Meet Jenny Vazquez-Newsum, Ed.D, an author, public speaker, and facilitator who serves as founder and CEO of Untapped Leaders, a consulting firm. Jenny has worked with 500+ leaders ranging from established executives at large corporations to high school students beginning their leadership journeys—witnessing the untapped capacities that exist across all stages in career paths.

Her new book, Untapped Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders is a thoughtful re-examination of what leadership in the 21st century looks like—and the many contributions from leaders of color and those from marginalized backgrounds.

Q: Tell us a bit about your background and your entrepreneurial journey:

I'm a leadership facilitator, author, and founder of Untapped Leaders– a leadership development organization that specializes in uncovering untapped capacities within individuals and teams. For the last two decades, I’ve worked in leadership development, education, and nonprofit management. Over the course of my career, I’ve designed and delivered leadership training for more than 500 leaders across 200+ organizations across sectors—ranging from small startups to Fortune 500.

In 2020, I reached a turning point after experiencing the news of George Floyd’s murder and the state of our world at the height of the pandemic. I arrived at this moment of wondering, “How do I want to spend my time and talent? How have I been complicit and complacent in the world I’ve been witnessing?” It was then that I realized that all of the leadership theories I’d studied and the frameworks I’d facilitated were developed by white male authors. They weren’t from sources and perspectives that looked like me, nor may have had someone like me in mind. I then redirected my energy to writing my book, Untapped Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders and began my entrepreneurial journey by launching the consulting arm.

Q: What motivated you to found Untapped Leaders?

Untapped Leaders exists to overturn the narrative of “who belongs in leadership” and give a voice to new leadership stories. Leadership has largely been dominated by white men, but to lead in today’s ever-changing world, we need to view it from a more inclusive lens– a lens that is intersectional, that values the intelligence that stems from lived experience, and that is capable of embracing the complexity of diverse humans coming together for a common purpose at work. Through our community platform, cohorts, coaching program, and organizational consultancy, we advance workplace equity by uncovering the untapped potential of individuals, teams, and whole organizations and amplifying the leadership of those who have been historically overlooked.

I wrote Untapped Leadership while working full-time as a Vice President of Leadership Training and Programs at a civic leadership institute. As I listened to the expertise of the BIPOC leaders who contributed to the book and conceptualized the leadership frameworks built from marginalized perspectives, it became obvious to me that I needed to operationalize the work through Untapped Leaders as an organization.

Vazquez-Newsum, Ed.D, founder and CEO of Untapped Leaders

Q: What’s one piece of advice you wish you knew before you started your company?

I wish I’d known just how comfortable you have to be with trial and error (extra emphasis on error.) Starting and scaling a business is an unpredictable journey. Your first idea may not be your best idea, and your best idea may not be the right idea. I’ve had to learn how to get comfortable with sending an idea out into the world— knowing it could flop—because it’s the first step to finding out what will fly.

Q: In your new book, Untapped Leadership: Harnessing the Power of Underrepresented Leaders, you say that the way we view leadership has historically been through a very white and male-centric lens. Can you tell us a bit about this and why this needs to shift?

The foundations of leadership were built during eras of exclusion. Our modern-day use of the word “leadership” stems from the 19th century and is based on a theory called Great Man Theory. Of course, from what we know of that time, slavery served as the societal backdrop as certain “great men” defined leadership for themselves. With significant disparities in representation at the top of organizations still happening today, it’s obvious we have not moved too far away from these foundational and exclusionary ideals.

Over the last few centuries, and still today, only certain voices have been heard, and certain people have been looked to when defining leadership. Meanwhile, many of us from historically marginalized backgrounds and identities have been overlooked. Leadership, therefore, became very narrowly defined, which caused us to miss out on valuable perspectives from other groups, including women and people of color. Today’s world requires leadership that is inclusive and grounded in context, understanding that lived experiences and societal realities all inform the perspectives and insights many of us hold at work. The era of “checking bags at the door” is over, or at least it should be. When we can harness our true selves and lead in environments where that authenticity is valued, we can have the deepest impact. Effective leadership means being able to cultivate that.

Right now, we have an opportunity to redefine what it means to be a leader in modern-day society. Untapped leadership is a departure from traditional leadership definitions that equate leadership solely at the top of organizations or at the head of the table in boardrooms. Given that people of color remain largely underrepresented in those positions, untapped leadership broadens our definitions of leadership to be more inclusive of the strategies employed at all levels of an organization. I often reflect on the untapped leaders who have inspired me across my career. These leaders, all of whom happen to identify as BIPOC, didn’t necessarily have the big VP or C-suite titles. However, the impact and effectiveness of their leadership was obvious. They forged collaborations, pushed forward initiatives that held those most marginalized at the center, they strategically navigated the usual office politics yet did so with integrity and for a purpose that was bigger than themselves. And, they did so with minimal recognition or awareness from those in traditional leadership positions at the top of the organization, or what I like to call operating in “stealth mode.”

Organizational charts are not necessarily leadership maps, with leadership being looked to and defined by those at the very top of hierarchical structures. If we limit our definitions to that narrow top rung, then the data will tell us that we’ve left out the perspectives, strategies, and insights of many of us who are not white or male.

Q: What are some of the biggest obstacles underrepresented entrepreneurs face? Any advice for how to overcome them?

Underrepresented entrepreneurs receive a fraction of the funding their white and male counterparts get. The ability to “bootstrap” companies and lean on decades of generational wealth is also particularly difficult when your families and lineage have been structurally excluded from building that wealth. It’s understandable to feel like the cards are stacked against us, but that doesn’t mean we’re powerless or without agency to succeed. In fact, I believe that underrepresented founders who are building companies and initiatives in spite of the challenging conditions actually have a keen ability to innovate, be agile, and be strategically responsive to the obstacles that come their way– all of which are assets to building thriving, impactful, and profitable businesses.

My advice for underrepresented entrepreneurs is to seek out your communities– other overlooked founders also on the journey– and leverage the resources available in those spaces. Venture Capital firms such as Visible Hands fund and empower underrepresented entrepreneurs, knowing that the playing field is far from even. Plug into the resources that understand the unique challenges of your journey. In these spaces, we can build our own tables.

Q: One of the chapters in your book is called “The Deceiving Narrative of Imposter Syndrome” which is very relatable as many entrepreneurs and those in leadership roles can attest to having moments of self-doubt. Tell us why this is especially acute for underrepresented leaders and founders?

One of the most powerful quotes I gathered for the book was from a Black woman and college professor named Tanya, who said, “We are, as people of color…trained into imposter syndrome in ways we don’t realize.” The narrative around imposter syndrome in recent years has focused very much on the individual level. We see a lot of trainings, articles, and programs supporting people to combat that internal dialogue. But what’s often overlooked is how the systems in which we navigate make us feel like imposters. In many of our fields, we are most often in spaces that weren’t originally built by people like us or for people like us, which takes a toll.

As underrepresented leaders and founders, we must take care to distinguish between brief and common moments of self-doubt and systemic deficits that cause us to feel inadequate. We all have moments of inner doubt, particularly when we’re stretching our comfort zones or aiming to accomplish something we haven’t done before. However, in those moments, we also should be aware of the external and structural inequality that instills or amplifies feelings of imposter syndrome. This can include a lack of role models or mentors who may look like us, or not being given the same opportunities as our peers, or feeling isolated in an environment. It’s important to remember that underrepresented leaders often fight against systemic barriers while others’ roads to success may be smoother.

Q: Finish this sentence: the future of leadership looks like

Us– historically marginalized entrepreneurs and leaders forging new paths to create the future we want to see.