The first woman and the first Hispanic person to serve as U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz ’78, JD, ’12 (Hon.), is also vice chair of the Adelphi University Board of Trustees. Here, she discusses her remarkable career, vision of leadership, and how our University inspires our students.
When it comes to breaking leadership barriers, Carmen M. Ortiz ’78, JD, LLD ’12 (Hon.), has had plenty of experience. As the first woman and the first Hispanic person to serve as U.S. Attorney for the District of Massachusetts, she handled many high-profile cases during her tenure from 2009 to 2017, including the trials of the Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and organized crime boss Whitey Bulger. She is now vice chair of Adelphi’s board of trustees and is the first Latina to serve in that role.
As we honor Women’s History Month, Ortiz shares lessons learned in her remarkable career, her vision of leadership and her thoughts on ways to inspire today’s students.
What motivated you to succeed at Adelphi and what skills did you learn that you didn’t expect?
I’ve always been very driven. Both my parents had a strong work ethic and they also believed in the importance of a good education. So I was raised with that sense of “If I work really, really hard at school and get a good education, I will accomplish whatever I set out to do.”
When I went to Adelphi, I was very motivated to do well academically and take advantage of all the opportunities the school provided, so that I could be a well-rounded candidate when I applied to law school. It was also the first time that I was truly independent and I wanted to prove I could take care of myself and really thrive. Adelphi provided me not only with the opportunities that I was looking for, but with even more that I didn’t know would be available for me.
You have said you were inspired to become a lawyer by watching the Perry Mason television show as a child, but what else drove you to the profession?
It was the drama of the courtroom that got me excited, though initially I wanted to be an actress. I used to watch a tremendous amount of television growing up, but I realized I didn’t have enough money or connections to go out to Hollywood. I did well in school, and as I watched the courtroom drama on TV and understood that you could help people through the law, I thought being a lawyer would be great career path for me.
Even though we didn’t have any lawyers in my family and I was a first-generation college student, I had a great mentor at Adelphi, Professor Jose Sanchez. He helped me get an internship the summer between my junior and senior years in Washington, D.C., working as a legislative aid for Congressman Ronald Dellums of California; that’s when I determined that I wanted to go to law school in D.C. That experience opened my eyes to a whole other opportunity. I was very fortunate to get into George Washington University’s law school. I credit Adelphi because it enabled me to be a very well-rounded candidate and I received a full tuition scholarship to G.W.
What challenges have you had to overcome?
When I was younger, the key challenge was primarily financial. I was always worried about how I was going to be able to afford going to school. There was a year when my dad became really ill and he couldn’t work, and we had to go on welfare. We lived in public housing in Spanish Harlem, before my parents moved us to Long Island. I hated being on welfare. I was very determined that I was going to have a career, be self- sufficient, and I was going to do well.
I also faced challenges as a Latina. I always say how important it is to not let other people’s perceptions define you or hold you back. You really need to have goals and surround yourself with people who support you. This way, when disappointments come in life, you have the strength, courage and resilience to overcome those setbacks.
How did you respond to people in your life who questioned why you wanted to go to law school once you were applying?
There were naysayers who said, “You don’t have what it takes to make it. Why are you even going to try?” And there were people who saw how hard I worked, and how dedicated and determined I was to do what I needed to. A number of my friends said, “You go, girl, and you know we’re here for you.’“But there were a few who said, “Why do you want to continue working so hard? Law school is hard and what if you don’t make it?” But I always had enough people in my life who supported me, saw me in a very positive way and encouraged me.
When I became a U.S. Attorney in Boston, Eric Holder, whom I had met years before during an internship at the Department of Justice, had just become the first Black Attorney General of the United States. He came to speak at my induction and he told me, “I knew there was something special about you.” I’ve had people like that in my life— people who believed in me and gave me that extra support whenever I thought I might not be able to accomplish my dreams.
Were there other types of support that you’ve gotten in your career that helped you to reach your goals?
I had tremendous family support, in particular from my mother, who always believed in me. She was incredibly supportive throughout my life and even adulthood. As I was starting out in my career, my first husband provided tremendous support.
