The one thing you need to know about powerhouse Mary Jane Melendez is this: she’s on a mission to pay it forward.
If her work as the executive director of General Mills Foundation has taught her anything, it’s to be intentional about growth. “I tend to embrace challenges and try to navigate obstacles thoughtfully,” she told Forbes. “I’m not afraid of hard work and I’ve learned it is important to challenge the status quo.” Melendez currently leads the company’s charitable giving and corporate volunteerism efforts, and is a staunch advocate on issues of food security, particularly when it comes to at-risk kids.
Over the course of her career, she’s learned to innovate and experiment with the hope that the foundation will move the needle forward on hunger relief, food waste reduction, and sustainable agriculture. “I started my career at General Mills in Sales and during those early years I communicated to my managers that I had a desire to give back, to volunteer, to do good at work,” Melendez explained.
But more than her work championing food security, she’s also a role model for the Latinx community by demonstrating a willingness to grow within her current role. She was recently named one of Latino Leaders’ Top Latina Executives in Corporate America in 2018.
Her advice for other Latinas aspiring to do the same? Demonstrate excellence as an employee; next, start networking. “Meet new people inside and outside of your current organization,” she advises. “Choose to talk to people who are working in the field you aspire to work in and learn about their skills, the challenges of their job and their own experience in the role.”
But don’t forget to remain authentic to your cultural heritage. According to Melendez, the greatest lesson she’s learned has been remaining true to herself throughout her career. “I thought I needed to be someone else in order to succeed,” she said, “but being a leader begins by being yourself — knowing who you are, where you came from, and why gratitude is so essential in life.”
Her Latina roots have taught her the value of sacrifice and serving others, allowing her to choose a career that puts others at the forefront. “And, what I didn’t expect, my Latinidad has influenced me seeing underrepresented viewpoints, and gives me the conviction to honor them,” she explained. “Voices not often heard can have the greatest contribution.”