The Interview Issue: Elisa Charters, founder, Latina Surge, Aghua Tech & BEADEI, and board member, NJIT, Feliciano School, Delbarton & Hispanic Chamber

Doing everything in her power to support DEI … and New Jersey as a whole

The most challenging part of doing a profile of Elisa Charters might be this: Determining which of her numerous roles to highlight.

Consider the options:

  • Latina Surge: She’s a co-founder and president of the national nonprofit that is teaching Latinas self-empowerment strategies and self-advocacy; and teaching allies what they need to know to help close parity gaps and create opportunities for access. (Latina Surge works with all underserved and underrepresented groups in the spectrum, including men in those groups);
  • Ahgua Tech: She’s principal of the business-to-business consulting firm that facilitates procurement administration of federal, state, county and municipal contract proposals and bids. It specializes in fire industry contracts. She also provides guidance on small business development, nonprofit development and import/export with Latin American countries;
  • BEADEI: She’s head of a firm represented in the acronym: BE Actionable about DEI. It helps companies, government entities and board leadership teams with their strategic planning for corporate social responsibility, environmental, social & governance and diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging & justice;
  • New Jersey Institute of Technology: She serves on the board of trustees of the university from which she earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree as a first-generation student — and is working to help others follow that path toward access in science, technology, engineering and mathematics;
  • Montclair State University: She serves on the Feliciano School of Business advisory board to help support community outreach and inclusion initiatives;
  • Delbarton School: She serves one of the most prestigious all-boys college preparatory Catholic-Benedictine schools in the nation as a board regent and has been charged with co-leading the school’s strategic planning domain on student life and DEIB;
  • Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey: She’s on the board of a group that is hugely influential and impactful to Hispanic businesses throughout the state.

This doesn’t even take into account the more than 15 years she spent in top-level positions at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey or the more than 15 years (and going) she has spent on the Essex County planning board.

But here’s the funny thing: For all the influence she has in all of these important companies and organizations, Charters may be best suited for another role: ambassador for New Jersey.

“I’m just incredibly passionate and excited to be a member of the state because there’s so much going on,” she said. “We have such a wealth of talented, highly educated people making an impact — amazing people doing amazing things — that I really wouldn’t want to be in any other place.”

There’s no other place better, Charters said.

“People think New York is the center of the world, but I think New Jersey is pretty close to that — not just physically, but in terms of impact in the world,” she said. “My goal is to help people realize these opportunities and take advantage of them.”

Recognizing, seizing and taking advantage of opportunities is something Charters has been doing since she enrolled at NJIT in the fall of 1987.

“NJIT really has been at the forefront of ensuring inclusion of all diverse communities, and with access to a polytechnic education,” she said. “I’m a prime example of that. I was a first-generation student. I’m a Latina, I’m a woman — and I had access to an engineering school because NJIT had an EOP (Educational Opportunity Program) that created a platform for my success.”

“They had extra counseling and tutoring — even a summer program that helped prepare about 300 of us so we would have success and be able to cross the finish line with a degree.”

Charters has been paying that forward ever since. It’s one of the many reasons we selected her to be a part of our annual Interview Issue. Here’s a look at more of that interview, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Latina Surge, founded nearly 10 years ago, has become a nationally recognized nonprofit that now helps far more than just Latinas surge ahead in life. Give us your elevator speech.

Elisa Charters: Our mission is to help women, especially (Black, indigenous and people of color) women, realize their full potential. We use the #InPower hashtag, which means learning to be self-empowered toward your own progress and success, whether you’re in the business world or in government — or whatever you’re trying to achieve personally and professionally. We are trying to teach collective responsibility and positivity, working together so that we can drive issues that lead toward social responsibility of diversity, equity & inclusion, entrepreneurial access and social enterprise.

We feel we represent the community effort of the ‘S’ in the ESG effort. We bridge the gap between the education of allies in how they can support Latinas and BIPOC women and what they can do strategically toward this collective goal of inclusion.

ROI: Latina Surge started in New Jersey — but, now, it has a national profile. How did that happen, and are you surprised that it did?

