“By the time I graduated from the Bush School, I had lived in six different countries and nine different cities,” said Cristina Candia Lopez, reminiscing about her early years. In learning to develop a sense of belonging and connection in different places, Lopez built a foundation for her future career in corporate Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI).
“I always knew wanted to do something in the space of making the world a better place, and I really felt like I was called to do that through public service,” said Lopez. She imagined herself working in the government or nonprofit sectors.
Lopez said she only “accidentally” ended up working in the corporate realm, focusing, not on national security, but organizational security – preserving the physical, mental and emotional welfare of individuals within an organization through periods of upheaval. In December 2021, Lopez was named Vice President Diversity, Equity & Inclusion at VillageMD.
Living Through Change
The daughter of a Puerto Rican mother and a Bolivian father, Lopez grew up with exposure to a variety of social environments that enabled her to manage organizational tumult throughout her career. Lopez lived in Bolivia, Argentina, Venezuela, and Mexico prior to beginning her undergraduate studies at Texas A&M.
With each move she felt at home, developing a deep appreciation for the different people, histories, cultures and perspectives in each country. Witnessing the effects of military coups, wars, and political corruption impressed upon Lopez the importance of security. She was convinced she would someday work in the national security sector.
“When the classical music came on the radio, you knew it was time to get home because there was a military coup. It was everyday, normal stuff to know how to operate in that environment,” said Lopez. “It impacted peoples’ understandings and expectations of safety. I see what an example the United States is and what impact the United States can have when it comes to foreign policy.”
Interest in national security and attraction to former President George H.W. Bush’s emphasis on public service as a core principle led Lopez to the Bush School.
At the Bush School, Lopez came to realize that her passion for global security could be applied not only in federal government work, but in many different contexts in the public and private sectors. “To hear President Bush talk about public service – it changed my perspective to look at what are all the ways I can contribute to a better world? I was inspired by his commitment to public service and bringing people of goodwill together to create better outcomes.”
Lopez’ husband decided to pursue an MBA, so he and Lopez made a deal: after he graduated, they would each apply to their dream job. Whoever got the “cooler” offer would take it, and the other person would work around that position. In the meantime, Lopez took what she called a “for now” job with Accenture, an IT consulting firm, focusing on DEI in recruitment.
Lopez never left the corporate realm. “I fell in love with the idea of being able to drive corporate values and make an impact on the world through a corporate lens,” said Lopez.
“I was at JCPenny pre-bankruptcy, trying to deliver business results as a short term piece but lay the foundation for future growth – to see both the forest and the trees,” said Lopez.
While her responsibilities encompassed organizational and bureaucratic rather than geopolitical challenges, Lopez said her professors at the Bush School broadened the scope of elements she had the capacity to manage within a given crisis.
The Bush School gave Lopez an “approach to looking at things that were complex, with so many different dependencies, and being able to break it down into immediate next steps and long term impact.” Bush School professors demonstrated how to navigate nuanced problems and balance short and long-term implications in intelligence, diplomacy, the military, and elsewhere. In each environment, similar principles emerged, that Lopez then could apply to her work in corporate settings.
Lopez took lessons from “hearing leaders talk about how they worked through that complexity and seeing our professors manage across a diversity of perspectives.”
A Life of Devotion to DEI
Lopez now realizes she has been preparing all her life to concentrate in DEI issues. Her migratory childhood provided an appreciation for cultural diversity and the universal human need for inclusion. Then, in between her undergraduate and graduate programs, she worked in the Office of Admissions for Dr. Frank Ashley, who was then Director of Admissions at Texas A&M. Ashley now serves as Senior Associate Dean for Academic Affairs at the Bush School and the University’s Director of Diversity Initiatives.
Under Dr. Ashley, Lopez worked on the Century Scholars program, which aimed to recruit and support students from underrepresented high schools. “That started giving me my first inkling of, maybe DEI is the space I’m going to go into,” said Lopez.
Her childhood experiences and years at the Bush School also helped shape her approach to corporate DEI.
“The critical outcome that you’re driving is to help people be in a place where they can deliver their best and create sustainable environments where you as a corporation can live that out,” said Lopez. “It’s about enabling people, and enabling the organization to deliver on outcomes.”
At VillageMD, that means ensuring greater and more equitable health outcomes for customers.
“I really like doing that work with corporations that are in a state of change,” said Lopez. Changes she has managed include rapid growth and acute hardship. At the beginning of 2021, VillageMD and Village Medical had more than 1,200 employees. Today, it has more than 5,000 employees and providers. According to Lopez, the greatest challenge is maintaining corporate focus on the principles and mission that reside at the core of the organization, preserving organizational culture, through that growth.
Because of her contribution to public service, Lopez was named in 2021 as one of 25 “Latinas to Watch” through Most Powerful Latinas, a program of the Association of Latino Professionals for America. She also serves as the PSAA alumni representative on the Bush School’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee, is on the Executive Committee for the Girl Scouts of Northeast Texas and is a member of the DFW Hispanic 100.
By Micaela Burrow