I tell people that you can’t pick the family that you’re born in, but you can pick the people that you surround yourself with, starting with your partner. I married someone who believed I could be a lawyer and a mom at the same time, which was something that society didn’t readily accept at the time.
I’ve also always made sure to have a very strong community of friends and colleagues, and three of my close friends today are women I met at Adelphi. When I lost my first husband, Michael, to cancer at the age of 42 in 2000, my friends were there for me. Without that support, and the support of my family and my colleagues, I don’t think I would have survived that tragic loss and been able to move on in my career with two young daughters. I am very fortunate that I found another partner, my husband, Tom, who is also very supportive of my goals and ambition.
Based on your experience being a working mother of two daughters, what message would you give to young women who are about to graduate and begin pursuing their careers?
Dare to dream and don’t be afraid to set your sights too high. Don’t allow others’ perceptions of what they think you can or can’t accomplish define you. Establish strong relationships and maintain them. And don’t be afraid to ask for help. It’s not a sign of weakness; it’s really a sign of strength.
What principles have guided you to achieve success?
When I became a U.S. Attorney, I had to work 24/7, but it didn’t seem like work because I was enjoying it so much. I had found a career path I was passionate about. We don’t always find the job we love right away. But you can’t give up and can’t be afraid of trying new things and accepting new opportunities.
I think another key to success is feeling good about what you’re doing. If you’re not, then find other ways that will satisfy that piece of what you’re yearning for. For me, I was a government lawyer and in public service for many years. Now, I’m in private practice, but continue to be engaged with community and it makes me feel good. Not only do I do everything I can to solve my clients’ problems and be there for them when they’re going through very challenging situations, but I also give back by being involved with nonprofit organizations and sitting on the board of trustees of different organizations, one of which is Adelphi. My key advice is that you should think about what makes you feel good, because if you’re feeling good and happy, then you’ll thrive in other parts of your life.
And when you have disappointments in life, try to deal with them with class and grace. When you don’t get that job that you’ve been angling for, the promotion that you want, or the raise that you thought for sure you were going to get, handle that disappointment as a learning experience.
What makes a good leader?
A good leader is someone who is able to work with others to accomplish the mission of an institution, company or organization. Someone who can listen and who can compromise. Someone who can inspire and bring out the best in the people they work with, who can help people understand the value that they bring to the organization. Being able to pick the right people for your team is important. You see that with President Christine Riordan in terms of whom she has selected to be part of her leadership team since coming to Adelphi.
How do you think that universities can help build that leadership?
Universities can do that by giving students opportunities to perform as leaders in student government and as officers of organizations or clubs. Universities can also give them responsibility in classrooms for projects, managing teams and coordinating events. Students should be encouraged to try new things and always feel supported so they’re not afraid to venture out and take charge. And students shouldn’t be afraid to fail. It’s important to try different things to figure out what you like and what you don’t like. The nice thing about Adelphi is that it’s a very well-rounded school that provides you with a variety of tremendous opportunities.
Do you have a particular message for Latina students?
As I’ve said, it’s important to develop strong friendships and relationships. It can be comfortable as a Latina to be with other Latinos, but don’t limit yourself to people who are like you. Broaden your world to mentors from all backgrounds who can open some doors for you. The other thing is, don’t let other people or obstacles limit your growth; be determined to defy the odds. Don’t limit yourself by what other people may perceive you as; they don’t know you. Don’t be afraid to show and demonstrate who you are.
What challenges do you think women are continuing to face in terms of leadership opportunities?
There’s still a degree of sexism. We continue to have to work twice as hard to prove ourselves. But I do think that there are more opportunities today. If you work hard, and you’re smart and you make those right connections, it’s not as hard as it used to be. We still have to work hard to overcome stereotypes, which is why I think it’s important for women to move into male-dominated career paths. The college programs focusing on STEM are critically important.
Why is it important that Adelphi has its first woman president?
First of all, when you have a woman in a leadership position, it illustrates that women are more than capable of doing what has been typically perceived as a man’s job. Leadership is important in all areas, but you need leaders who reflect the community they serve, especially in colleges and universities, where you’re teaching, motivating and inspiring young people.