Coming from working as a janitor in the steel mills in Indiana to being the president of two multi billion-dollar companies, Denice Torres knows about overcoming great odds to achieve enduring success. As a gay Hispanic mom, she shares that the best way to navigate adversity is to shift perspectives and use difficult times as a catalyst for growth.
With humor, candor, and an insider’s know-how, Denise’s podcast, Flip the Tortilla, focuses on women who, like her, have overcome great obstacles to achieve enduring success. Knowing all-to-well that the path is challenging and complicated, Flip the Tortilla will feature inspiring voices of resilience and courage so that fear, self-doubt (or other people’s doubt) won’t stand in your way. She is a champion for the “underdog,” and a firm believer that women everywhere can achieve their dreams. Speaking with Denice gave me the opportunity to share some of her wisdom with you. The takeaway: Don’t give up.
The term “flip the tortilla” came from Denice’s dad who told her at an early age, “When you’re in a tough situation, you’ve got to flip the tortilla.” Denice goes on to explain that what he meant was you can’t let tough situations define you. Instead, you have to turn the situation around.
Denice is no stranger to tough situations. Experiencing prejudice, violence, and racial intolerance growing up, she found that being gay was better kept in the closet. Though she excelled in sports and made friends using what she proudly calls her “sixth-grade sense of humor,” her high school teacher told her that she would never really amount to much – and college was definitely out of the picture.
“I knew there was no way in hell that I was going to give up or settle,” says Denice. She worked as a janitor in a steel mill and did laundry on the weekends at a hospital in order to save money for college. “Flipping the tortilla” in a big way, she earned a scholarship to law school.
After practicing law for a year, she discovered it wasn’t a match for her personality or interests. “I hated it,” says Denice. “I just thought that if I had a law degree, I would have financial security and respect.” She switched gears and was accepted into a top business school where she landed in marketing. Soon, she was promoted to an executive director’s role. “This was a big deal for someone in her mid-thirties,” she admits. Instead of staying where she wasn’t happy, she “flipped the tortilla” by taking the plunge and switching careers, and it paid off, but there was more to learn. With her new promotion, she found herself sitting in a meeting of white male executives, where she nodded and generally deferred, even though she had thoughts of her own. Who was she to interject? “After the meeting, my manager took me aside and told me that he promoted me because of who I am and what I think and the ideas I had to bring to the table. “That was a definite flip the tortilla moment for me,” says Denice who vowed then and there to “get in the game” and trust her inner voice.
As professional and financial success provided Denice with some of the security she had been seeking, she began to feel more comfortable with her identity. “I had come out to my parents and was beginning to come out at work,” says Denice. With her partner of 24 years, she went to a diversity fair and saw a table selling a variety of gay pride bumper stickers. She chose one that she thought had a symbol of diversity on it and put it on her car.
“I was so afraid of being associated with the gay flag so that seemed safer,” admits Denice. Later, on vacation in Provincetown, her partner showed her another car with a bumper sticker with the same symbol along with the words “S & M Pride.” She laughs, “not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it’s not really me.” Denice saw this as another Flip the Tortilla moment and began to more fully embrace who she is.
This feeling of self-acceptance paid off in dividends. Denice, who was well-respected as a leader and president of several Johnson & Johnson companies, decided it was time to branch out on her own and try something new. She effectively “retired,” and found herself without the comfort of those previous titles and identities.
“I had to reimagine myself as just Denice Torres, not Denice Torres, company president or Chief Strategy Officer. She had to flip the tortilla on the idea of who she was and what was next. “I decided I wanted to go into consulting and mentoring as well as joining boards of organizations I believed in,” explains Denice. “Was it scary? Absolutely.”
Letting go of past successes in order to start something new is intimidating for most people, but, if you flip the tortilla and embrace the challenge, you get an even better outcome. “Why not you?” asks Denice. “Great things happen if we combine a change in perception with hard work.” When tough situations present themselves (hello 2020), Denice invites all of us to flip the tortilla. What is one situation where you applied a similar perspective? Share in the comments below.
To hear more stories of how to “Flip the Tortilla” in your life, tune into Denice’s podcast which features interviews with pioneers, badasses, glass breakers, and underdogs. If you have a dream, aspiration, or vision for your life, Flip the Tortilla will provide inspiration, ignite possibility, and encourage the confidence you need to pursue your magnificent future. You can listen now at flipthetortilla.com.