Jessica DeJesus, a Latina leader always seeking to help others reach their potential
She served as the President of Prospanica Philadelphia for the past two years, and it was a role directly aligned with her personal and professional mission.
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For Jessica DeJesus, joining Prospanica Philadelphia has paid huge dividends and has helped change the trajectory of her professional career.
It was in 2017 during Prospanica’s annual year-end event highlighting the organization’s accomplishments in the previous year that she met fellow board member Sól Vázquez for the first time.
At the time, DeJesus was working at the City as Deputy Commissioner of the Public Works division, one of the only Latinas in the department.
Learning about the organization and its impact spoke volumes to her.
“The mission itself was very aligned with what I wanted to assist with,” DeJesus said during a recent interview with AL DÍA.
Founded in 1988, Prospanica is a national organization that seeks to empower and enable Hispanic professionals to achieve their full educational, economic, and social potential.
Since gaining her first exposure to the organization at the tail end of 2017, DeJesus soon became more involved.
Shortly after joining the organization, she became the new director of the Research Support Center at the University of Pennsylvania's Weitzman School of Design.
Her involvement with Prospanica led her to becoming the local chapter’s compliance officer, treasurer, and later president.
As she has recently completed her role as president and makes way for her successor, DeJesus spoke with AL DÍA to reflect on her career, involvement with the organization, and how it has helped her grow into the effective leader she is.
Each step within her life and career has served as a stepping stone to the positive impact she has sought to make for others.
A Dual Philly/Puerto Rico Dynamic
DeJesus was born in Arecibo, Puerto Rico, and before she turned a year old, her family moved to Philadelphia’s Fairhill neighborhood.
Growing up, DeJesus and her family would live on and off between Philadelphia and Puerto Rico, including a few years when she went to school on the island during second, sixth, and eighth grades.
During her sixth grade year as a pre-teen in Puerto Rico, DeJesus recalled getting teased by her classmates for her Spanish, as at that point, she was far more accustomed to the English language.
While embarrassing, DeJesus didn’t let the teasing bring her down. In fact, it served as a great motivating factor for her.
“I ended up polishing my Spanish during the year that I lived there… and it helped me become fully bilingual,” said DeJesus.
From there, she has been able to read, write, and speak at a high level in both languages.
Opportunities as an Accounting Professional
After high school, DeJesus often worked multiple jobs to support her young daughter, eventually coming across a position in the accounting department at Mellon Bank.
Near the turn of the millennium, as many banks were in merger and acquisition discussions, DeJesus started looking for other employment opportunities elsewhere.
“I started looking for employment in other departments and other organizations, but I was turned down, job after job after job for not having a degree,” she noted.
Understanding that a degree would open more doors for her, DeJesus was motivated to go to college, later finding a flexible online program at Peirce College, where she majored in accounting.
DeJesus was able to find an effective balance between her work, school, and parenting, upon enrolling at Peirce.
Over the course of six-and-a-half years, she completed her associate's and bachelor's degrees, while building her career as an experienced accounting professional in various different organizations around the region.
A Pivot at The City
After more than a decade of honing her craft as an accountant, an opportunity presented itself for DeJesus to try something new.
She received a call for an interview with the City of Philadelphia for a position in its procurement department.
She wasn’t entirely sure at the time what a procurement position would entail.
However, as an always-analytical and organized person, DeJesus was confident the skills she had acquired in her previous roles could be transferred and she could make a smooth transition.
After joining the City in 2011, DeJesus climbed up the ladder in the procurement department, progressing from a trainee to a technician and later a supervisor.
“I became a subject matter expert in public works,” DeJesus said. “It was a huge role, a huge responsibility.”
Eventually, she became Deputy Commissioner of the Public Works division at the City in 2016, where she oversaw various city-wide advertising, including construction, inventory control and concession contracting.
While working for the City, DeJesus also continued her higher education, pursuing and obtaining her MBA in Public Administration at the Keller Graduate School of Management of DeVry University.
However, as DeJesus continued rising the ranks within the procurement department, she couldn’t help but notice the severe lack of other Latinas working for the City.
“I always felt like, why is that the case,’” she said. “Why is there not more of me?”
