Glen Gunderson

March 18, 2021

As part of my own personal journey, I am committed to being a strong equity leader. This is the 28th in a series of blogs that will be a part of that effort. I hope you will benefit from the conversation.

I have utilized A Conversation on Race to engage with equity leaders — mentors, teammates and dear friends — from all over the country, and I’ve learned so much about them and me in the process.

The murder of George Floyd on May 25, 2020, inspired an awareness and awakening on injustice in our nation. Enough is enough! Yet what we all witnessed at the Capitol on January 6 is yet another sobering reminder of how far the United States has to go, how deep and great our divide is.

Then came the inauguration of Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States on January 20, 2021, and Kamala Harris as our nation's first female, Black and Indian American vice president. Any transfer of power brings the prospect of hope, new thinking and innovation, a fresh perspective. 

But no one illustrated all of that better than Amanda Gorman, the youth poet laureate. She is a shining example of this burgeoning potential of the young people we serve at the Y and their ability to bring about change. To be able to talk to our neighbors, respect our differences, and see the humanness and wholeness of one another. There was so much brilliance in Amanda's Inaugural Poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," but these lines in particular resonate with me and our mission at the Y:

We are striving to forge a union with purpose,
to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
And so we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us

The YMCA of the North will continue its efforts to become an anti-racist, anti-oppressive and multicultural organization. To that end, I will continue to have these conversations with influencers and leaders who will be a part of the solution.

My 16th guest is CiCi Rojas, one of the phenomenal leaders not only in Kansas City but nationally, as well. She is a partner and founder of Tico Productions, a full-service multimedia, multicultural marketing and production company that was selected by the NFL to broadcast Super Bowl LV in Spanish. CiCi has won numerous awards and lends her business and civic acumen to many organizations. In fact, I have had a front-row seat to her perspective and passion because we both are on the YMCA of the USA board.

I hope you will enjoy Part 1 of my conversation with CiCi Rojas.

Glen: CiCi, thank you for joining me. Tell me a little bit about your story?


CiCi: I come from a pretty humble beginning and grew up in the urban core here in Kansas City to working-class parents who were strong union advocates. So even though they didn't have a formal education, they had a gritty kind of bootstrapping story themselves. A lot of other kids in our neighborhood didn't have the benefit of two parents. 

Though my parents worked really hard, they also understood the equalizer component of exposure to the arts and exposure to sports. So I first experienced sports at the Y, participating in programs like volleyball, then moving on to softball and all those other things. I can remember my dad was the coach for my sister's tee-ball team, my softball team and my brother's basketball and baseball teams. He brought snacks and stuff for all the kids, so I just grew up with that.

Then he was also a union leader and, and he was president of his union for a long time. So I got an early taste of the political process. I also had an uncle who was the first Hispanic-serving state representative in Missouri. So that also opened some doors and my mind to what the political process looks like. 

Part of my story is that I had four kids, and I was a single mom. I had a couple of factory jobs, but I managed to pay my way through college. But nobody would hire me with a liberal arts degree, and I didn't have the advantage of having parents who came from business backgrounds. I really didn't have those mentors or role models. 

But at that time, car dealerships would hire anybody who could breathe! So I got my start in car sales which taught me a lot. I learned that I had a gift of selling and being able to persuade people and interact with people. I had natural connections in the community, so the owner of the dealership gave me a small budget to donate to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and a couple of other small, Hispanic-serving organizations. Then I became the CEO of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in greater Kansas City, which was my first real leadership role. That led to many other door openings for me, including serving as commissioner for our parks and recreation department and other kinds of civic boards.

I went to the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, where I was the senior vice president, then went to Dallas to run the Greater Dallas Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, which was the largest in the country at the time. Then I moved back to Kansas City, did a slight stint in politics and then went to be the senior vice president for the public healthcare system. And that's where I established my relationship with the Y.

In 2013, my husband started our company, and I joined in 2017 to build the sports platform. So that's what I do now. 

Of course, as our company has grown so has my philanthropic and civic work, and I overcame a couple nasty battles with cancer, too. That taught me a lot of lessons around leadership, perseverance and resilience. You think you're resilient until you hit a battle like that, where everything is tested.


