I met Yesmith almost a year ago at a panel discussion organized by Helsingin työväenopisto and Miitti on the topic of employment of immigrants with higher education in Finland. The discussion went great and I realised how many opinions we had in common. Yesmith with a background in business and me with a background in the social field. We promised to each other to stay in touch and I am happy that Yesmith found time for this interview, even if I am sorry we still couldn’t meet in person. I like to listen to her because Yesmith has broader interests and knowledge. She reconsiders every word she says to be precise and fair. And I am still surprised how many things we see in the same light although our education, cultural background and experience are very different. This article is about diversity, inclusion, equality, but also about life in general.
Yesmith has a background in business strategy and management from the university in Mexico. But it wasn’t her personal first choice for studies. With her interest in arts, she might have become the second and modernised Frida Kahlo: “I originally wanted to study graphic design but there were 2 things: One of them was that I had a passion for art but not many actual skills that I would then project in my graphic design. Also, that degree was available only at the private universities in Mexico and going to one was not an option for my family. There wasn’t any drama about this, I just picked the career that I thought would be feasible to find a job. My focus was on having a safe career. I don’t know if anybody dreams to be a business manager, I did not. But what I have learnt from my career, and especially here in Finland, is that you can do a lot of things with this academic background… As I said, I chose my career based on what I thought would be safe. It was 9 semesters long and while in the 9th semester I realized I actually wanted to be a mechanical engineer. (laughing) My mother didn’t find this idea amusing at such a stage of my studies. She said it was too late to change my mind so if I really wanted to become an engineer, I should first finish my degree in business administration and then pursue the other one. But pragmatically speaking, I needed to work. I have been working since I was 17 years old, while I was studying at the university and to have a second degree was not realistic.”
Yesmith is a generalist who knows a little bit about many things but not everything about a specific area, as she describes herself: “Being a generalist is a pain and a blessing too. It’s a pain because for example when you are unemployed, which I have been, I was trying to tell people what I was good at and it was really hard. If you are a designer, for example, you can say I am a designer and everybody knows what it means. But when you say I am a business strategist that doesn’t necessarily ring a bell, it’s like, what does it even mean?”
She has had an opportunity to work for very different industries and in a variety of positions. She’s got experience from different areas of business, but she also openly says that things she is good at are somehow present in her personality, not so much depending on the degree: “I do a lot organizing things, but funnily enough I am not methodic at all. As I said I am very artistic and I am very flexible in every aspect as long as I achieve what I have in mind. And this is something that I appreciate about myself, but who knows, maybe not so much by the people I get to work with (laughing).”
Overall there is one particular thing Yesmith can enjoy when it comes to work-related tasks: building teams. “I see it as a privilege when you are given the responsibility of leading a team. It’s a huge responsibility because it means that the work you are doing is going to impact them either in a positive or negative way. And I like organizing things, I can tell people what they are good at and I do it somehow rather intuitively. But the more I learn, the more I realise how many mistakes I have made in the past when I’ve had the opportunity to lead before. About management, I like the beauty of its flexibility and how you really never stop learning. I know it sounds very cliche, but it is very human-centric and you must continue learning all the time. One would never be in the position to say I’m the best at managing teams.”
Yesmith started to be interested in the topics of inclusion and diversity after she moved to Finland. She states that it kind of happened to her and I completely understand what she means. There are so many things I would have not seen before my ex-pat life.
“Before moving here, I had my career on a very solid and fast progressing path. I was quite young and yet I had achieved so many things in my professional life. I used to get so much praise for my work from my managers and I had so much stamina in me. I was very good at achieving results so when I arrived in Finland I kind of thought that workplaces would be happy to have me. This was of course wrong assumption. I thought I was so good and everybody had always told me so but when I came in here, I was a nobody. It was a shock, I guess the same shock that happens to most of us who move here. And this is something very difficult to recover from. It makes you question many things in you, in how you see the world, how you work. In my case, I came to think that I probably was not as good as I thought I was. What happens when you are overlooked is that you start to think you are not good enough and that is dangerous…”
Yesmith finished her master’s degree in Finland and her professor had suggested a topic for her thesis related to diversity and inclusion that wasn’t noticed in Finland at that time at least from an organizational stand. People were not talking about it, so her thesis got a lot of attention. Her professor and the university made a lot of effort to have this topic and her thesis visible. As a result, a lot of people around her started to associate Yesmith with this particular topic.
