Hispanic Heritage Month: Celebrating Elena Quevedo ’83

To complement the Sweet Briar Multicultural Center’s celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, we are highlighting Elena Quevedo, ’83. She is the principal at Cardinal Consulting for Nonprofits, LLC, a full-service consultancy practice focusing on fundraising, governance, marketing, strategic planning and board retreats within the nonprofit sector. We asked Elena some questions about Sweet Briar, Hispanic Heritage Month and her own story.

Elena Quevedo in her graduation regalia
Elena Quevedo at her 1983 Sweet Briar graduation

Sweet Briar: What does Hispanic heritage mean to you, and how has your heritage shaped who you are today? 

Elena Quevedo ’83: I was born and bred in Quito, Ecuador, and came to the U.S. in 1978 to finish high school, college and graduate school. I have also lived in France and Spain. I identify as both Ecuadorian and American. Being exposed to multiple cultures and multiple languages offers you a much wider worldview. You can contextualize things better and understand the relativity of cultural norms around the world. You acquire a broader bird’s eye view of life. To quote Mark Twain, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness.” I am proud of my heritage, and whenever I am able, I try to break down common stereotypes about people of Hispanic descent. There are over 500 million Spanish speakers around the world, and needless to say, we are not a homogenous, ethnic or racial group. We are a tremendously diverse group of people bound by one language. One of my pet peeves is that government forms continuously ask if I am “racially” Hispanic. Notice that no other group is currently singled out. My response based on my DNA is usually 94% Iberian, 3% Indigenous Native South American and 3% Neanderthal. Do not let others define you. Find out who you are or who you wish to be.

SB: Please share your best career advice that you would give a Sweet Briar Hispanic/LatinX student. 

EQ: Expose yourself to as many new things as possible during your four years. These are years of exploration and personal growth. Take advantage of it. You will never have that kind of freedom again. The best job candidate, in my eyes, is a well-rounded student who is intellectually curious. Intellectual curiosity will force you to question things and figure out how to go around the proverbial brick wall. Also, understand that nothing is set in stone. Very few people continue to work in areas related to their majors for the rest of their lives. I think this is wonderful! I have had three professional iterations (art history professor, nonprofit professional and consultant) and have very much enjoyed them. What you wish to do today will probably not be the same 10 years from now. I find that to be fantastic because it will force personal growth. Being flexible and resilient is the key in life, and perseverance when you have found the one thing (for now).

Find one or more mentors. There is very little that one is afraid to try or unwilling to do when you know you have cheerleaders behind you cheering all the way.

SB: Please share how your Sweet Briar education impacted you both personally and professionally. 

EQ: I was not aware of the quality of education I was receiving until I got to graduate school. I attended an elite program in art and archeology in New York City that took only 25 students every year, and 10 of those students pursued the rarefied field of art conservation. I was the only student not to have attended an Ivy League school. It was extremely intimidating, even just in the first week. I very quickly realized I was one of the few women literally sitting at the table and not at the periphery of the seminar rooms. I was one of the few women interrupting and asking questions. Professor Aileen Laing ’57 and the art history department at Sweet Briar gifted me with a superb education, and I felt not only prepared but also soon took leadership roles within the school (Institute of Fine Arts at NYU). It is only when you experience education at other institutions that you realize the value of a Sweet Briar education. To quote Elizabeth Warren, “If you don’t have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu.” Sweet Briar gave me confidence and the drive to reach for the stars. It is because of this gift that I volunteer and help the College as much as I can. My gratitude is boundless.

Elena Quevedo and her daughter in India
Elena Quevedo with her daughter during a trip to India in 2016

SB: How do you feel you are breaking barriers in the workplace as a woman? 

EQ: I have had to break gender, ethnic stereotypes, and size barriers during my career (I am 5′ 1″). Seemingly innocuous comments such as: “You don’t look Hispanic,”  “Gosh, your English is amazing” or “You looked way taller in Zoom” signal negative preconceived notions that will negatively impact whether you are hired, respected, and valued. It happens all the time. As a woman, being “mansplained” ad nauseam is continuous. And yet, I can’t say my experiences are anywhere near what black or brown women endure every single day.

SB: How have you responded to these barriers over the years?

EQ: I have worked harder and persevered until I felt I was at a level or higher plane than the competition. Having a Ph.D. gives me a veneer of intelligence that has been very helpful. Now that I am 61, I have proudly become a “difficult woman.” I am confident, I speak my mind, and I am not afraid of confrontations. I am very comfortable in my own skin. That is the freedom that comes with age. I wish I had arrived at this point when I was 30! For all you college kids, I highly recommend Karen Karbo’s “In Praise of Difficult Women: Life Lessons from 29 Heroines Who Dared to Break the Rules.”