Jackie Gomez Fuentes’s father told her she would be skipping school one day, but it wouldn’t be a day off. The current executive director of the Hispanic American Construction Industry Association (HACIA) wasn’t exactly dominating academia in high school. Her hardworking immigrant parents—who spent long hours in factories to support their children—decided a reality check was in order.
“My dad said he wanted to show me the life I might have if I didn’t commit to my education,” Gomez Fuentes remembers. “I saw in person just how hard my community was working and how difficult that work can be. My parents wanted me to know they didn’t come all this way for me not to try and make my life better.”
The experience sent Gomez Fuentes directly to her guidance counselor to try to navigate a better future for herself and her family. The executive director says the wisdom shown by her guidance counselor and the countless mentors along her career path is the reason she is where she is now.
Specifically, that means working on behalf of an organization whose stated goal for the last 40 years has been to “ensure the equitable participation of its members in the construction industry, while also promoting the growth, quality of work, professionalism and integrity of these individuals and businesses.”
What’s more, Gomez Fuentes seems to be willing to take on a challenge from which many others might flee. The story is in her résumé: two different stints in public offices, one with the City of Chicago as an appointment to the Community Development Commission, and the other with the Metropolitan Pier and Exposition Authority.
Anyone with even an inkling of political savvy knows the storied history of how things get done in Illinois. But it was a challenge for which Gomez Fuentes felt ready.
“I remember getting the call to go to work for the county,” Gomez Fuentes says, chuckling. “I was thinking, ‘Have you read your own reviews?’ Nobody wants to work in government, but the pitch was exactly why they wanted me to join their team. I give a lot of credit to President Toni Preckwinkle, who empowered her diverse and primarily women-led team. I was able to make changes to ordinances and expand opportunities for minority women businesses in construction.”
Before joining HACIA, Gomez Fuentes’s impossible role positioned her at the Obama Foundation. There, she served as the director of supplier and workforce diversity for the organization’s one and only construction project—the building of the Obama Presidential Center located in Jackson Park on the South Side of Chicago.
Gomez Fuentes’s remit? Secure a diversity goal of 50 percent. That is, half of all projects needed to be handled by diverse businesses. And she had two months to create a diversity, equity, and inclusion program from scratch before work began.
Luckily, the embattled project, which received significant pushback from the community in which the library was being constructed, delayed the groundbreaking and gave Gomez Fuentes a little more time.
“It was an amazing opportunity with very lofty goals and a team that hadn’t really built anything before,” Gomez Fuentes says. “There were so many challenges, but it was an incredible learning experience.”
Since returning to HACIA (she worked as a program director here earlier in her career), Gomez Fuentes now has a greater reach throughout the state of Illinois. At the time of speaking, she had just returned from Springfield, where she opposed a proposed bill that would hurt small business. It offered another chance to stand for those who don’t have the loudest voice in the chamber halls.
Looking ahead, Gomez Fuentes works to expand training programs and secure funding through private foundations whose values align with HACIA’s. The 300-plus-member organization wants to continue to grow, and programs like its free, certified construction training and programming will help ensure that more Hispanic, Black, veteran, and women-owned businesses flourish.
“There’s no other organization like us that has been making a difference for over 40 years,” Gomez Fuentes explains. “I want to continue to seek not just training, but networking opportunities for our membership, so relationships can develop and grow and make something great.”
The executive director also recently was appointed by Governor JB Pritzker to the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority. She also serves as a commissioner for the City of Chicago’s Department of Community Development. None of these organizations face remotely easy challenges, but for Gomez Fuentes, that’s the point. If she isn’t willing to do it, who will?