EC: While we are extremely diverse in New Jersey, there still continue to be issues of access, inclusion, parity and equal pay — and this is not just in our state, but across the country. When we put our mission and vision on the LeanIn platform, the organization which was co-founded by Sheryl Sandberg, our mission resonated very strongly. So, while we were a grassroots organization focused on supporting local women, the reality is that women across the nation were experiencing the very same thing. That’s why this organization has expanded.

ROI: Is it achieving all you desire?

EC: Unfortunately, it’s not moving quickly enough, even with all of the energy that’s put into awareness — making sure companies are focused on inclusion in their recruiting efforts, making sure that there’s representation at all levels, including CEO levels and board levels. We still just don’t see the access.

I’ve had some conversations this week about MWBE (minority- and women-owned business enterprise) participation — not just in the state of New Jersey, but across the country. There’s not enough government support to drive access and actual contracts.

Let’s say we run a business and we want to access being able to provide services and products to government. A lot of times, prime contractors or prime suppliers have a good-faith effort written in their contracts with municipal and state county entities, but these good-faith efforts really fall flat. Set-asides are good remedies — but trying to institute these set-asides is a very slow process and delays hinder the economic impact that we can have.

Members of our communities — whether it’s Latinas or BIPOC women or LGBTQ+ or even Latino and African American men — have so much to offer. We are very driven, and we are successful, but our access is still limited.

ROI: Let’s talk about a few of your other efforts, starting with NJIT, which has helped you so much. How are you giving back in your role on the board?

EC: I went to school there in 1980s; that’s how far back the school’s commitment to inclusion has been. Gov. (Tom) Kean was a great proponent of these programs way back when, and we are reaping the benefits of that now. I want to amplify this continuous impact.  NJIT is doing a phenomenal job, and it can advertise this more. Not many people know what a great job NJIT has been doing. I really want to help the institution amplify its successes and continue these successes by pipelining students into our STEM programs.

ROI: After NJIT, you embarked on a nearly 15-year career with the Port Authority, serving in a number of key roles, including executive manager of the New York Waterfront Development, where you managed major negotiations on two projects (the 80-acre NYC Queens West Development Project and the 50-acre Hoboken South Waterfront Development Project) with estimated public and private investments totaling $3.6 billion. The more important number is this: You were one of the survivors of 9/11. Talk about the experience at the Port.

EC: The Port Authority was an incredible training ground for me. I worked with top public service leaders who were so supportive of my advancement. Working with all different professionals, at varied levels of government and with private businesses, helped me learn how to navigate public and private partnerships. I loved the agency because I kept learning there. It gave me access; it allowed me to rise up to be my best professional self.

I am also a survivor of 9/11. I stayed working, helping in the recovery and redevelopment effort of the World Trade Center post-9/11. But I decided, once I had kids, that I really wanted to be home with them, so I made the decision to leave. I came back for a brief six months, but I quickly realized that I needed to be home again — and that I wasn’t fully recovered emotionally.

I began exploring the nonprofit space. I became actively involved with the Junior League of Montclair and Newark, which trained me to become a professional volunteer. That was a driver for the beginnings of Latina Surge.

Simultaneously, I began exploring my entrepreneurial curiosity.

ROI: Tell us about that.

EC: In 2008, I launched a company called Toussa with two partners, who were also Peruvian. The company was an international wholesale/retail distribution and sourcing startup company, featuring children’s and preteen apparel from Brazil, Argentina and Peru.

The business model was excellent, because, when it’s winter here, it’s summer there and vice versa. So, we would purchase the latest season overstock at 10 cents on the dollar, import it and sell it here in the U.S. at full mark-up price. It was a really terrific model. Unfortunately, the recession happened. We were in it for five years, and we were doing very well, but we decided to pivot, which led to another opportunity.

ROI: Please tell.

EC: In 2019, I was approached by CSC Service Works, a multinational distributor of commercial and industrial laundry equipment. Their UniMac OPL line is quite specialized, as it helps first responders properly clean their personal protective equipment clothing by washing off carcinogenic material from soot and other burned materials. This effort to help firefighters has been personal to me because of 9/11.

