Being curious about issues that matter and helping others are what make T&T-born Deserrie Forte-Perez tick. Even from her days as a UWI undergraduate, her friends referred to her as a “joiner”, an avid participant in almost every activity she encountered.
Forte-Perez is a sales manager, strategic marketer and the outgoing diversity and inclusion ambassador at Miami-Fort Lauderdale with LinkedIn Marketing Solutions, the advertising side of online platform LinkedIn owned by Microsoft. LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network, connecting potential employers with potential employees.
Based at LinkedIn for almost five years as a strategic marketer with 18 years of experience, Forte-Perez leads a team of six media sales professionals which offers advertising services for the brand’s biggest customers in technology and finance. Prior to that, she was involved in strategic operations at Facebook and worked at financial services giants American Express, Citibank, and Morgan Stanley.
But it is her role as diversity and inclusion ambassador that she has been most passionate about.
“One thing that has brought me the most joy is serving from 2020 to 2022 as co-chair of our Black Inclusion Group (BIG) which is our volunteer Employee Resource Group (ERG). It was one of the blessings in my life, helping to bring our African diaspora together and educating people about our culture,” she said
A common feature of the American workplace, ERGs are affinity groups that bring together and empower people with common qualities, experiences, and goals. Examples are African-American groups, Hispanic groups, Women’s groups, and Veteran groups.
Forte-Perez landed the position of diversity and inclusion ambassador in July 2020 after an interview. She has acted as the voice of black employees, including those originating from the Caribbean and various parts of Africa, as well as other underrepresented minorities, helping to educate them about their rights and motivating them to take up their true place in the work environment. Her role entailed lobbying for gender equality for women in the workplace, including promoting the advancement of women to senior positions and encouraging younger underrepresented employees to speak up more, network, develop their skills and experience and build their professional brand.
Nothing could prepare Forte-Perez for the effects of the monumental outcry against systemic injustice and racial discrimination in the aftermath of the murder of African-American George Floyd by a white police officer in Minnesota when she took up her new role back in mid-2020–not even her previous experience as president of the Black Employee Network at American Express where she had worked for seven years after business school.
“At that time black employees, brown employees, or even people who could relate were fed up. They were frustrated, so one of the efforts was that we had to talk to our leadership to find out how they would address that. We educated our executive teams and other ERGs on how they could be part of the solution. We led with compassion as the voice of the community to influence change,” Forte-Perez recounted.
Along with her co-chair Christopher Arceneauz, Forte-Perez also created role of the “Allyship Lead” to educate whites and the public at large about the everyday challenges faced by minorities and how to be empathetic.
Issues of minorities ranged from microaggressions, such as making ambiguous comments about especially ethnic hair and attire to discrimination like inadequate training, inadequate representation and inclusion in major roles in the organisation, and how blacks received feedback from bosses compared to their white counterparts. The initiative ended up inspiring the best practices of other ERGs at LinkedIn and Forte-Perez has been credited with tripling employee engagement, development, and retention.
Describing herself as a community and customer-oriented person bent on always giving back, Forte-Perez recalled first joining diversity groups at the American Express Company after graduating from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School in 2009. At American Express, she had begun to help recruit underrepresented groups.
Historically in America, underrepresented groups are those who have been subjected to institutional discrimination such as African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and Native Americans. She observed that there were minorities who gave back or volunteered but were often overlooked when it came to promotion or simply went unrecognised in the workplace, and she was determined to find a means of showcasing their talents in an effort to pay forward the awards and assistance from others she had received in the past. She ended up being the president of the Black Employee Network for two years at the organisation.
The upsurge in tech companies saw Forte-Perez switch from financial services to Facebook to reap the benefits of such growth. In 2018, she was recruited by LinkedIn through her personal LinkedIn profile.
After giving birth to her son in 2019, she wanted to resume her participation in the workplace activities of the black community and applied for the diversity and inclusion ambassador post. Her warm personality helped to make her stand out and connect with people, including her Puerto Rican-American husband Alex whom she had married in 2016.
A former Maloney and St James resident, Forte-Perez is of mixed heritage and with predominantly African features, she identifies as a “black woman”. Her mother, a Penal native, is of Venezuelan and Carib ancestry while her father is of African heritage. The last of her mother’s children, her older siblings’ father was East Indian.
But Forte-Perez’s cosmopolitan background did little to prepare her for the racial and ethnic issues she would face in the United States when she migrated in 2004 at age 22.
The UWI Management Studies and Finance graduate was able to secure a full scholarship to New York University (NYU) to do her master’s through a programme called The Consortium which awards full-tuition fellowships to top MBA candidates from underreprepresented groups. Her first real taste of prejudice quashed her enthusiasm.
“I never felt like a minority in Trinidad. We had race issues sometimes but I never felt like a minority. I remember March 14, 2007. It was cold and I had just had experiences in corporate America, working in Citibank, for example, when I had just received news of being admitted into NYU to pursue my MBA and I was telling my boss. She said how did you do that and was shocked that someone who looked like me could be accepted into NYU,” Forte-Perez said.
Forte-Perez began to understand where she fit in the grand scheme of things abroad as even her expanding group of friends in the US with whom she socialised became “diverse, but still not very diverse”.
Despite a lack of funds, she earnestly wanted to attain her MBA from the Wharton School, a prestigious institution that promotes diversity and inclusion. She declined the offer to NYU and as part of an internship at Morgan Stanley about three years later, she received a fellowship to pursue her master’s at her number one choice. Forte-Perez credits her Wharton fellowship to her Dominican friend Silvia Medina who worked with her at Citibank and recommended that she join Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a non-profit that trains aspiring minority MBA candidates to get into business school.
The adventure enthusiast and self-proclaimed Carnival lover was involved in Carnival event promotion for a few years through her company Soleil Entertainment where she planned Carnival trips and experiences to T&T for foreigners and international friends. When she visits annually to play mas with Bliss, Forte-Perez brings her skills as a marketer to entertainment ventures of her friends here in Trinidad.
Her hopes for the near future are to continue to break stereotypes and become a Chief Experience Officer. She advises young people in particular to take advantage of reputable social media platforms through which they can advertise their skills and network, and stressed the importance of aiming high and seeking out international scholarships, fellowships, and opportunities even when one’s personal funds may be unable to cover tertiary education.
She added: “Keep learning, because you started at a particular place it does not mean that there is where you are going to end up, set goals and write them down and know what you value whether it is family, education, saving, or travelling the world so you can adequately prioritise.”