have to say thanks to all the sponsors. Because all the nonprofit people know that you need the sponsors to make these things happen. So, I’m going to get off the stage and enjoy your largesse with the wine. Thanks.


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