Why the Best Way to Make a Difference Is to Use Your Difference, Says This Emmy-nominated Journalist

September 25, 2019

Mariana Atencio doesn’t need to be sold on the value of diversity and inclusion. She is a Venezuelan-born immigrant to the United States who straddles two cultures and two languages — and battles continuously with assumptions about how a woman in TV news should look and sound.

In her keynote address at Talent Connect 2019, Mariana stressed the importance of people celebrating what makes them different and seizing the agency that many companies have offered to employees so they can be their authentic selves. It will, she says, be the single best way for you to add value at work.

“What if we had the courage,” she said, “to look at ourselves in the mirror, make a list of the pros and cons, and instead of eliminating the cons or minimizing them, we turned those differences into competitive advantages.”

As she wrote in her book last year: “What makes me different is what has made me successful.”

What does success look like for Mariana? Well, she has a career as a Peabody Award–winning journalist who now works for NBC News and MSNBC (after crossing over from Spanish-language broadcasting); a viral TEDx Talk, “What Makes You Special?” that has been seen over 10 million times and translated into nine other languages; and a recently published memoir, Perfectly You, that details the challenges, setbacks, and lessons that have shaped her professional triumphs.

Repeatedly, Mariana has taken pains to stress that nothing is as important as embracing your differences and then leveraging them to find happiness.

She learned from her lumps. She told the audience how she had, for a time, changed the way she pronounced Mariana. “I’ve even changed the way my name sounded to be more American,” she said. “Or so I thought. But it didn’t work because it wasn’t authentic.”

Sounding, looking, acting like who you really are will get you ahead. Not fitting the norm — whatever that is — is your competitive edge.

The first step in celebrating your differences is understanding — and accepting — what they are

When she was 7, Mariana and her younger sister, Graciela, were sent to summer camp — in Brainerd, Minnesota. They were the brown-haired, brown-eyed Spanish speakers amid an uninterrupted backdrop of blonde hair and blue eyes. “We looked,” Mariana writes in Perfectly You, “like we came out of The Jungle Book or Aladdin.”

The other campers didn’t know where Venezuela was or what to make of the two young ambassadors from Caracas. They asked Mariana, “Do you go to school on a donkey or a canoe?” Mariana realized that she was “different” and that stung.

She told the Talent Connect audience: “Before being a part of a successful team, I first needed to understand the DNA of my special sauce.” She has come to realize that her special sauce comes from both her personality and her background as a bicultural immigrant.

And businesses — whether they’re a tech company in Mumbai, an ad agency in Melbourne, or a summer camp in Minnesota — need to make sure they’re providing a safe environment for everyone to fully express their individual identity.

In the middle of her talk, Mariana asked everyone in the audience to write down what makes them different. Because we all have something — a skill, an experience, a culture, a stance — that makes us different. 

“Be relentlessly real,” she writes, “in all areas of your life, personal or professional. And remember, the first person you have to love and accept is yourself.”

When someone pushes you to look or act more like the “norm” and less like yourself, you have to push back

Mariana discovered that even success — awards, recognition, millions of viewers — doesn’t completely shield you from colleagues or friends who want you to look, speak, or behave in a way that more resembles the in-group and less like the person you actually are.

“Culturally,” Mariana said, “many of us have been taught to look down — don’t take up too much room, don’t make too much noise, do not look too Latina in your professional photographs. We’re just not taught to focus on and relish our professional accomplishments even though we have earned the right to do so.” There is power, she said, in telling our stories.

Here’s one of hers: Mariana was delighted when she was invited to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner in 2017 — until a manager from MSNBC called her with a request: “When you pick out your outfit, don’t look too Latina.”

It was a verbal knife to the heart.

Reluctantly and painfully, she swapped her intended gown and accessories for something “safer.” Mariana says she felt miserable the entire evening.

Historically, there has been unrelenting pressure on employees from underrepresented groups to conform to an in-group ideal: To not be too black, too gay, too Asian, too Jewish . . . too Latina.

Four months after the Correspondents’ Dinner, the same manager confronted Mariana about her red lipstick. This time, Mariana responded rather than demurred. “If what you have to say doesn’t directly impact my editorial or the story I’m covering,” Mariana told the manager, “I would appreciate it if you refrained from those kinds of comments in the future.” 

