Elisha Gonzàlez has always felt a calling to public service. In every field she has broken into she has excelled because of that calling. “Above all else, I’m passionate about breaking down inequality, discrimination and barriers to the economic and social prosperity of our community,” she says. From her time as a teacher and later a principal with Orange County Public Schools, to her work as regional director for the U.S. Senate, she has worked at every level to better her community with a special emphasis on diversity and inclusion. Now, as executive director of the FAIRWINDS Foundation, she continues to do so using her position in the financial field, all while serving on several boards that include the Heart of Florida United Way, Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Fund of Metro Orlando, CareerSource Florida, and the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center of Florida. Here, she details how she has handled the major changes in her career, and how community service continues to anchor her.
How did you make the transition in your career from education to government, and then to community affairs and community relations? How has this recent transition to finance surprised you?
Making these transitions has required perseverance, patience and a “don’t quit” attitude. I made the choice to leave my comfort zone and the profession I loved to learn a new industry several times. Change is hard work. However, in every chapter of my professional journey, I’ve experienced amazing opportunities that I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d stayed where I was. As a result of these transitions, I’ve had the opportunity to work with new teams, collaborate with multiple departments involved in different lines of work, learn the operation fully, build trust and fully dive into the culture and idiosyncrasies that make an organization thrive.
I am enjoying this latest chapter, transitioning into the finance industry. One thing that struck me as particularly surprising was the ease with which I was able to transition to my role at FAIRWINDS, owing largely to the remarkable commonality between my current and previous positions. No matter what business you’re in, people are always at the heart of any industry. As someone who enjoys connecting with people, I’m grateful to look back on my career and see that it’s been characterized by creating meaningful connections on behalf of the organizations I represent.
How have you brought your knowledge from other sectors to the world of finance?
My extensive background in education — including serving as a high school teacher, dean, assistant principal and principal — has provided an invaluable foundation for the work I do at FAIRWINDS. Through this experience, I’ve gained a profound understanding of how to form meaningful relationships with the individuals I work with, as well as how to analyze and interpret the way new technologies impact the evolution of businesses and organizations.
From finance to education to utilities management, some competencies are never industry-specific. Your ability and willingness to develop a deep understanding of your customers, co-workers and industry will determine your level of effectiveness within your organization. For those transitioning from one industry to another, it’s critical to tap into organizational memory — especially as it involves procedural guidelines your team has developed to address your organization’s unique needs.
Working in other sectors has also allowed me to collaborate with an array of customers, internally and externally. I’ve learned that building relationships and listening is imperative to business success. By listening, you get the chance to understand the problem fully and it gets your mind ticking with ideas. When people feel they are being properly listened to, they’re more receptive to the solutions you present to address their problems.
Are there any lessons you have learned in your work that hold true in every industry you have worked in?
Early in my career, I wasted time, energy and opportunities in the pursuit of perfection. I learned that striving for excellence is a much better pursuit. Additionally, regardless of industry, emotional intelligence is a skill that’s never in short demand.
I’ve found that a willingness to embrace change is critical for success. Change is a constant, no matter the industry. All professionals should be prepared for any eventuality — the good and the bad. Just as technology evolves the way we work and communicate, there may also be dramatic forces beyond your control that impact your company or industry. Much of your professional success depends on how you adapt in the face of change. I’ve learned that it’s far better to embrace that inevitable change than to attempt to avoid it. See the fork in the road as the greatest gift you’ve ever been given.
What does your current work with FAIRWINDS entail? What challenges has it brought?
Recently, I have been named executive director of the FAIRWINDS Foundation, a nonprofit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to helping individuals achieve a path toward financial responsibility, security and freedom, and inspiring them to transform the lives of others by living generously. As executive director of the foundation, I will lead the foundation’s efforts to bolster organizations that advocate financial literacy, as well as advocate volunteerism by regularly working with FAIRWINDS crew members in community outreach.
In addition to overseeing the FAIRWINDS Foundation, I advance the credit union’s community relations and government affairs efforts. Having a forward-facing job for most of my career, developing emotional intelligence has been crucial, but most importantly, finance is about dealing with people’s money and investments. The information must be accurate and timely. My task has been to embrace the challenge of learning our industry quickly to provide the tools and resources our members need to reach financial freedom.
Many of the boards you are on and the community work you do revolve around inclusion, diversity, tolerance and education. What inspires your commitment to these, and how do you bring them into your professional work?
I am deeply committed to the organizations I have chosen to serve. Serving on boards has allowed me to bring my knowledge, energy and expertise to the table. That dynamic not only benefits the organization but has also proven invaluable in my own professional development and has equipped me to perform my day-to-day job function as few other experiences could. Many reputable and leading charities have seasoned business leaders serving on their boards. Serving as a nonprofit board member provides participants the opportunity to meet, network, collaborate with and learn from community leaders to effect meaningful change.
I have served organizations dedicated to economic development, child welfare, bullying prevention, educational attainment, financial freedom, homelessness, and diversity and inclusion. I have worked diligently to champion CareerSource Florida’s workforce initiatives, as well as to support our local chambers, Heart of Florida United Way, Project Opioid, the Holocaust Memorial Resource and Education Center, Orlando Economic Partnership and the Hispanic Heritage Scholarship Fund of Metro Orlando. Above all else, I’m passionate about breaking down inequality, discrimination and barriers to the economic and social prosperity of our community. My deepest hope is that everyone has an opportunity to live life without prejudice, hunger or violence.
What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?
Live with excellence, integrity and a “don’t quit” attitude. You can do anything.