Professional Slayage: Elemental Lessons to Learn from Yai Vargas, Career Strategist

Yai Vargas Feature Belatina

A few weeks ago, I reached out to Yai Vargas to ask if I could conduct a mini-interview with her in preparation for this piece. After clicking through her eponymous website, I could see that Vargas wears a few different hats, consulting with companies as well as Latinas and other women of color seeking career services. While her site provides information about the kind of coaching and networking that she facilitates, describes her workshops, and even portrays her in action, it isn’t easy to glimpse the totality of the intriguing woman behind the mission.

Vargas’s role as a LinkedIn coach was perhaps the aspect of her work that first caught my eye as I pulled down menus on her website. As a freelancer, I have never taken the time to build my profile on this platform. (In fact, the only reason I even opened an account was to pass verification requirements for my first Airbnb rental). I wondered why Vargas likes this particular service so much and what makes it well suited to us Latinas. I wondered what she would think about my half-baked attempt. I wondered if she understood something super obvious to boss ladies of her generation that I simply didn’t see. I had questions. I typed up a few of them and sent them along with my interview request.

Yai Vargas Photo Credit yaivargas.com
Photo Credit yaivargas.com

What seemed to be only moments later, my phone buzzed on the desk beside me. I glanced at it, briefly annoyed that I had missed what I believed to be an email alert on my computer. But it wasn’t a response from Vargas. Instead, she had added me to her network on LinkedIn to check out (I presumed) what I had already warned her was a disaster. Despite feeling uneasy about having this paltry profile be someone’s first impression of me, I accepted Vargas’s invitation. I made a mental note about how I felt so I could best remember it, perhaps making it easier for Vargas to inspire me to spit-shine my presence on this platform a bit.

While I waited for her to respond to my interview questions, I read more about Vargas and her Latina business-culture savvy. I discovered that helping other Latinas gussy up their LinkedIn profile is just one slice of her main gig these days. As founder and CEO of The Latinista, Vargas is ready to share what she has already learned in her own career. The website began as a place where an online community of Latinas could congregate in search of mentors, workshops, and content. Now it is the main hub where Vargas offers her one-woman career mentorship services.

As I read, what became immediately apparent about Vargas’ trajectory, is that she has gotten to where she is by testing out for herself the very strategies she recommends to her clients. She has gone from building brands for others to building her own by making and executing a marketing plan, relying on social media for networking and exposure, and using LinkedIn to help her connect to all these possibilities. What better context for being the bearer of advice than one where you can demonstrate how it worked for you?

Yai IG @layaiyai
Photo Credit IG @layaiyai

My phone buzzed again. I cringed a little, wondering if Vargas already prepared a takedown of my LinkedIn laziness ready. She hadn’t. Instead, I had received a charming email back, written in both English and Spanish, assuring me she’d get to work on my questions and looked forward to conversing more. I went back to reading about her, learning more about her background and awaiting her interview answers, realizing I had already received my first lesson.

As I discovered, Vargas was born in the Dominican Republic and raised in the United States, making her both comfortably bicultural and fluently bilingual. As a career strategist for Latinas Vargas recognizes that our differences are our strengths and that biography is practically a list of qualifications. Being a fluent Spanish speaker, an immigrant, steeped in Latino culture, and a millennial, Vargas was quickly identified in her first corporate jobs as the expert on Latina consumerism. Building her own career this way was basically a dry run for the techniques that Vargas recommends to clients. The first principle of career strategy she embodies is to stay rooted in our personal authenticity. What we have each lived informs what we are capable of, and fills a particular niche when that capacity is used to help others do the same. I loved that when I asked Vargas about her latinidad she didn’t miss a beat. “It’s one of my superpowers.”

Finding someone to look up to in the first place is another crucial facilitator in the process of constructing ourselves a career. Vargas assured me that “[w]hen it comes to mentors, I have to thank a few that helped me when I was growing up. One was my neighbor who was a successful attorney who would help me with my homework and who owned every edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. The other was my first boss at my first corporate role (Mercedes-Benz, my dream company!). She was the one who really taught me how to present myself at meetings and all aspects of public relations.” Role models are always aspirational but sometimes they are not unreachable. The fact that Vargas got to experience two different lady boss inspirations, one socially and the other professionally, during formative moments in her life likely had a big impact in her professional life.

