Leap Voices is a new series lifting up the importance of equity and high performance by sharing the voices and experiences of Leap Ambassadors.

‘Who’s Not at the Table’

Ingvild Bjornvold • May 2023

Carmen Moreno-RiveraLeap Ambassador Carmen Moreno-Rivera’s teenage desire to build a flight simulator jumpstarted a 20-year career filled with unique experiences—from engineering aviation solutions to running a janitorial company with a social mission to doing doctoral research on how leaders impact workplace inclusion. Fellow Leap Ambassador and support team member Ingvild Bjornvold spoke with Carmen, an operations and continuous-improvement leader, about good listening, corporate excellence, and inclusion.




Ingvild: You once said that if your life were the title of a book, it would be There’s No Box to Hold You. What’s behind that title?

Carmen: I’m half African American and half Puerto Rican, and I was raised in a rural part of Kentucky, so the only folks who had the same ethnic makeup were my siblings. I realized early on that I’m just me. In most of my aerospace engineering classes at the University of Tennessee, I was the only person of color and one of very few women, and I never had mentors or role models who looked like me in my field. So I decided “I’m just gonna figure it out.” When folks use that phrase “think outside the box,” it implies you’re in a box in the first place. But the way I see it, there was never a box for me. Luckily, I’m a curious person, and that has helped me. I don’t put boundaries on myself and have been able to belong and thrive in many different places. So, there’s just no box to hold me.

Ingvild: In January 2021, you took on the role of president at Facilities Management Services (FMS), Kentucky’s first public benefit corporation, where you worked for two years. What was that like?

Carmen: FMS appealed to me because it’s a company with a social mission and a certified B corp. It had grown a lot, and the CEO/owner needed someone to take on systems and processes. I was very aware of the human perspective—the talent-management side. Janitors were considered essential during the pandemic, so they never stopped working. Their jobs weren’t easy, either; many of our customers—schools, manufacturers, distilleries—had to meet requirements around enhanced commercial cleaning. We thought we were coming out of the pandemic, and then the staffing crisis hit! It was challenging because, like everyone else, we had to find our footing. While we had a social mission and strategic goals, it sometimes felt like we were just trying to get by day by day. Thanks to a good team and being agile enough to build some processes on the fly, we got through 2021 successfully.

At that point, we had to reset. We couldn’t tackle everything at once and had to reassess where we’d set our priorities. “Build back better” is something you heard everywhere, but we first needed to stabilize. Then, we could get stronger. We didn’t have the break of working at home like so many did, because cleaning has to be done on site. I broke my arm and was cleaning one-handed to pitch in. (Editor’s note: As explained on the FMS website, everyone in the company—even upper management—cleans once in a while, to remind them of “the hard work and dedication it takes” and the respect janitors deserve for “doing it right.”) Once things settled down mid-2022, we were able to resume our regular cadence of planning for 2023.

Ingvild: I know that equity and excellence are inseparable concepts for you. How does that play out in the context of your leadership priorities?

Carmen: At FMS, one equity issue will always be establishing a living wage for the cleaners. When I first came in, we had a three-year goal to get our starting wage up to $13 per hour. By working through increases with our customers, we [quickly] got it up to $12 per hour. In 2022, as new accounts were bid, we made sure to bid wages well above $13 per hour. It was different in different places, but the goal is systematic wage increases across the board.

The second piece is around stabilization. I’m always driving for excellence. At FMS, we needed to provide an excellent cleaning service, so we were evaluating the systems and processes around training, talent management, and quality of our cleaning service. That involved customer relations, sales, operations, HR, finance, and accounting. It’s really about connecting everyone. A true picture of performance means both doing well financially and meeting the social mission. It means looking at connected metrics.

Finally, as the company stabilizes, FMS can expand its social programs. To a great extent, equity is about quality of life and access. We’ve got a big problem with food apartheid in our communities—limited access to healthy foods as a result of structural racism—and we were able to subsidize a program that helped our folks in Louisville get access to fresh food. In 2022, we were able to create a network of leaders who delivered to our extended offices so more employees could take advantage of the program. Prior to my leaving FMS in late 2022, we won a grant to fund a “Working Your Way to Wheels” car-buying program. The goal is to get 50 cleaners into personal vehicles. (Editor’s note: Read about what FMS offers employees here.)

Ingvild: Can you say more about connected metrics?

Carmen: I’ll share an example. FMS asked customers to give a grade on cleaning. The customer service department would follow up for more explanation to give insight to how the training program could be improved. Now, if we received great remarks on the cleaning quality and communication with our customers, we could go back to them and have conversations around things like increasing pricing to raise wages. So creating that partnership with customers based on how well we could stabilize and provide quality services would in turn help with employee retention. Those are all connected metrics that help leaders make better business decisions.

Ingvild: I’m curious about your professional trajectory, because you started out studying aerospace engineering. How did you choose that?

Carmen: It’s a funny story. When I was in high school, my mother sent me to a four-week transportation camp at Kentucky State University, a local HBCU [Historically Black Colleges and Universities]. Each week had a theme: land, water, etc. When we got to the air week, we went on a field trip to the UPS Airlines headquarters in Louisville. We got to tour the facility, talk to the pilots, and try a flight simulator. It was amazing; I wanted to make one of those things!

