Paving the way for Latinas in HiTech


Story By: Joe Dyton

Photo by: Mike Azria

Photo by: Mike Azria

When Marcela Alava landed the perfect job at the perfect time a year ago, it wasn’t just about adding a new entry on her resume—it was about having a platform to make a difference, especially when it comes to the Hispanic community and to careers in STEM.

Alava is the chief information officer at Monarch Landscape Companies, the largest regional commercial landscape maintenance and landscape construction company with headquarters in Los Angeles.. As Monarch acquires other landscape companies, she is tasked with developing the information technology (IT) strategy, look at what Monarch’s enterprise-level business needs are and assist in setting up the best practices from an IT perspective across the growing company.

It was somewhat of a perfect storm in how Alava came to work for Monarch. The company’s chief executive officer, Brian Helgoe, was looking for someone to fill the CIO role based on what he was looking to accomplish while Alava, who was working for a non-profit at the time, was in need of a change both professionally and personally.

When the two finally connected, it turned out she had what Helgoe was looking for in a CIO and the position had what Alava wanted in a new challenge.

“Because he’s been in the industry for a really long time, Brian envisioned different ways of doing things and he needed someone that came in with an open mind,” Alava says. “I think what was appealing to him was that I didn’t come in with, ‘Here’s your solution, here’s our answer, this is what you need to do because that’s what other landscape and construction companies do.’ I came in with a different approach.

Alava celebrated her one-year anniversary at Monarch in early September and in that short amount of time believes she has already grown significantly. She’s learned a lot about construction and landscaping—two industries she had never been exposed to before. She’s developed a new appreciation for the landscaping profession especially and for the people who work within the industry. Her time at Monarch has shown her there are numerous career paths in landscaping that aren’t talked about enough.

“I don’t think people have had an opportunity to examine it as a great opportunity for a career,” Alava says. “We have gardeners, account managers, project managers, engineers, landscape architects, designers, estimators and regional and corporate leadership positions. I mean there are all sorts of careers within this industry that I hadn’t considered or realized before. For me, it’s a highly professional organization and a great career move.”

Landscaping career opportunity awareness is not the only issue Alava hopes to address in her position. There’s also a shortage of Hispanic students involved in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), which she believes can be fixed with the right amount of encouragement. For example, STEM has become more visible in the preschool levels all the way through grade school, but in college, students aren’t encouraged as much to take part in science and engineering courses. Without that push at the college level, there just aren’t going to be as many people entering the workforce trained in any kind of STEM-related vocation.

There are programs that are helping to draw more awareness to STEM as a career that revolves around math and coding.

Alava is on an advisory council of an organization called STEM Advantage that partners with California State schools that help promote STEM education by providing scholarships, internships and mentorships.

The other side of the equation is providing opportunities for those who are interested in a STEM career. As Alava points out, these opportunities should not just be for entry-level positions either—companies should establish diversity programs that will allow for people to be eligible for management positions, too. She also believes it would be beneficial for corporations to partner with colleges to establish the types of skill sets they will need students to have after graduation. In fact, there are some programs that are starting to emerge where businesses will pay educational institutions for individuals’ education. As a company, Monarch is doing its part. While many positions are entry level, there are numerous opportunities to move up the ladder—as others and Alava has proved. Monarch is committed to training and diversity and overall advancement of Latinos in leadership positions.

“I’m a great example of that,” she says. “I don’t know that Brian was specifically looking for a Latina CIO, but there’s not that many of us. But, he’s been very forthcoming in providing opportunities to advance for everyone in the organization.”