Glen: CiCi, thanks for that transparency. What an incredible track record and the breadth of professional experiences you have make you a really special resource for the Y because you've seen and led in so many different environments. I want to go back on something you said about the gritty notion of what you took from your parents. 

I see that tenacity in you and I appreciate your indomitable approach to conquering what you dealt with from a health perspective. So my question is, what keeps you engaged with the Y? 


CiCi: When I was a single parent, my kids benefited from some of the Y programs. But when I was approached by our CEO to form a partnership, my role in the hospital system was to look for non-traditional partnerships to take healthcare outside the four walls. The Y was a natural partner for us. So I started there, really then understood the inner workings of a branch and  the challenges that they have, but the unique place and role they have in a community, especially in a very urban setting in Kansas City. With lots of underlying healthcare needs and the disparities, we could work hand-in-hand with the Y and so we built a great partnership there.

And then from there, I went to the association board and obviously got to see the Y work on a broad-based level. We were involved in lots of things, and the diversity and inclusion work was rolling out. We were one of the first welcoming centers and one of the first to have formal committees. That led to Kevin Washington asking if I would have an interest in serving on the national board to help or be an advocate for the diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) work.

It's been an incredible experience for me, and I'm very honored and privileged by this work because you get to see every level of engagement. You see what the Y does really well, and you see the gaps and opportunities. 

But my relationship with the Y really deepened after my cancer diagnosis. I had been a lackadaisical workout queen, if you will. Zumba a little bit here and did some treadmill work. But after that, I took my health so much more serious, and the Y became a haven for me. It became something much more meaningful.

So I get a little bit emotional about this because I really saw the Y in a very different way. I saw it as community. I saw it helping me really take my health care much more seriously and take it to the next level. Then I did become a workout queen, body pump and all kinds of things. I was there all the time. I built a network there of women who had been through the same thing. 

My instructors pushed me, not knowing what was wrong with me. They knew I was facing some serious health challenges, but they just knew that they could push me in a way that really helped me build a different type of resilience. So I saw the Y in a whole different way.


Glen: How has race played a role in your life? Where has it shown up? Is there an experience or two that you can share?


CiCi: Well, when you've lived it, it shows up all the time and it just becomes a normal for you. But I have a different view because I've represented segments of the community and been an advocate. And what I've learned to do is try to flip the script whenever I can. Now in my professional career, as I counsel young people, that we need to use our race, our ethnicity, as the advantage that somebody needs. You need me more than I need you.

The numbers bear it out. We're the future consumer, we're the future business base, and if you're not involved, and you're not taking this community seriously now, then you're going to lose out because there are companies, and corporations and organizations that have been on that track for several years.

And what I've learned — and even in the Y — is that they tend to look at these minority communities as always needing a hand-out.

What we need is a hand-up or a handshake, and that's a different approach. And that means that we're partners, and we're doing business together, and we're in this together. And not a "less than." 

That continues to frustrate me. And in many boardrooms that I sit in, I am the only female or the only person of color. And wherever I'm at, I've tried to change that. I'm a placeholder for others. But even now in my career and business, we use our expertise, and it's not just about race and ethnicity. It's also the socioeconomic dynamics that go with that. 

And we use that, once again, as an advantage in any room. You might have an ad agency that you're working with that can tell you all the numbers or what have you. But they're not in the community. They're not on the ground. They don't understand what really makes people tick. They can't tell you what the root cause of this is. 

You can't do anything until you solve that.

So with the NFL teams that I work with, we know that we're here to help you grow your fan base because that's lucrative. But I also know that the other long game for them, they need Latinos to play the game. That's their bench. They have a consumer bench that they are grooming for huge consumer purchasing power and fandom, but they need kids to play the game. And that's the long game, bringing the kids along.

Another obvious experience for me. I was the CEO of the Central Exchange, and I was the first minority to ever lead that organization. It's predominantly white women, great women, very well-meaning community leaders. But there was definitely an unconscious bias, and it would show up in subtle ways. But I continued to rise above it and just know that I was doing good work. At the end of the day, the proof is in the pudding: Numbers increased, I engaged young people and a diverse audience, and corporate dollars followed. Our corporate base grew by 100 percent because I was able to bring those demographics that they were interested in to the table.


To learn more about CiCi Rojas, click here. Look for Part 2 of a “A Conversation on Race” with CiCi next week.