“This topic came out of necessity. When you are not part of the majority, you kind of feel the need to do something about representation. So it was a combination of taking the opportunity that was given to me by my university with the chance to make a bad situation less so. That is how it started and I became more and more involved with this topic. At some point it was exhausting because this topic can be tiring and also when you are publicly outspoken about this, people expect you to say something about these things every time anything happens. For instance, oftentimes when an article appeared, I was expected to say something, or do something about it. And there was a time when I wanted to withdraw myself completely from that because it started to feel like a burden, that was not mine to carry. And it wasn’t actually, it shouldn’t be for us who have underrepresented a burden to carry. There have been times when I have been less active though I have never managed to get away from it completely for several reasons, but at some point, I was quite outspoken about not wanting to speak about this anymore because I felt there was no progress made. I kept on being invited to panels and discussions about the topic of integrating international talents, its challenges and how to overcome them and participants and organizers kept saying I made a lot of sense. And I asked if I am making a lot of sense, why aren’t any changes made? I had to take a break from it but I kept returning to these discussions and to initiatives that tried to change this..”
Yesmith and I spoke about how demanding this whole topic is. Building a more inclusive, more tolerant and more diverse society is heavily lying on the shoulders of underrepresented groups.
“I have the impression that it’s us, who happen to be underrepresented, the ones who are doing the explanations on why this is important and I don’t think it should be us all the time. It is exhausting enough to struggle against this problematique and it gets worse if on top of that we have to be the ones to educate people. Another thing is that sometimes it feels like you are not allowed to show how frustrating and exhausting it is. People who are not subject to explicit anger, as well as microaggressions, don’t understand how much of a toll it can take to explain over and over again why it’s not ok to make inappropriate remarks. When you react to inappropriate remarks it is not uncommon to hear that one is overreacting, it seems that it’s hard for some to understand that a seemingly innocent remark from their side might have been heard a hundred times by us who receive them. Of course one gets tired and also sometimes one has to deal with people feeling offended for being called out on their uncalled or inappropriate remarks.”
Following the discussion on diversity, inclusion and tolerance for some time, I have a feeling that this topic catches the attention in the business environment and maybe not so much generally in the society. Coming from the social work field, knowing that we have anti-discriminatory practice, antiracist practice, empowerment and so on, but still the discussion is somehow happening in the business environment. We naturally started to speak with Yesmith about why it is so. Is it because businesses generate money?
Yesmith doesn’t see it like that: “First of all, I don’t think the topic is being approached in a holistic way. Before the rhetoric was that there wasn’t anything for people who migrated here with an upper degree. Now there is a lot of attention to that very community but we will never succeed if we fail to acknowledge that there is also a big diversity within that group and that there isn’t a universal solution for all. I have the feeling that in everyday social interaction, the gap is getting bigger, but maybe I might be wrong. I have noticed as well, and it makes me truly sad when immigrants discriminate against other immigrants. I also wish that all those campaigns and resources, as well as enthusiasm put into attracting talents to Finland, would be put into us who are already here representing a wide pool of talents and who are willing to contribute right away.”
Yesmith currently works as a diversity, equity & inclusion consultant and she helps businesses to be more successful: “My biggest dream is that my job becomes redundant and nobody needs to speak about this topic because it would be as crucial as any other organizational key area. I dream of my job as I know it now would not be needed because we don’t need to bring this sort of visibility.”
We all, majority and minorities, should be working together on the topics of diversity, equity and inclusion. It should be something we all are living and value. As a starting point, we should acknowledge we are all biased towards something. If we know the biases exist, then we can do something about them.
“We should not be embarrassed about having biases, that is just human nature. I think though that it’s very important to say that when you know and acknowledge your biases, you are able to do something about them. So I think we should be able to learn about our biases, if not for anything else, at least not to pass it to others, for example to kids.”
One of my fears is that our children, although living their whole lives in Finland, speaking the language and coming through the Finnish educational system, would still be discriminated against because of their foreign-sounding names. Yesmith adds: “I wish things will change and that for example, in the generation of our children, they will use their voice to speak about topics that are important in general and not only because something happened to them, or to their parents.”
Who is Yesmith Sanchez?
Yesmith is a Mexican living in Finland for 13 years and who combines her academic education with her passion and commitment for DEI in her professional life.
She is also an art enthusiast and lover and thinks it is a powerful tool for awareness and activism. She spends her spare time listening to music, going to museums, reading and writing.
Most recently she practices “Son Jarocho”, Mexican folk music in the artistic collective “Jaranas del Norte” where she sings and plays güiro and jarana segunda.