Cindy Montanez, CEO of TreePeople
Cindy Montanez is the first and one of the only Latina CEOs to head an environmental organization. She leads the charge at TreePeople, Los Angeles’ largest environmental non-profit, with the same mission-oriented and empathetic mindset her parents taught her through their example.
“My parents inspired me to work to make the world a better place,” explains Montanez. “They came to the United States for a shot at a better life, for opportunity, for democracy. They treasured the right we have in the U.S. and the personal responsibility to do something about injustice and they taught us to love our country, the United States of America.”
It was this same love for country that inspired Montanez to pursue a career in public service, first as a council member and later as a Mayor when she was only 27 years old.
“One campaign promise I wrote on my napkin was to plant more trees,” reflects Montanez. “I managed to plant a couple hundred trees while I was Mayor. I could have never imagined that the journey I started 20 years ago would lead me to TreePeople.”
In her current role as CEO, Montanez leads TreePeople’s team and community under a common goal — to preserve the environment as we know it.
“We are on a mission to inspire, engage and support millions of people to take personal responsibility for healing the earth,” explains Montanez. “As CEO, I am honored to help set the direction of Los Angeles’ most impactful environmental non-profit and lead a team of passionate, talented and dedicated professionals committed to to this movement.”
Below Montanez shares more insight into her day-to-day, what advice she would give to other Latinas, and the importance of talking about environmental issues.
Vivian Nunez: What has it meant to you to be the only Latina CEO leading an environmental organization?
Cindy Montanez: Climate change does not discriminate, and I see that we have a real opportunity to unite people from different parts of the country and the world to come together to heal the earth and protect each other from the devastating impacts of climate change.
When the responsibility is so great, I get courage from the memory of my grandfather who died from working in mines in northern Mexico. I work hard day-after-day to be a strong voice and champion for all people, especially those most vulnerable to the increasing threats of climate change and environmental contamination. I take seriously my responsibility to bring in more diverse voices into the environmental sector, which is why I am co-leading a national initiative to increase the number of Latinx people who are serving as executives in and on environmental nonprofit boards. We can only go up from here.
Nunez: How did you make the transition from your government roles to pursuing a career in environmental issues and the nonprofit sector?
Montanez: At 32 years old, I lost my California State Senate campaign to California’s current Secretary of State. Thanks to my successful track-record around public infrastructure, making things happen in large bureaucracies and the environment, I was immediately recruited as one of the executives responsible for transitioning the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, the country’s largest publicly-owned utility, to provide cleaner energy, local water and a more environmentally sustainable future. This was a task few thought was possible, but we had historic successes.
I moved to become CEO of TreePeople…because I realized that people in communities all over the world must also be part of the climate solution — the private sector and government cannot do it alone. TreePeople is working in communities day-after-day uniting people around solutions that will better prepare them for the increasing and devastating effects of extreme heat, wildfires, flooding, droughts and other deadly threats from the changing climate.
Nunez: What advice do you have for Latinas who are looking to pursue a career path similar to yours?
Montanez: Latinas matter and are key to solving some of the world’s most pressing challenges around climate change. Government, business and the non-profit sector benefit from our voices, ideas and passion; and enormous opportunities exist in the environmental sustainability sector for well-prepared, committed and hard-working professionals who understand and can communicate with diverse communities.
We must embrace and express the strategic thinking we bring to the table as Latinas and, as I learned at the age of 12, volunteering is the best way to get into the career you want.
Nunez: What has been your biggest lesson learned in your career?
Montanez: Humans are resilient and I am glad I have gotten to know that part of me because I stay focused on finding solutions even when challenges seem insurmountable.
Having strong working relationships with people who think differently than me enables me to come up with more comprehensive solutions. I can pretty much work with anyone who is willing to work on making a positive difference in the world.
Nunez: How do you hope the Latinx community will activate around environmental issues?
Montanez: Latinx communities are ground zero for climate threats in major urban areas like Los Angeles and countries throughout Latin America. TreePeople… has created initiatives such as Calles Verdes, Community Forester en español and environmental education programming in Spanish to engage millions of people both in the United States and abroad.
The Latinx community is among the strongest supporters of environmental initiatives in their communities and at the voting booth. I hope the community will continue to rally around issues, initiatives, campaigns, policies, science and projects that support a country and global community serious about implementing climate change solutions.