Adela Cepeda on Using Her Voice to Chart a Path for Others

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In celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month (September 15-October 15), the Trust is featuring a series of conversations with Latinx philanthropists and leaders who are making a difference in the region. This article is the first in our series—be sure to stay tuned for more.

As a child, Adela Cepeda immigrated to the United States from Colombia with her parents and two siblings. The immense strength and courage displayed by her parents to leave their home country in pursuit of a better education for their children had a tremendous influence on her life. Cepeda went on to build a successful career in finance, while also serving on numerous corporate boards and dedicating her time to nonprofit causes. As a prominent Latina businesswoman, she has used her voice to advocate for the Latinx community at tables or boardrooms where she was often the first or only Latina. During her tenure on The Chicago Community Trust’s Executive Committee from 2001 to 2011, Cepeda co-founded Nuestro Futuro (“Our Future”), an initiative of the Trust, that supports Chicago-area organizations and programs aimed at improving the quality of life for the Latinx community. Nuestro Futuro has gone on to become the largest affinity fund in the nation dedicated to Latinx philanthropy.

Cepeda recently sat down with Nina Alcacio, director of public relations at the Trust, to discuss how she used her voice to advocate for the Latinx community. Some questions and answers have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Nina Alcacio: Because it’s Hispanic Heritage Month, what does Hispanic heritage mean to you?

Adela Cepeda: My Hispanic heritage is everything to me. I mean, Spanish is my first language because I came to the United States as a six-year-old, and I feel a great and wonderful affinity with other people that share this language and cultural background with me regardless of their specific nationality.

NA: You played such an influential role in the founding of Nuestro Futuro. Could you tell me about the importance of community and leveraging your voice and your philanthropic support to be an advocate for the Latinx community?

AC: It’s crucial to leverage our voice.  Especially when you’re given certain privileges, like the honor of being appointed to the Executive Committee of The Chicago Community Trust and you study what the objectives are of a community foundation, then you say, “Oh, Latinos should participate and benefit because they have very strong and clear needs as a community and are the fastest growing ethnic group in Chicago”. My understanding is that philanthropic giving to the Latino community nationally is a minimal percentage.   It’s not commensurate with the community’s representation in our country nor with the community’s needs.  So, I should be a voice on this board to emphasize that and make sure that the unique needs of Latinos are prioritized.

NA: You mentioned that you came to the United States when you were six years old. Could you share how your own life experience inspired you to give back?

AC: Well, my parents were the first of their family to come to the United States in search of education for their three kids at the time. Eventually we were five kids, and the objective was always for us to achieve educationally and that they would sacrifice the lifestyle they had in Colombia to do this, to make sure that we were well-educated. It’s because of their sacrifices that I was given opportunities for higher education, and received a degree in economics from Harvard College, an MBA from the University of Chicago School of Business, then becoming a professional in the capital markets industry and in the world of finance. All of these are privileges. We were raised to help others. I was the translator for my parents and everybody that came behind them. As a little girl I was leading people, showing them how to take the subway, taking them to Immigration and Naturalization Service appointments, helping them fill out forms and things like that. So, there’s a strong sense of helping others that came with my upbringing. I have benefited from incredible opportunities. And so that is humbling. It creates this desire to give back, to share with others. And I try to do that.

NA: I am glad you highlighted how you were raised to help others. People give in so many different ways and may not necessarily consider it philanthropy. What advice would you offer to someone who might be at the beginning of their philanthropic journey but intimidated by the idea of getting started or see so much need especially now with the pandemic that they don’t know where to begin?

AC: I would say an easy way to start your philanthropic journey is to become a member of Nuestro Futuro and work with us to expand giving to support two of the most compelling issues for Latinos, which is early childhood and immigration. Through Nuestro Futuro, now the largest Latino endowment in the U.S., we have been reactive to the short-term needs created by COVID-19. I think COVID-19 is going to create longer-term needs. It’s affecting our children’s education. It’s affecting our health disproportionately both in terms of the level of infection and the number of deaths, which is changing the structure of families and what can be accomplished as a family unit. It’s going to have serious and long-term negative impact on our community, and I hope we will be able to work in partnership with others to address some of these needs.

NA: Did anyone in your life play a role in supporting or inspiring your charitable giving?

AC: There wasn’t one particular person, but my grandmother had very little, yet she was always putting $50s, $20s and if she got her hands on a $100, she was putting it away to give it away in her town in Colombia, where there were so many poor. She was constantly saving for those that were needier. I saw that every day.  If she could do that, then I hope I can do more.

NA: Can you talk to me about the importance of Latinx voices in philanthropy and the civic landscape more broadly?

AC: I think we have to speak up more.  We have to talk about the broader needs, about the size of our community and areas that need to be prioritized, because if we don’t, at the rate that our community is growing, the gaps are just going to grow wider.  And we’ve just seen what happens when a community is ignored or treated unfairly. We can’t have a society that functions when a majority in it, Black and Hispanic, are operating with a very small percentage of the resources. That doesn’t work for anyone. It doesn’t work for those who have, and of course it doesn’t work for those who don’t have.

NA: You’ve had such a strong commitment to civic engagement, whether it be through the Trust or through other boards and supporting other nonprofit organizations within the city of Chicago. What do you hope your legacy is?

AC: Well, I mean, I hope it’s an example that you should speak up. I can speak up, and I should speak up. And everybody else that can, should.  We all have a responsibility to speak up. And this is a town where civic participation is highly sought out and leadership really wants to see diversity at the table. This is not the case in a lot of other places, but in Chicago it is true, and we should be willing to step up. Now, I try to send opportunities to others, to younger members of our community that need the experience and need to have a voice. We have to put our younger people in positions where they can be advocates for themselves and the next generations.