A large part of her motivation is paying it forward. “For as long as I have had mentors and champions around me,” Vargas reflects, “I have felt the need to transfer that knowledge to others.” So many women of color lack the encouragement she received and Vargas feels the need to pass it on. She remembers, “The reason I decided to start The Latinista is because many women in my circle at the time didn’t have these role models or were struggling in their roles when it comes to getting promoted, negotiating salaries and articulating their value. I wanted to build the community of women that helped each other and have subject matter experts in these crucial career areas to sharpen their skills: negotiation, delegation, public speaking, and executive presence.” As a Latina consulting for Fortune 500 companies, Vargas mentors by providing representation every day. As one of the mentors in the WE NYC (Women Entrepreneurs NYC) program, Vargas offers her motivating and expert advice in small, intimate groups of women, free of cost.

The Latinista may not have started out as a profit-driven enterprise, though it reared the best of its results early on: a brand. Thinking of it as a networking platform built upon the rising importance that social media was having on the world of business entrepreneurship, Vargas started seven years ago with not much more than a domain name. Before the monetizing of the content and the building up the services offered and the reputation, Vargas already had a brand. One of Vargas’s coaching strengths is brand advising. 

Vargas is not only a career coach but a diversity one as well, teaching Latinas and women of color how to best hustle and helping corporations understand what the women in her community have to offer. Advocacy and diversity education are part of her job description. “A lot of my clients come to me because they have challenges in self-promotion, understanding their value, being confident in asking for raises and have culturally been raised to keep their head down, work hard and someone will notice and reward your work,” Vargas says. She emphasizes the importance of self-advocacy over all else, adding “that’s not how it works these days. You’ve got to share how you’re evolving as a leader and make sure your manager is aware of your wins on a consistent basis.”

Just like Vargas has layered her own career, most recently leaving New York Life to dedicate herself full time to The Latinista and diversity consulting (it used to be her side gig), her advice to other Latinas and women of color is to do the same. She is a firm believer in learning how to best upskill, or turn professional situations into learning opportunities that can help us stay relevant and show our worth daily at work.

As important as diversifying our skills within the job, it’s a priority to find as many different simultaneous income streams as possible, Vargas advises. Harnessing the power of all associated talents can multiply opportunities, for example taking on public speaking or workshops — whether live or broadcast — is a perfect side hustle to almost any other job. Vargas herself routinely offers workshops and accepts speaking invitations at the bequest of corporations and individuals.

Often, Vargas’s clients already come to her with multiple careers. Vargas says her clients are “typically women on average 35 years of age who have about 15 years of experience in … marketing, tech, finance, design, operations and engineering. A lot of them have side-hustles because they are multi-faceted and are setting up their careers in layers. They are seeking new career habits that help them get to the next level in their careers whether it’s becoming a people manager or taking on more responsibility with community board positions.” In these cases, Vargas is more a beacon than a teacher, attracting women of many talents who seek opportunities to use them all.

In order to make the leap into entrepreneurship, Vargas advises, saving up a substantial financial cushion is crucial. She even suggests working with a management consultant early on to identify those various income streams that might lurk behind any given profession and saving up at least 2 years-worth of living expenses. Vargas plan to leap into entrepreneurship coming. She recalled,  “My dad has always run his own business as a real estate broker and my mom worked full time while helping him. Being an entrepreneur was never in my sight.”  

Vargas’s leap into entrepreneurship was not blind and she followed her own advice to the letter of the law. She expresses great pride in the work she did with a financial coach (The Financial Gym), which allowed her to save three full years of living expenses. Such preparation makes the uncertainty of a future career less daunting.

Do what you love and love what you do. As a double entrepreneur, Vargas definitely does and makes a point of it at every turn. “I absolutely LOVED all the corporate roles I held. I got to work in automotive, pharma, non-profit, financial services and sports. Corporate salary is the main reason why I was able to save [money],” she reminisces.

The last, but perhaps most crucial lesson Vargas wants to impart is at the heart of her community-building efforts, with her from the start — ask for help. When Vargas described her company, she noted that, “At first, The Latinista was a casual community of women dedicated to learning, sharing and helping others gain access to jobs, information and resources. Now, it’s a strategic network of committed women who are truly invested in learning and elevating by raising their hands for opportunities, giving back to their communities and bringing other women into positions of influence.” What struck me about both phases of The Latinista is that the idea of helping one another has always been there. Always humble, Vargas often acknowledges the help she receives and credits her family and community with pitching in.

In the end, Vargas may have read my embarrassment about my lame LinkedIn as a cry for help. She was very diplomatic and didn’t push it on me at all. But, in effect, what she did was highlight the ease of finding others with similar interests on the platform. Now that I’m more aware of just how many layers we are all working with and how much we can uncover about those underlying skills, I feel inspired to look again at that profile and do a little editing.