Mariana recounted that episode in her book to remind her audience that these kinds of comments, which ask someone to suppress their true self, still exist. “We have to call them out,” Mariana writes, “and have conversations as adults about how we can get past them.” After she asked the manager to refrain, the topic never came up again.

“We can’t choose what we look like,” she writes, “or where we come from. . . . Let’s celebrate our differences and make them building blocks, not rocks to throw at each other.”

Nurtured and leveraged carefully, differences are a powerful competitive advantage that help companies better understand a heterogeneous marketplace and lead to better innovation and financial returns.

Don’t let other people’s perceptions define you

Five years ago, Mariana received a life-changing call from her parents: Her sister had been hit by a car in New York City. 

Graciela had fractured her hip, pelvis, and left arm. Her feet had sustained multiple fractures. Over the next two years, she would have 15 surgeries and confront the possibility that she might never walk again.

“The worst,” Mariana says in her TEDx Talk, “was something so painful, it’s hard to put into words, even now. It was the way people looked at her. People were unable to see a successful lawyer or a millennial with a sharp wit and a kind heart. Everywhere we went, I realized that people just saw a poor girl in a wheelchair. They were unable to see anything beyond that.”

Most of us have faced some version of this in our lives: We’ve been too young, too old, too quiet, too loud, too serious, not serious enough. We’ve been assigned a box and given no way out.

But over time, as Graciela fought valiantly and in the end triumphantly to regain her feet, Mariana learned that you can’t let your differences and other people’s perceptions define you. “Being able to reimagine yourself,” she says, “beyond what other people see is the toughest task of all, but it’s also the most beautiful.”

Work can often pigeonhole us, too, as the thing we’ve done rather than the thing we aspire to do or the person we aspire to be. Maybe you’re tired of being seen as an order taker and want to be viewed as a talent partner or talent strategist. Or your boss sees you as an HR generalist, while you know you’re a people analytics whiz who just needs an opportunity. Mariana encouraged everyone to have the career they dream about, not the one someone else hands them. 

“No matter what people see,” she writes, “labels, stereotypes, or differences, you decide what you allow to define you.”

You will have your biggest successes when you are true to who you are

In 2013, Spain’s crown prince Felipe and his wife, Letizia, visited the Univision Network newsroom in Miami where Mariana was working. As the royal couple walked through the room, the usual noise and bustle vanished. Into that near silence strode Mariana.

“Hola, I am Mariana,” she said casually to the prince. Turning to Letizia, she said, “I am a journalist like you.” To the astonishment of many in the room, the future queen responded by asking, “When did you know you wanted to be a journalist?” And the future king chimed in, “What motivated you?”

Mariana brashly replied: “When did you know you wanted to be a king? What motivated you?”

Felipe answered with a laugh.

So Marianna whipped out her cell phone and took a selfie with the prince, his first ever. The photo went viral and even made the pages of El País, one of the largest and most important newspapers in Spain.

Mariana tells this story to make the point that her career has flourished most when she has been her authentic self — a bilingual immigrant who is effusive and compassionate and what she calls a “wall breaker.” Whether she was coaxing a tearful 10-year-old to show Pope Francis her stick drawing or she was watching the 2016 election returns with undocumented immigrants, Mariana thrives when she uses her differences to tell important stories.

Mariana cites the advice her father gave her: “Work hard. And remember to always be yourself. Authenticity and tenacity are what prevail.”

When you bring yourself and your differences to work, you bring value and create opportunities for your team to do things differently and better. Your service in the military may have armed you with a different way of getting things done; your experience as a member of the LGBTQ+ community may suggest a different way to market a new service; or perhaps your ethnic background may prompt a product innovation that can propel your company forward.

Late in her talk, Mariana asked three members of the audience to read what they had written about their differences. She encouraged everyone in the hall to share their “special sauce.” But, she added, don’t let it end there. “Be curious,” she said, “about what other people wrote about themselves.” It was a nudge for people both to be themselves and to think beyond themselves.

“We came here to create community,” Mariana said. “And it is your imperfections, your viewpoint, your perspective that makes all the difference.”

Watch Mariana's full talk here:

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