Empowering Latinas in STEM Health

By Gloria Romano-Barrera and Jenny Lynn Castro 

Women in STEM, especially in healthcare, continue to be underrepresented. Even though women make up almost half of the U.S. workforce, they account for only about 27 percent of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) professionals and workers, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And despite Hispanic or Latinas making up almost seven percent of the workforce, they represent just under two percent of all STEM workers nationwide. Meet three Latinas who play a critical role in empowering the next generation of Latinas in STEM healthcare careers. 

Esther Ledesma Pumarol
Senior Global Product Manager

Esther Ledesma Pumarol is currently a Senior Global Product Manager with Medtronic, a medical device company headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Originally from the Dominican Republic, she received her bachelor’s degree in industrial and product design from the Technological Institute of Santo Domingo in 2011. After relocating to the U.S. in 2012, Pumarol continued her education and received a Master of Science in New Product Development from the Rochester Institute of Technology in New York and an MBA with an emphasis in International Business and Marketing from the University of Wisconsin. Pumarol’s career started in engineering in the Dominican Republic and evolved into marketing over the years. 

“Out of passion of understanding the new product creation process, and ultimately working with customer needs and addressing them, I started to see and feel more connected to the people aspect of product development,” she shares of her career journey. 

Pumarol’s transition into marketing started with her previous employer Eaton, where she initially worked as a senior design engineer, then moved into global product management. 

“The sparks flew for me after taking some business courses,” Pumarol shares. “I then started the whole process of working with marketers and having mentors in the field while at Eaton.” 

After moving to Minneapolis a few years ago, Pumarol utilized her network at SHPE to connect with Medtronic, where she’s been since October 2019. She attended a local conference and had the opportunity to interact with a recruiter, which helped open doors for her at Medtronic. 

“Seeing the level of engagement and mission of Medtronic and having the opportunity to engage in a higher role in the marketing space was something I could not deny,” she shares. “Medtronic is a company that is very driven by the mission of serving patients, and that human aspect is what attracted me.” 

Founded in 1949, Medtronic has a unique history in which founder Earl Bakken was key in developing the first-ever battery-operated pacemaker in the late 1950s. For Pumarol, working at Medtronic allows her to contribute to the company’s mission by leading a team in product management and strongly reiterates the company culture. 

“Everyone always talks about our company’s mission,” she shares. “There is a very strong culture into the mission in supporting patients and alleviating pain for people, and that is one of the things that really struck me when I joined the company.” 

As a Senior Global Product Manager for Structural Heart within Medtronic, Pumarol’s role entails working with global partners to implement and execute business strategies, lead market expansion initiatives, and ensure product access and availability to patients around the world. 

“In my role, I have the opportunity to work with life-saving products and engage with customers and patients at the same time,” she shares. “I ensure that our therapies are being delivered and advertised in the proper way, and that Medtronic’s strategies are reaching the global market.” 

Pumarol primarily works with the Latin American, European, Canadian, and global markets worldwide and is one of the few Latinas in her role within the company. She thrives on interacting with people and balancing her leadership responsibilities with teamwork. Another aspect she enjoys about her role is Medtronic’s commitment to bringing accessible products to people. 

“There is an intention to reach and serve as many as possible, including the underrepresented communities,” she says. “We support our patients around the world in areas such as diabetes, cardiovascular-related issues, spine therapies, and more. We have a lot of therapies and products out there, and primarily support customers and patients in the medical device space. We are literally saving people’s lives with all of our products.” 

Pumarol credits her resilience for her career success, “Because of my heritage and type of experience I’ve been exposed to while growing up, there is a huge element of resilience and pursuit of personal growth,” she explains. “When I moved to the U.S., it was a lot about how to move forward and improve my situation, and how to gain more knowledge, and pursue my dreams. I had to overcome challenges such as coming as an immigrant, learning English fluently, dealing with imposter syndrome, being the only Latina and women engineer at work, and lacking confidence due to all of these obstacles. Being of Dominican heritage and a Latina, I want others to see that if I can make it, they can too.” 

Pumarol is also the lead and in charge of event planning for the Hispanic Heritage Month Committee on the national level for Medtronic, and has some advice for others, “Don’t ever be afraid to ask for help, and always seek mentors who can support and guide you in your industry.” 

Lisa Gutierrez 
Chief Diversity and Inclusion Office
Indiana University Health

“My passion is connecting the dots between amazing people, their backgrounds, and solving complex problems,” says Lisa Gutierrez, Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, Indiana University Health. 

Currently, IU Health is the largest health care system in the state of Indiana, and Gutierrez, serving as its Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer, is in a unique position as a Latina to help promote cultural awareness and utilize her leadership platform to inspire and encourage employees in developing skills, knowledge, and creating an environment of inclusion. 

“My role focuses on integrating, embedding, and infusing diversity, equity and inclusion in every strategy in our system that impacts what matters most to current employees, future employees, patients, families, and community partners in one of the most complex and regulated industries, which is healthcare,” Gutierrez shares. “It’s challenging and so satisfying on so many levels.” 

Previously, Gutierrez had worked for Cardinal Health but left in 2018, “When I got laid off at Cardinal Health, lots of companies were coming after me, and I found myself in the middle of lots of opportunities,” she shares. 

