What makes a leader?
Debbie Garcia-Gratacos, president and founder of DEVAL, LLC, whose clients include the FDIC, HUD and American Express, talks about her Puerto Rican roots, her devotion to community, her family, her faith and how they all contributed to her leadership purpose.
INTERVIEWER: Welcome to the "BB&T Leadership Series." We're delighted to have you with us today, and we're really glad today to have Debbie Garcia with us. And Debbie is quite an accomplished professional community leader. She is the founder of a company called Deval. It's a private partnership, a non-bank, Hispanic, woman-owned, special residential loan servicer. She serves on the board of directors of BB&T in the greater Washington area. So welcome, Debbie. We're delighted to have you with us.
DEBBIE GARCIA: Thank you. And thanks for the kind invitation. I'm excited to be here.
INTERVIEWER: I want to just start by letting the audience know a little more about you and kind of how you got to where you are. You're obviously very accomplished, very successful. But it didn't just happen, did it? There must have been challenges, and difficulties, and obstacles along the way. Any you would care to share with our audience?
DEBBIE GARCIA: Yeah. I grew up middle class, probably realized much later on that I wasn't as middle class as I would have thought. I was lower middle class, and came from a wonderful working family. That was here in Florida. So I'm from Puerto Rico. I was born in Puerto Rico, and then we moved to Florida when I was four. And I grew up in Orlando, and I would say, before the exodus of the Puerto Rican community.
INTERVIEWER: I've known you for a number of years, and I've always found you to have an enthusiastic, positive attitude, which a lot of people don't have, particularly in an environment that can be challenging. And there are many aspects of our world today and our country that are challenging. But how did you wake up in the morning with an enthusiastic, positive attitude?
DEBBIE GARCIA: Well, I love what I do. I love what I do. I'm very grateful for everything that I have, and I know that I'm truly blessed and lucky in that respect. I share a similar view to you. I've heard you multiple times say that you put faith, family, and then work in that order, and I share that, as well.
INTERVIEWER: You've also heard me talk about one of my five great books, which is Man's Search for Meaning, written by Viktor Frankl. And in the book, he said, "If you know your why you can endure any how." And that really helped me get crystallized on how important knowing and really understanding your why is in life. How would you describe your why?
DEBBIE GARCIA: My why has to do, I guess, with service. So I feel that in the work that I do and in the field that I'm in, I'm in a field that I have the opportunity to serve others.
INTERVIEWER: And I want to talk a little bit about what happened in Puerto Rico after the storms, because that's when you and I spent more time together and I had this great appreciation-- still have-- for what you did for the citizens of Puerto Rico that really suffered. So could you talk a little bit about the devastation-- because most people, I don't think, really got a good understanding of how bad that was-- and then maybe some of the things you did to try to help.
DEBBIE GARCIA: When the hurricane, Hurricane Maria, hit Puerto Rico, it was something that was devastating to the island at a totally different level than we'd seen in years. Initially when the hurricane hit, there was no electricity. There was no communication where you could reach people or even hear about our loved ones.
My husband and I-- our family actually has an event that we do every year at the house. I said, we should really take this opportunity that we're going to have about 400 people at the house and see if we could bring awareness to Puerto Rico, see if maybe we could even raise some funds. So that night with friends and family, we raised $38,000.
So I said well, geez, now that we have this money, it's good. It's a good for a start. Got together with some corporate sponsors, went and did what I normally don't do, which is ask for money. And went to friends and said, hey, Puerto Rican people are hurting, and we need to step into a much different role than we probably would have stepped in before and help.
We knew that on the mainland, there was four million pounds of food that people had raised. There was no way to get that food, those generators, those supplies down to Puerto Rico. And so we worked with a local nonprofit to be able to get the planes, lease the planes, load the planes, go around the country and pick up the supplies.
By the time we took the supplies down to Puerto Rico-- and we physically were on the flight. We unloaded the plane and we were able to provide the supplies to local churches that were throughout the island, so that they could go back to their communities and provide water, and food, and basics.
INTERVIEWER: I think it's a great example, Debbie, of how the power of one works because most people, even being from Puerto Rico originally and having connections, would still say that, and they would say something like, somebody ought to do something about that. And what I've found in life is so many times, everybody just ends that conversation and goes on off and waits for somebody else to do something.
Few people say, I will be somebody. I will be the one that will push forward, take the mantle, and get something done. And you did that, so that's really congratulations to you. But why do you think, just on your life experiences, some few take the leadership role and the many don't?
DEBBIE GARCIA: When you have your family, and your friends, and people you grew up with that are put in a situation where it's just unprecedented, it's just something that nobody was expecting, I think you tend to react in emotions, and even actions, and they all kind of come together for the better purpose.
And I had a 98-year-old aunt, and I kept thinking to myself, my father was an older child, and he kind of always took care of her when her husband passed. And I kept thinking about, she's in her home. It's dark. She's very elderly and she needs light, and a generator, and some candles. And I kept thinking about supplies and all those things. And I think things like that-- they drive you.