My uncle and all my male cousins had engineering degrees, so I had always known what an engineer was. But they were all male. My mother—who had paused her own education before I was born, then got her bachelor’s degree when I was 14 and her master’s when I was 16—made it clear that I was just as smart as my cousins and encouraged me. My father was more of the life-experience person. He had me working on cars when I was six and learning how to balance a checkbook at ten. So I had this dual space of working with my hands and being the math-y, technical person with my dad and the long-term focus with my mom. As we started researching, we visited the University of Tennessee and got to see the actual curriculum. I was blown away by the idea of learning about space and planes, and I knew I wanted to be in the aviation industry.

Ingvild: Later, you ended up working at UPS Airlines, the place that had inspired you.

Carmen: Yes, but I first got rejected from the internship program twice! I kept those little rejection postcards with the plane on the front. Then, my best friend, who was in industrial engineering, got an internship on the packaging side of UPS, where they needed more people, and I thought, “Why not?” Five years later, I transferred to the airline, and 10 years later, I owned and redesigned the internship program I had been rejected from. I have to admit, that was pretty rewarding.

Ingvild: Louisville city government must have been very different. What led you there?

Carmen: Life changes and reflection periods shifted my career-goal-oriented thinking toward what impact I could have on my community. I wanted to do something different. When I found out that Louisville city government had a Performance Improvement Department, I thought it was a great fit for me. High-visibility, cross-functional projects were just an extension of what I had always done from an engineering and operations-support role, but I went from a company that had been doing standards, regulations, and processes for 100-something years to a department that had just been created five years prior and was still in flux. So it was a transition.

Then, ten months after I started, I became chief of the department—in a budget-cut period. Fourteen years and 12 jobs at UPS—including experience with things like having four hours to fix a plane and dealing with a hub-and-spoke system—taught me a sense of urgency and adaptability that served me well during this time. I had to rapidly develop strategies to adjust for budget cuts, like figuring out how to close a juvenile detention facility and deal with my department getting cut in half while having to deliver the same services.

Ingvild: From aerospace engineering studies and working at multi-national UPS Airlines to city government and a local B Corp, what are the most important things you’ve learned from such different contexts?

Carmen: I’m good at systems thinking and moving quickly between a vision and tactical steps to get there. I’ve learned that I can use the same planning and management approaches, more or less, across settings. It’s always important to put people at ease, develop trust, and allow everyone to contribute. I’ve seen many problems before, but that’s not going to stop me from listening, understanding people’s needs, and considering different solutions to find one that makes sense here and now. I believe in making sure everybody’s heard. I’ve always got a plan in mind for how to get where we want to go. It may be slow, and we may have to flex and adapt, but we’ll get there in a collaborative way.

My question is always: Who’s not at the table? And how do we get them there? At FMS, for example, we had to make sure we included our operations team in our decision-making. If we didn’t take that time to trust and believe people’s lived experiences, then our policies wouldn’t reflect their insight. While I was at Metro Government, I spent a lot of my time facilitating and collaborating with stakeholders across the community to develop holistic solutions. I always want people to feel like things are being done with them and not to them.

Ingvild: You left FMS in late 2022. What have you been doing since then?

Carmen: Well, I wasn’t expecting to be laid off from FMS in December 2022, but I feel like I’ve been able to rest and reflect on what I’d like to do next. I’m in the last year of my doctoral program, and my research is focused on leadership impact on inclusion. I’m very passionate about that, because, at most points in my career, I’ve been “the only one.” Also, I was able to co-author Letters to My Corporate Sisters, which is a compilation of 11 diverse women’s stories of encouragement and inspiration for women in corporate organizations.

Ingvild: How would you describe the experience of being “the only one?”

At UPS, I came in as an engineer who checked all the boxes—woman, Latina, Black—so managers sent me to every committee and program. It was great to participate in all these leadership development programs and get all these assignments. But to come back and not be able to implement any development plans was super frustrating for me and a waste of money for the company.

This is one of the biggest hurdles companies face with inclusion—not evaluating and changing those systems and practices that are barriers to true inclusion. Throughout my career, I’ve watched leaders make statements to support diversity, equity, and inclusion and then make decisions that contradict their statements. These experiences are the driving force behind my research and are helping shape the next step on my career journey. I recently became a certified coach and am building training and coaching around inclusion for executive teams. My senior-level work experience, systems-thinking background, and inclusion research focus give me a unique perspective that can help teams rethink how their organization can truly become inclusive.

Ingvild: When management failed to be inclusive earlier in your career, how did you handle it?

Carmen: What helped me get over that hump at UPS was attending a leadership program for Black women. After that, I involved HR. A white, female HR manager stood in front of the airline’s senior leadership team and said, “We’re investing in these employees; what are you gonna do to make sure they use what they learned?” And she followed up and continued to challenge the company norms around talent development. Then my white male VP of engineering took it upon himself to be my mentor and signal clearly to the entire senior leadership of white men that “she belongs here.” The importance of white employees being workplace allies and challenging exclusionary policies and behaviors cannot be overstated.

Ingvild: Thank you for sharing your fascinating story, and congratulations on the publication of Letters to My Corporate Sisters!

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