That was a question that DeJesus often wrestled with. However, in her position, DeJesus felt she had an opportunity to help others and set out to do exactly that.
Preparation Meets Luck
Throughout her life and career, DeJesus has received some great opportunities in which she credits as being “like preparation meets luck.”
“I found opportunities where no other Latinos have found opportunities,” she said.
Whether it was her career in banking or for the City, she has always strived to give back and help others.
Since first discovering Prospanica in 2017 and subsequently getting involved shortly thereafter, DeJesus has been able to do that while also helping out with her own career trajectory.
“I’ve learned a lot about myself, about the possibilities that my experience brings,” DeJesus noted. “I feel like I have a voice now.”
One of the biggest reasons she joined Prospanica was her fear of public speaking.
While at the City, she was required to do a presentation in front of the general public once a month.
Through Prospanica, she’s gotten the opportunity to attend events, network, and slowly come out of her shell and gain more confidence in herself.
Director of Penn’s Research Support Center
In 2018, DeJesus joined the University of Pennsylvania, where she is the Director of the Research Support Center at the School of Design.
She had originally applied for a grant manager position.
“That position was essentially merging my two careers, which was my accounting and finance career and my contracting career,” said DeJesus.
In her role as director, DeJesus is responsible for creating avenues to increase revenue for the School of Design’s research efforts through grant applications and submissions.
“Our faculty is very broad in research across the world, so it’s very important research,” she noted.
She also prepares the school’s complex grant budgets and handles all the research funding that is received by the school.
DeJesus didn’t have any prior experience in academia. However, her involvement with Prospanica equipped her with the skills, knowledge, and confidence to pursue that kind of role.
DeJesus is also a master of law student at the University of Pennsylvania Carey Law School, and is expected to graduate this summer.
Prospanica Philadelphia’s President
During her tenure as treasurer, DeJesus had the opportunity to work very closely with then-Prospanica Philadelphia President Sól Vázquez.
Therefore, when she was elevated to the position of President, DeJesus was already suited to take on the role.
DeJesus became Prospanica President in 2021, having to navigate a full pandemic year.
Among the first orders of business was strategizing with the other board members on how to maintain the organization’s mission during such an unprecedented time.
“We immediately pivoted and took the opportunity of being able to move all of our events online,” DeJesus said.
The experience proved to be quite effective earlier on.
“It was very cost-efficient, it was a lot easier to pull off [and] we were able to reach a broader audience,” she added.
However, as time went on, some disengagement ensued.
Showcasing her leadership skills, DeJesus then started to ask the important questions: What type of programming should we continue to have? What new programming should we introduce?
Those questions helped Prospanica expand its programming and expand its “Careers in…” series.
“We had Careers in STEM, Careers in Finance, Careers in Procurement; there were Careers in HR and Marketing,” said DeJesus. “We were able to broaden that series, which ended up being an area that people do enjoy knowing in terms of what professionals are doing in that career.”
In turn, it helped Prospanica build new relationships with various professionals and organizations from across the region.
A Reflection and a New Chapter
Prospanica Philadelphia is a small but mighty team in which its executive board often have to juggle multiple roles to ensure the mission remains intact.
Having fulfilled her two years as President, DeJesus is ready to see the role filled by the next Latina leader.
As President Emeritus, DeJesus isn’t without her words of wisdom and encouragement to her successor.
“I think with new leadership comes new opportunity, and I am very excited to see what ideas she comes with,” DeJesus said.
If there is one thing she hopes to see for the future of the organization, it’s further engagement.
DeJesus will maintain her involvement on the board, and hopes to see Prospanica bring in new talent and fill some of the empty seats on the board.
This endeavor as President Emeritus ties into DeJesus’ overarching goal.
“I want to be a resource to those that are looking for good talent,” she said.
The region is plush with diverse, qualified individuals from Latino and other multicultural backgrounds.
Moving forward, DeJesus hopes to see more of that representation not just as part of Prospanica’s board and membership, but also throughout large organizations and within corporate America across the region.
Prospanica Philadelphia will play its part in making that a reality.
“It’s not a one-person job,” said DeJesus. “It’s a team effort.”