US Sailing is celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, from September 15 to October 15. The observation started in 1968 as Hispanic Heritage Week under President Lyndon Johnson and was expanded by President Ronald Reagan in 1988 to cover a 30-day period starting on September 15 and ending on October 15. It was enacted into law on August 17, 1988.
Lou Sandoval is an executive leader and best-selling author who has held leadership positions in the corporate, private, and non-profit sectors. His latest endeavor brings him to the field of technology where he is an executive advisor helping companies digitally transform and scale. Sandoval was named to the Chicago United Business Leaders of Color in 2021, received the Maestro Award for Entrepreneurship from Latino Leaders Magazine in 2018, and received the Whitney M. Young Jr. Service Award from the Boy Scouts of America for his work with Chicago inner city youth. In continued celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, US Sailing sat down with Lou Sandoval to discuss his success as a businessman, sailor, and father.
Breanne Boatwright: So, tell me about your history and experience in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) space.
Lou Sandoval: We have a lot of positive energy regarding what’s going on in the marine industry and the DEI space. The consensus of the participants is to try to really get more diversity in the sport and to highlight the diversity that may be there but might not be always readily visible. It’s interesting in that, there are the obvious differences of color of skin, but I’ve always been a big advocate of making sure that we speak to diversity of all types. There’s ethnicity, gender, ability, disability, and neurodiversity.
I really got involved during my time in leadership at the Chicago Yacht Club over the past decade. When I was Commodore a few years back, we had the honor of hosting The Blind World Championship in Chicago, and I tell you, if you want a transformational experience, watch a blind sailor sail. I do this with all my faculties and may tend to take my visual capabilities for granted at times. The beauty is seeing everyone of all types being able to sail and love the sport is amazing. And that’s what really speaks to the diversity and why it is so needed. Everyone should experience life on the water.
BB: What has your experience been like as a Hispanic man in the marine industry?
LS: You know, when I came in as a marine industry professional, I was one of a small handful of people that were diverse in some form. Probably the only Hispanic in the marine leadership network of a group that I worked with, and it was very evident – you go to a symposium, and you can count the women and the other ethnicities – Blacks, Hispanics, Asians – in the room on one hand.
Even though on the surface, it all seems like everything’s great, there is a real struggle just to get in the boardroom and have a voice. The path that I’ve traveled has been one of a lot of ups and downs. Just the microaggressions that happened in the sport and in the industry that a lot of people are oblivious to. It can happen anywhere. For example, I’m on a Diversity Committee at an organization that I’m a part of, and one of our members said, “Oh, I don’t view you as diverse.” And I’m like, alright so I’ve done such a great job of assimilating that I’m not viewed as diverse, but it’s also a microaggression for the perspective of what defines diverse, right? Do I have to wear a sombrero and speak with an accent to be diverse? It is truly an opportunity to educate and create awareness one person at a time so our presence matters. It also inspires others to become part, because they see people who look like them in leadership.
BB: What do you think is holding back increased diversity in sailing?
LS: One, is that the appearance or the perception that sailing, or boating in general, seems to be something that isn’t for members of underserved communities. Second, it’s a lack of access to water and access to resources; things like learning how to swim as a lifelong skill, which is a major obstacle. Lastly, the continued education part of boating that turns you from a beginner to an expert. I’ve mentored youth here in Chicago in underserved communities, and some of them live within a mile of a lake but they have never been on the water. And it’s a travesty. They’re afraid of swimming and the water; but also, it’s not part of their universe – they’re not exposed to it. And then lastly, obviously, are economic barriers to entry. Go to the Annapolis Boat Show, for example, and look at what the average entry price point is for a sailboat. I would always tell my former manufacturer Beneteau, “you got to keep that barrier to entry down, you got to have a way for people to get in at the entry level.” The new Beneteau 36 – that’s a $450,000 proposition, right? So now you’re only serving the very tip the iceberg financially, and you’re leaving a lot of people at the dock. I think we need to kind of lift that barrier for the benefit of the sport, but especially for underrepresented communities.
So, I guess my platform for DEI is about access, representation, and it’s about intentionality. I’m involved in what’s happening in corporate America, so I’m going to use that as a parallel. The state of California passed a law – SB 826 – that said all publicly listed companies in the state of California had to have a diverse board (more women and directors from underrepresented communities by a certain deadline in 2019 and 2021.) So, what is the first thing that all those companies did? They put women on, but who benefited in that category? White women, right? Why? Because it’s the bias that we’re all born with – we like to surround ourselves with people we are comfortable with. We all surround ourselves with people that look like us, right? It’s an easy right pocket/left pocket shift. It was also representative of the weak pipeline in corporate America for executives of color. It wasn’t until professional organizations said, “wait a minute, corporations, you’re still pale – you just now have both sides of the gender equation, right?” That is when changes started to happen. And I think that’s the precipice we’re at with sailing. Gender is an easy one because now we have more women participating in sport. That’s a 50% increase just by having both genders participate. But the question is now how do we go about diving deeper into other categories, into Black, Hispanic, Asian? How do we create a pipeline of other groups in the sport?
BB: How did you get involved with sailing? What was your point of entry?