Gutierrez eventually chose to work with IU Health, located in the Indianapolis area and shares some personal insight into what attracted her to the organization. 

“At the time, my father was going through many health challenges, and one of my closest friends had been diagnosed with cancer,” she shares. “What really intrigued me about IU Health was having the opportunity and ability to help patients, families, and team members. There are also some really amazing people who work here, and I wanted to work for a leader/CEO who cared about racial justice as well.” 

IU Health is also one of the top 100 health care systems in the United States and currently has many employees working in various positions throughout the state. 

“We are a non-profit,” says Gutierrez. “We have a big commitment to helping the community and delivering excellent service. We have about 16 hospitals, 300 or so primary care, and specialty offices, over 3,800 physicians, and have advanced practice providers.” 

In her current role, she has also been able to help establish an anti-racist signatory and is currently working on patient civility strategy. 

“We acted and decided on definite strategies and commitments,” Gutierrez shares. “We have a lot of accountability partners, and a lot of systems in Indianapolis have joined in with us.” 

Gutierrez’s journey thus far has included working for over 15 years at Proctor and Gamble and launching and operating her consulting firm “LG Strategies, LLC.” Some challenges she has faced in her career have included job elimination and having to physical relocation for work. 

 “Most challenges I think of as lessons,” she shares. “Another obstacle I’ve experienced has been delivering results in all kinds of situations and showing an organization your value. Obstacles can lead to success. You eventually learn to conquer and navigate them, so they can be a blessing in disguise.” 

Today she encourages others to dream big and write their goals. “I didn’t dream big enough growing up, and I’ve noticed that in underrepresented groups, we tend to not dream big enough or feel we need to have everything together before we move forward with a goal,” she shares. “Get a passport, travel, and do things you have a passion for.” 

Gutierrez’s passion for culture and people have led her to travel to 31 countries. Gutierrez’s heritage traces back to Spain and advises Latinas to expand their network. 

“Treat your career like an MBA program,” she shares. “Go after experiences, jobs, projects, and opportunities. Have a personal board of directors that are willing to tell you the truth, provide feedback, and encouragement.” 

Fransheska Rivera Vega
Associate Director, Quality Control
PACT Pharma 

Fransheska Rivera Vega is a Quality Control Manager for the Microbiology and Environmental Monitoring group at PACT Pharma, a personalized cell therapy company in South San Francisco. A pharmaceutical microbiologist with extensive experience in microbial contamination control strategy for safe manufacturing of medical products, Rivera Vega learned about biotechnology as a high-school student when she was a part of the Upward Bound Math & Science program. After attending summer camps, open houses, and seminars from different institutions and college programs, she knew she would be good at it and enjoy it. 

“I started overseeing the Quality Control Microbiology team in charge of ensuring the cell therapy product and facilities are meeting the quality standards by regulation,” she shares. “I then transitioned to overseeing the Quality Control Bioanalytical group and, later on, the entire Quality Control Operations. The opportunity came up the same day my previous company was announcing the shutdown of operations. It was essentially the same job responsibilities. For years I’d been wanting to transition to the cell therapy space, and this opportunity was a great fit.” 

In her short time at this start-up, she has designed and set up a laboratory for pharmaceutical microbiology testing capabilities to support the manufacturing of their products for cancer treatment. She has also formed a high-performing team that has played an important role in the organization’s mission by advancing their clinical study as they treat cancer patients. 

Today she is paving the path for other women leaders, and to that end, mentoring her team is one of her priorities as a manager. She also participates in talks and workshops for women in the science field. 

“As a Latina, I was taught to work harder than anyone else in the room, because nothing is handed to you, and sometimes that means working twice as hard than anyone else,” she shares. “Also, we take pride in what we do and what we accomplish, which pushes us to do our job the best way that we possibly can. We believe in community and have strong family values, so I personally believe that being collaborative and working as a team is fulfilling; it’s best to share and celebrate success with others. The fact that we are a small start-up gives me the opportunity to wear many different hats and to actively collaborate amongst departments that, in a siloed organization, the opportunities would be limited. Also, the science is cutting edge and fascinating; after all these years of learning about cell therapy in an academic setting, it’s exciting to finally be helping patients with it.” 

Rivera Vega also has experience in philanthropy as she was a Program Associate for the Gordon and Betty More Foundation in Palo Alto, where she provided strategic planning for scientific conferences and managed grants for groundbreaking marine microbiology research. 

She was born and raised in Puerto Rico and has a Master of Science in Microbiology (2009-2011) from UC Berkeley and completed her undergraduate in Industrial Biotechnology (2004-2009) at the University of Puerto Rico, Mayagüez. She’s the oldest of three siblings and the first to attend college in her household. Rivera Vega and Anderai Maldonado-Arroyo, her husband, and Validation Engineer, have been married for five years and live in Emeryville, California with their beautiful 16-month-old daughter, Fabiana Sofía. 

“As Latina women, I believe that we are powerful and strong, but we need to believe in ourselves and in each other more,” she shares. “As empowered women, we need to continue to empower others and lift each other. To truly make a difference we need to work together and not against each other.”