El Paso native Maria Castañón Moats is a first generation American and was the first in her family to earn a college degree, her younger siblings following in her footsteps.
“My parents were very hard working,” Moats says. “Putting us through school was very hard for them, and we owe them a lot.”
Today, she heads an organization of about 16,000 professionals and 1,300 partners as the U.S. assurance leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers.
In July, Moats was named to the position at PwC, one of the “Big Four” global auditing firms. Before that, Moats worked for five years as PwC’s chief diversity officer, where she led the New York-based firm’s diversity and inclusion efforts. During that time, PwC earned the No.-1 ranking on DiversityInc’s “50 Best Companies to Work For” list.
PwC’s assurance practice provides auditing services, working with organizations to improve their corporate reporting and support their compliance with regulatory requirements.
Moats, 48, grew up in Northeast El Paso where she attended Irvin High School. She graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso in 1990 with a degree in business administration.
Moats’ mother is a longtime Sears employee, and her father, who died six years ago, was a carpenter.
“For them, to raise four children and send us to school, they are very proud of that,” Moats says. “I knew I would need a job when I graduated from UTEP, and I found accounting interesting. I read that as an accountant you could always find a job, and that sold it for me.”
Moats started at PwC as a senior associate in 1994 and was named a partner in 2004. She now oversees PwC’s assurance practice in the United States and Mexico.
Moats spoke to El Paso Inc. by phone from New York about what a chief diversity officer does, why it can be so hard to increase diversity and how PwC is recruiting UTEP students, again.
Q: Promoting diversity at a company – what works and what doesn’t?
What works is sponsorship. Not just mentorship but really sponsoring someone – giving them those opportunities. Careers don’t happen by accident. Many times, as the individual, you don’t know what that next move is. Somebody needs to be the architect that helps you with every move.
Q: What do you mean by sponsorship?
If you’re somebody’s sponsor, you are willing to put your own political capital on the line to make sure that person is successful. You’re willing to tell others how good this person is at the job, even when that person is not at the table. Now that I lead the audit practice, I tell people our responsibility is to provide opportunities to others.
Several of my sponsors and mentors were white males. If I would have waited around for somebody like me, a Hispanic mother of two, to sponsor me, I would have waited a long time. Sponsors come in different shapes and size, and you have to be open-minded.
Q: How has PwC done in that area?
When I became a partner in 2004, the percentage of female partners was around 13 percent. Fast forward to now. The last three classes of partners we have had, every one of those classes has been at least 30-percent female. And last year it was 44-percent female and minority partners in a class of 230.
Q: At the top levels, many companies and boards are not very diverse. What makes it so hard to accomplish?
It’s a couple of things. In order to make a difference, the effort needs to be deliberate. You really need to look at the individual and say this person has a lot of talent, but they don’t have these experiences or know these people, and you need to give them those experiences and help them build that network. That takes time.
At the same time you are trying to diversify the workplace, you also need to be trying to build an environment where people feel like they belong, because if they don’t feel like they belong, they are going to leave; your turnover is going to be high.
More and more of our clients are diverse and they want us to be equally diverse.
At PwC the diversity inclusion leader reports directly to our senior partner. It’s a key role where you drive strategy, but it’s also developmental – part of developing the individual as a leader.
Q: What is your advice for those who might follow you up the corporate ladder?
You need to be good at your craft. Do what you need to do to learn your trade very well, because then people notice you. And then once you get noticed, you need to be very open and transparent in terms of who you are and what you want.
When I go to campuses, including UTEP – we recruit out of UTEP now – I always tell students to go with an employer you believe will help you have the career and life you want for yourself.
Q: Has PwC recruited at UTEP for very long?
We recruited heavily out of UTEP when we had an office in El Paso, and then we closed it in the late 1990s. About three years ago I decided to go back, and we are now actively recruiting out of UTEP.
What is challenging is we don’t have an office there, so I have been recruiting the students and placing them in Houston or Dallas.
Q: Do you still have many connections in El Paso?
Yes (laughs). We still get to town quite a bit. I have at least 30 first cousins, so you can imagine how much fun that was growing up.
The reality is, when I left El Paso in 1990, it was one of the hardest things I ever did. Going to Dallas, I didn’t know one person, but I had a job. I wanted to be able to help my parents and give back.
I am the oldest of four, so the others were still in high school and I was able to help out.
But it was hard starting in Dallas not knowing anyone, because I was so used to what we have in El Paso – strong family ties.