Eugenia Podestá ’98, JD’05, MA’06 spent her time at the UW forging a career path based on her interests in Latin America and business, but she didn’t know where it would ultimately lead. Born in Peru and raised in Madison, she stayed connected with her heritage by pursuing Latin American, Caribbean, and Iberian studies at the UW. She also added a law degree, gaining expertise in advocacy and international development. Today, Podestá is a senior director on the leadership and social impacts team at Vital Voices, a global nonprofit that works to support women in leadership positions. She also cofounded Synergy Coworking, a collaborative office space in Madison dedicated to local small-business owners, and Synergy Ventures Foundation, a non-profit organization that aims to support Black and Brown social impact entrepreneurs in the Madison area. Keep reading to learn more about Podestá’s time on campus and her current work.
What accomplishments or projects are you most proud of working on in the last 25 years?
Oh, that’s a tough one. There’s quite a few, but I feel like everything melds together. It’s just one stage that builds on another. Honestly, I would say, overall, just the impact that I’ve been able to have on individuals and organizations, either through my work directly or through other initiatives I’ve been involved in or my business or the people that I’ve had a chance to work with. I think that the biggest value that I’ve seen over the years is really being able to see that I made a difference. That’s what I’d say I’m the most proud of.
What are you working on now?
A combination of things. I’m continuing with my work, supporting women leaders globally through Vital Voices. I’ve taken on a different role, and so I’m continuing to cultivate more systematic approaches and building processes. I’m really digging into how to reach a point where you can have more consistency in what you’ve done because you’ve been able to learn from best practices. That’s one realm of my work.
I have also my business [Synergy Coworking], so that’s the other side of it. And that’s continuing to grow and evolve. It’s a beautiful thing, our coworking space. We’re about seven years old. We have grown the space in the community, but in nonconventional ways. I think continuing to be a proponent of small business but looking at it from a perspective of doing things in a nonconventional way is huge. Especially when you’re working with underrepresented groups that don’t have access to the same level of resources.
And we’ve started our non-profit [Synergy Ventures Foundation] as well. We’ve been looking at how to support Black and Brown entrepreneurs who are in the social impact spaces — social impact entrepreneurs. And that’s by addressing barriers and really thinking about the opportunities that they need to be able to succeed. To not just make it in business — we’re hoping that it is actually a path that is sustainable for them, not just about making enough to cover the bills. We’ve worked with, for example, artist entrepreneurs who are doing that work. We received our first grant working with an artist-in-residence here at Synergy who’s doing amazing work. She’s launched a program that’s quite impressive and necessary. She works gathering women, Latina women immigrants, through an embroidery project that she’s cultivated. They come together twice a month to learn some of the artistic practices, but to also build a community of support. This is a great example. Our hopes are to grow the organization and to be able to support more social impact entrepreneurs to continue to do the important work that they’re doing.
Are there any courses or professors from the UW that have had a lasting influence on you?
There was quite a number of them. When I was at UW, I didn’t have a clear path, professionally. So, I opted for the courses that were calling me. That was really my approach. And they ended up sort of forming an area of expertise just by default. I knew I was interested in business. I knew I was interested in international development, Latin American literature and culture — those were the things that had always resonated with me. I learned so much about the world, and became really passionate about understanding systems and understanding the role of being able to create new paths forward. I think that’s always been sort of a thread amongst all of them. I just loved learning and I learned a lot, and I just continued to learn and push myself into new directions.
What’s your best memory from your time on campus?
One of the things that I took away from my experience at UW–Madison that was the most valuable, in addition to the learning piece, was really the relationships. The gamut of diversity of the people that I was able to engage with, meet, and forge relationships with have continued until now. They’ve had a huge impact on my life, on my profession, and a lot of the community initiatives that I’ve done. People know that I tend to use my network for good. I’m always pulling people in to see how to get them involved and get them engaged, and I think honestly those relationships and those experiences were huge.
There were also a lot of turning points for me in terms of identity as well. [Being a first-generation South American immigrant raised in Madison], it was almost like I fit in here, I kind of fit in there. I became almost like this free agent that moved around various communities, and l loved that. The UW also gave me the chance to go deeper on the cultural level. There were a lot of cultural offerings that I took advantage of personally in addition to the academic part. Those experiences have tied into my appetite for international film and music. They have all contributed to who I am and my identity. Having had that sort of palate of opportunities to explore was quite amazing.