And so it was something that just had to get done. And people we'd never met would somehow have our phone numbers and say, I got a million pounds of food here. And then another group of people that said, Debbie, I don't know you. I'm a doctor in Miami, but I heard you guys have a plane. I've got $100,000 worth of insulin. I'll give you the instructions. You all can take it down to Puerto Rico. And it was just amazing to see, what I always think, is good people be better.
INTERVIEWER: So you just described leadership 101, [INAUDIBLE] taught in Harvard. So I've found a lot of times, people give all these really complex, lengthy definitions of leadership. But a simple way of thinking about leadership to me is leaders are very honest about where they are, what the situation is, and then they become very clear about what needs to be done, where they're going.
So knowing where you are, knowing where you want to go is two of the hallmark characteristics of leaders. And that's what you did here. But the thing that holds a lot of people back from moving forward into leadership action-- they'll see the situation, but then they see the difficulties. They'll see the obstacles. And overcoming obstacles in life is one of the greatest challenges we all have, and it's particularly a great definer of leaders.
One of my five great books is Mindset that was written by Dr. Carol Dweck. And in that book, she talked about having a growth mindset or a fixed mindset, which is a choice. Growth mindset people, which are usually the best leaders, say, this is hard. This is difficult. I don't know how I'm going to get it done, but we'll figure it out. And that's what you. Did you demonstrated a growth mindset as a leader and figured out how to do something that probably saved thousands of lives, don't you think?
DEBBIE GARCIA: While you're in action, or while this whole six-week period was happening, I basically stopped working for the company to just focus on this. And all in all, it was a total of nine different planes that we brought down. And I was on those planes to make sure the shipment got to where it needed to get.
So I didn't just want to collect the goods, I wanted to collect the goods and make sure I handed them personally to the person that it needed to go to, along with a team of people. We had folks checking in people, and validating, and just doing so many different tasks. It was a group effort.
But one of the things, thinking about that, we got food. We did so many things. And did you really get to talk to a lot of people, Debbie, and learn? And I'll tell you, there was a lady, and I saw that her husband was sitting next to her. I was at a restaurant. And I'm having a sandwich, and she says, hey. Aren't you part of the group that brought the supplies? And I said, yeah, that's us.
And she says, you see that guy there? He's my husband. He's older. He is a little overweight. He's sick. And in one of those shipments that you brought, you brought medicine, I guess, for somebody that had a kidney transplant. And it was just enough, enough medicine for him to continue to take his medicine and not have complexities of his kidney surgery.
And she goes, so thank you because you did that. And I appreciate everything that you guys did. That made it just worth it. It really did, just knowing that we were able to touch our brothers and our sisters down there.
And we're still active there. Now, even though I know it's been a few years since Maria occurred, there's a great amount of mental health that has kind of kicked in, a big mental health concern on the island where people were committing suicide because they just felt hopeless. So we're working with different groups now to try to bring mental health to the island so that we can rebuild the community and get everybody kind of right where they need to be and turn these communities around.
INTERVIEWER: Well, that hopelessness is the issue. That's why I call this idea, this planting seeds of hope, because when people lose hope, it's a very depressing feeling and it does often lead to suicide, and bad medical conditions, and all types of things. That's what we all can do is to offer hope, a sense of opportunity in this life, in this world we live in.
And leaders like you do that naturally, and the opportunity that others have to be aspiring leaders is to recognize that you don't have to be perfect. You don't have to be trained up in leadership. You can just say, I want to help. I want to plant a seed of hope. I want to do what I can do.
As we move towards the end of the series, Debbie, I want to talk a little bit about BB&T. As a board member, you know our why is to make the world a better place to live. And we do it through a lot of projects in the community, and supporting United Way, and all kinds of things. But there's a concept out there today that needs attention.
And you've heard us talk about it here some at this Leadership Institute event. And that is that there's a huge growing gap in income equality. And some, including myself, are beginning to think we-- we as business leaders, especially-- need to focus on business responsibility and a more expanded view in terms of trying to not guarantee equal outcomes-- I don't believe in that-- but trying to do more to provide for equal opportunity, because I think we can do more to close that inequality gap. Do you agree with that?
DEBBIE GARCIA: Absolutely. I agree, and we do that through being purposeful. We have to be purposeful of our communities and others that are behind us and extend our hand to them, and make sure that we go back and we talk about our experiences, we talk about our challenges, we talk about our insecurities in getting to the next steps and the next levels.
But we also have a mindset that you have to be positive while you're in the life that you lead. At some point, there'll be no more Debbie, but the seeds, just like you mentioned earlier, will still be there of other people that are younger that we can help, and touch, and make sure that we're trying to change some of those things, like the reading levels with children. That's something that's real, and we could absolutely do something about it.
INTERVIEWER: I think I would say, on behalf of Debbie and myself, to all of our viewers, as leaders or aspiring leaders, you really do have an opportunity to make a difference, really do have an opportunity to change the world. Debbie, you have changed the world, and for that, I thank you. Thank you for being with us.
DEBBIE GARCIA: Thank you.
INTERVIEWER: Have a great day.
DEBBIE GARCIA: Thank you.
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