I’ve become very good at cutting red tape because I understand government procurement processes, and I understand what the business side is trying to achieve. So, I began helping to close deals and helping firefighters obtain the equipment they needed, in New Jersey and in other states.

In New Jersey, I’ve been working hand-in-hand with many fire chiefs and unions, helping them make sure their departments are safe and have the highest levels of health and safety in conformance with NFPA standards. I love the challenge, and I love working with fire departments. There’s a special place in my heart, just because of my experience seeing their ultimate dedication in saving lives on 9/11.

ROI: OK, last question: You just launched BEADEI, which plays to your passion for DEIB. Talk about that company.

EC: Because of all of this experience I have with DEI, ESG and CSR over the last 20-plus years, I started a new brand called BEADEI for DEIB consultancy services. We offer consulting across a number of business, government and nonprofit areas for strategic planning. This is a true passion of mine.

ROI: This brings us back to the top. Talk about your true passion for New Jersey. Give us one final thought.

EC: I get concerned about people leaving the state because it’s becoming incredibly expensive to operate and live here. We have to address this. We have incredibly talented and intelligent people, so I know we can problem-solve. We just really need to come together and figure it out.

Five fun questions

What is the most notable job you had in high school?

I loved working at a young age, as I had terrific role models. Most of my immediate and extended family members were all incredibly hard-working, boot-strapping, small business owners. I helped my grandfather, Antonio, an immigrant who came to the U.S. from Argentina (parentless at the age of 14), fold paper over hangers at his dry cleaners on Main Street in South Paterson. Then, I would help my grandmother in the kitchen as she prepared dinner in their home behind the dry cleaners on Pacific Street. I only learned recently that the famous comedians, Abbott & Costello, ran the boxing gym on the corner across from my grandparents’ home.

What skill do you use on your kids that you learned at work — or use at work that you learn from being a parent?

I had to ask my kids, who are now young adults attending their first years of college, what they thought about this question. My son quickly responded: ‘Incentives, Innovation and Motivation.’ He prompted me to remember potty training — and he was right. At the time, he was absolutely crazy about the ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ toys. I went to the toy store, and I invested in three sets of five trains; I guess this is ‘innovation,’ but it was not cheap. Anyway, every time he correctly utilized the restroom without the assistance of his diaper, he was awarded one train from a set (incentive). He was so excited to get a train. He quickly learned the process until he was awarded all three sets (sometimes he was awarded two trains in a day! — motivation). His potty-training time was likely less than two weeks, with no accidents.

The funniest part is that, over that year, every time my husband came home from work and headed to the bathroom, my son would encourage him to, ‘Try to get a train!’ I guess the incentives, innovation and motivation led to a very young manager in training.

What person, dead or alive, real or created, famous or infamous, would you want to have dinner with?

Mother Theresa. She was the poorest, most selfless and most globally powerful and recognized woman in the international community for her positive impact in the world. There would be so many life lessons and experiences to learn about by just sitting with her for a few hours.

If you could be New Jersey business czar for the day, what would you do to help the state?

Figure out how to strategically and financially triple down on our innovation/tech infrastructure (as in investment in our STEM education and business incentives) and our transportation systems to get our economic engine running at higher levels. Once this happens, there would be greater ability to balance budgets, leading to in-state retention and business/economic growth. The goal: Advancing education and higher quality of life in our state.

What’s your favorite food: It can be a meal or a snack — or even a restaurant.

For me, soup is love. Both of my grandmothers were incredible cooks. I loved the soup that they cooked for me, taught me how to make and the time we spent together making it. I loved my Sicilian grandmother Anna’s escarole and bean soup, and my Peruvian grandmother Hilda’s chupe con camarones, which is a delicious shrimp chowder. It still reminds me of my visits to see her in Peru; the shrimp were fresh out of the Pacific Ocean, right there on the coast. She served it to me before the ceviche (lemon-marinated sea bass). I eat some version of soup almost every day; lately it has been straciatella (Italian egg drop soup in chicken broth with spinach leaves).