LS: I became interested and learned how to sail through Scout camp while earning my small boat sailing merit badge. And that started with an invitation of, “Hey, you should try scouting.” I was very much a STEM driven kid, so I wanted to do every STEM-related merit badge I could find, and this meant learning how to sail because I was drawn to the physics of the sport. I was looking for an additional merit badge, but I did not continue beyond that in my youth because I did not have a consistent path to the water. We didn’t have a boat in our family and being from a blue-collar, working-class family we weren’t part of a Yacht Club.
But then when I graduated from undergrad and went into my profession, my colleagues would invite me to go sailing with them on J/24s. “Do you want to go sail with us? We’re doing Thursday night racing.” And I thought, I’ve never done racing but thanks to scouting I know my way around the boat. So that gave me the ability to connect and make that entry back into the sport. From there I was able to build a relationship with colleagues and become part of the sailing community. When my career took me from Chicago to Seattle, my immediate plugin was with the sailing community. I went to Seattle Corinthian and found out what some of their J/24 sailors were doing, and suddenly now I was part of an ecosystem, part of the community again.
BB: I want to talk about your family – I know you said that you are focused on raising generations on the water right now. How was that developed? How has it been to share your sailing experience with your family?
LS: My brother, who I own our boat with, also has children, so it was a foregone conclusion that they were somehow going to find a way on the water. In both of our families, as soon as we could take the kids on the water, they were on the boat in the baby seat, down in the cabin of the boat or in the cockpit. Then as soon as they could take sailing classes at the Yacht Club, they did. But we didn’t push it – we would put them in sailing camps for two weeks out of the summer, and that started when they were five years old. Every summer they’d be in sailing school for two weeks, and they’d sail with family for fun on our family boat.
They learned to enjoy just being on the sailboat. Then little by little they started applying what they learned on dinghies in sailing school to keel boats. So now we’ve got two generations on the crew. I think that’s where it starts for every community, is that there’s one generation that leads and then the others follow. Now my daughter is sailing for her high school team. My other daughter also sails but is probably more of a race committee boat person. She loves going out on a boat just to relax. How could you not, right?
A year ago, we brought my niece on her first Chicago Mac Race. She’s an accomplished high school and collegiate sailor, having done terrific on her own. She is transferring into the larger keelboat offshore racing. It was amazing watching her smile during her first Mackinac Race. The first day was rough weather, we were beating the entire first 24 hours. She’s smiling, loving it – we had to pry her off the helm. She was in her own element. It’s one of the more rewarding parts of sharing the sport with someone, when they learn to like it themselves.
BB: That’s awesome. I want to pivot back to you – I know you are a published author. Can you tell me about your most recent book?
LS: My book Tenacity for Life is a compilation of the life lessons I’ve learned over the years. During the pandemic, I was leading the Yacht Club through the shutdown, and people would say to me, “It doesn’t seem like you ever fail. It’s like you go from one successful thing to another.” To which I thought, “Oh, you don’t know the half of it!” I wanted to detail my journey and my inner thoughts as an inspiration for people that might be going through challenging times. Because it is what we learn on the journey that matters.
I compare a lot of my struggles to sailing. A sailboat is the perfect metaphor for running a company by way of running a boat. It’s getting people to a common goal: getting the boat to go fast, making sure the boat gets there safely, and that they are having fun. We talk about the different experiences that I’ve encountered, and how what we learn in sailing is that sometimes you’ve got to go “sideways” to get where you want to go – everything isn’t a linear trajectory. You learn to persevere in different conditions, and you learn from failing. Looking back on my life, I’ve learned that even in my darkest moments, I had to go through them to get to the bright side.
BB: Moving back to the DEI space – what do you think the focus should be moving forward? What else can the sailing community do to make underserved communities feel included?
LS: I think the big thing that we must focus on in this DEI effort is all the stakeholders in the sport. The challenge is we are not always welcoming, we may overcomplicate the sport, and we don’t understand the challenges people face just to get to take sailing lessons – something which is foreign to them. This is pervasive on many fronts. I’ll give you an example: for an educated white male to sit in a boardroom is an accomplishment for the average person, but for a person from my community it’s off the charts in magnitude. Why? Because the struggle is truly real. The barriers to achieve that goal are daunting as a child of immigrants. Now back to the sport – For us just to be participating in the sport of sailing, no one knows what challenges you went through to get there. It’s the same for women – to be denied the ability to be on a team just because you don’t have the strength, or whatever the misconception is, can be daunting. It’s leveling the field so that we can step up into the roles. We need advocates, we need allies to help members of underrepresented communities do that.
I think that is one of the things you learn and that is transferable to business. On a sailboat, when you assemble a team, you are looking for a diverse skill set in who you’re bringing together to accomplish the specific goal: go fast, make the fewest errors and win. As you include a diversity of backgrounds, experiences, and gender, it makes for a phenomenal team. With diversity on board, you’re all that more powerful.
Check out Lou’s book Tenacity for Life here: https://tenacityforlife.com
Tenacity for Life delivers a powerful and inspiring message of perseverance, leadership, and the American Dream. Lou’s combination of universal wisdom and life story is entertaining and insightful, putting Tenacity for Life, like its author, in a category by itself as it takes you down the path least traveled. If you’ve ever faced challenging times in your personal life, school, or your career—Tenacity for Life is for you.