“Is that your daughter?” She was asking about my wife of 23 years – who, by the way, is only six years younger than me. We were at the park with our special-needs daughter. I just smiled and responded, “no, she’s my wife.” Being a parent has its challenges, and being a lesbian mom has some unique ones, but since I grew up gay and Hispanic in the Midwest, I know how to turn lemons into limonada.

Lemon number one: A teacher in high school told me that I’d never go to college. Lemon number two: I worked as a janitor in the steel mills in Indiana. Lemon number three: I was outed at work by one of my employees. Limonada: I ended up running two multi-billion-dollar companies, while being happily married, and gifted with one very special daughter. 

When I was younger, I was closeted. I didn’t have that many female role models – much less gay ones. I was terrified of what people might think of me. When I had my daughter, that changed things. I didn’t want to be the kind of mother that couldn’t fully be herself. What kind of role model would that be for her? I wanted to be unflinchingly confident and proud of who I was. Despite my sense of humor and appreciation for life, I had some serious baggage I needed to let go of – and piece by piece – I did just that. 

The more secure I became in myself, the better leader I became for others. Part of that security was financial. My grandmother was in banking and she made sure that I understood compound interest way before learning compound words. Financial security bestows power, influence, and options and when I mentor young women, I make sure they know that. No, it wasn’t a coincidence that as my bank account got bigger, so did my confidence – and my ability to love – which made me an even more effective leader. 

Love and leadership go hand in hand. My experience has shown that love as a value needs to be expressed in corporate culture (as it does everywhere) because it inspires greatness. When I was the President and a Chief Strategy Officer for Johnson & Johnson, I was known for leading with love – the expression of which was caring, connection, honesty, straight-talk, and building confidence while setting clear expectations – similar skills to being a leader at home. 

What I found was that those values created an environment of psychological safety. They were the same values that were instilled in me at home that allowed me to take such big steps and overcome personal fears. My family was loyal, present, and they knew how to ask for help and give it when it was asked for. 

It can be difficult to be present as a leader at work and a parent at home. Ultimately, you have to do what is best for your family. Sometimes what was best for my family was to focus on work since I was the primary wage earner, but it cannot become an excuse for not being present. My commitment to presence paid off at work, as well. When I was with my team, I was one hundred percent with them. That means I showed up with all of me and asked (required) that they do the same.  That kind of authenticity regardless of sociopolitical or economic or cultural background – when encouraged – is fuel for creativity, resilience, and growth.

When you walk into our house, the first thing you’ll see is a blown-up photo of the iconic sculpture on Wall Street of the little girl facing the bull. That’s for my daughter. That’s for all of us. It’s a reminder of our strength – at any age and regardless of circumstance – we are capable of great things.  My daughter has cerebral palsy and a developmental disability – and she is perfect. Every day I remind her of her strengths. We say, “I am strong. I am smart. I am resilient. I am beautiful. I am loved.” Being a mother is making sure my daughter knows I love her unconditionally. That kind of love is powerful medicine. It’s the kind of love I employ as a leader as well.

Whether you are gay, or Latinx, or a parent of a special needs kid – or not – you matter. We all matter. This, to me, is what diversity is all about. I may have to deal with specific issues around relatability where someone doesn’t understand that the woman I am with is my wife, but it has been my experience that most people come from a genuine place so I give them my patience, my time, and my energy. If they’re not coming from that place, then I don’t. The same goes for the people I work with and whether I decide to have them on my team. From a caring and genuine place, I celebrate our differences and invite them to the table. That is what makes for a successful company. 

Even though we’re going through challenging times and it is imperative that we address inequities, we must also keep ourselves grounded in reality-based optimism. It works. I’ve seen it. Celebrating our differences builds stronger companies, organizations, families, and countries. We all have a story to tell.  This is part of mine. I am a mom. I am Latinx. I am a lesbian. I am a leader. Nothing can limit us. Share with me your story in the comments below.

Learn more about Denice and her work with The Mentoring Place, a new community-based platform dedicated to helping women significantly accelerate their careers, at www.thementoringplace.com. You can also tune into Denice’s podcast, Flip the Tortilla, which features interviews with pioneers, badasses, glass breakers, and underdogs at flipthetortilla.com.