Before becoming a Director of Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Belonging, Layla Ramirez (MBA 2017) was a prospective lawyer, an investment manager, a nonprofit leader, and a tech program manager. Beyond her professional roles, Ramirez is also a daughter of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, a New Yorker at heart, and a curious and resourceful learner. All of these pieces of her identity have shaped the leader she is today and the impact she makes in her company and community. 

Plugging into Support to Carve Her Path

Born and raised in New York City, Ramirez spent her childhood surrounded by a large extended family and fostering a deep connection to a vibrant, dynamic, and diverse community. She and her family would later move to Massachusetts, where she attended middle school, high school, and college at Smith College in Northampton, but in many ways, New York would always be home.

After college, Ramirez planned to attend law school and took a proactive approach to crafting her career trajectory. Goal-oriented by nature and encouraged by her parents, she joined an enrichment program with Boston Lawyers Group, an organization dedicated to helping diversify the pipelines of some of the most prominent law firms. Through Boston Lawyers Group, she identified potential firms and legal internships to get exposure to the sector and pressure test her interests. Yet, as she explored undergraduate courses and majors, it was Economics instead of a more traditional government track to a law degree that spoke to Ramirez.

“Econ was the one that made things make sense. It was quantitative enough and also just theoretical enough,” she shared. “Also, I needed to make sure that I could get a job. So, it was transferable and relatable into a career.” Halfway through college, Ramirez confirmed that becoming a lawyer was not an ideal match, and so, to identify paths forward with economics, she connected with another nonprofit organization, INROADS. Like Boston Lawyers Group, INROADS advances diverse youth in corporate America and drives this work forward through mentorship, internships, and trainings.

Making Inroads into Finance

Working with INROADS, Rameriz connected with Wellington Management and an internship in finance. 

“It was a very rewarding experience,” Ramirez shared. “I had a community of people (at Wellington) who were helping me to be successful there.” She had a great manager at the firm alongside the support of relationship managers at INROADS, who acted as career coaches to help young professionals navigate their careers.

At Wellington, Ramirez also met fellows from Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), a national nonprofit organization founded by John Rice (MBA 1992) that fights racial and economic disparities by empowering a new generation of diverse leaders. Engaging with MLT fellows broadened Ramirez’s exposure to corporate opportunities and planted the seed for attending business school. “Programs that create access for students who would otherwise be shut out of opportunities - I'm a poster child for those” she said. Through her experiences engaging with professional development programs, the stage was set for Ramirez to become a leader who would advance opportunities for others.

Finding Her North Star

After graduation, Ramirez secured a role at Merrill Lynch in their international advisory business. Returning to New York was an ideal fit for Ramirez, and for several years, Wall Street was an ideal fit as well. She learned, grew, and excelled in the industry, but something wasn’t quite right.

“I came from humble beginnings, not really having proximity to wealth, and not really being able to tap into the thinking of high-net-worth investors and how they live their lives and what their values are,” Ramirez shared. “Having that proximity and that exposure really helped me to understand that there's a different reality out here that you could choose to participate in if you want to or not. I could make myself more wealthy. I could make other people more wealthy. That was my job. But it didn't feel big enough, purposeful enough, meaningful enough to me.” After four years in finance, Ramirez resigned from her job and secured a role with Management Leadership for Tomorrow (MLT), which would propel her career in a new, mission-driven direction.

Connecting Impact and Advancement

At MLT, Ramirez had the opportunity to connect with her professional purpose while utilizing her skills in client service and partnerships. The team was scrappy, committed, and aligned with what Ramirez had identified as her calling while leaving Wall Street.

“My North Star during my search was, how do I make some of the volunteer work that I'm doing with nonprofits, which is so deeply meaningful and purposeful, into a full-time job?” Ramirez said. MLT had been on her radar for her own career growth, and she applied to the program to help her reach her goals of attending business school, but she found that joining the team as an employee in partnerships and participating as a fellow later was an even better match. Organizing seminars that culminated in recruiting partners extending job offers to students was an especially meaningful experience because she was a part of creating a life-changing impact for young people from underrepresented communities.

It was this drive to make an impact at scale that compelled Ramirez to continue forging a path in mission-driven work at Harvard Business School. “I really love this impact related work, and I could do it until I have the last breath of my body, and there will still be work to do,” Ramirez said. “The question that I had was, ‘What is the sustainable way to do this? There has to be a way to do this in a way that's sustainable and where people don't need to compromise on career advancement. There has to be a way to honor purposeful and impactful work.’” She set out to find the answer at HBS.

Solving People-Related Problems

Over the course of her two years at HBS, Ramirez learned how to operate a nonprofit organization like a profitable business. From operations and technology to sales and marketing, she dug in deeply to bring the best of for-profit business models into an impact-driven setting. 

In particular, Ramirez appreciated how the case method challenged her to solve complex problems. “Being in the protagonist's seat, having access to all this information, and having to make sense of it is the practice that you need in order to be able to make sound judgments,” she said. Years removed from the classroom, Ramirez recalls specific cases she studied and, more importantly, the lessons she learned, which have honed her ability to lead.

Alongside her classroom experience, Ramirez sought hands-on learning at MLT partner Danaher through a pre-MBA internship and summer internship between her RC and EC years. Danaher’s general management program aligned perfectly with Ramirez’s goals to accelerate her learning and apply business knowledge to the social sector. 

Through this experience at Danaher, Ramirez had a light bulb moment - where she thrived was in solving people-related problems and where she could do that best was in the human resources function. “I knew I wanted to make pursuing nonprofit and social impact careers more sustainable, but it hadn't been clicking for me that those were people-related problems,” she recalled, “But when I did the human resources internship, it felt right.”

Seeking Out Continuous Growth

After graduating from HBS, Ramirez returned to Danaher, spending two years in Global Talent Management and acting as the de facto Chief Diversity Officer for one of Danaher’s operating companies. That DEI role, in particular, was a spark for Rameriz, and it became clear that she wanted to continue to grow in this area. 

This realization led her to pursue inclusion program manager roles at Netflix and later at Amazon. “Each transition has been about a question that needed to be answered or a problem that needed to be solved,” Ramirez explained. With that in mind, she has been intentional about seeking opportunities for growth and challenging herself in new ways. 

This mindset can be particularly helpful to other HBS students and alumni navigating their own career transitions. Ramirez advised, “Some cultures are conducive to certain outcomes, and others are conducive to different outcomes. So, if you want to scale things quickly, a company that has more structure, processes, and systems is better suited for that. Whereas other companies are more conducive to giving birth to new ideas and creativity. There’s no one definition of good culture, but your culture needs to enable your strategy.”

Promoting Equity and Finding Alignment

Currently, as Director of DEIB at Justworks, Ramirez has taken on her latest challenge of leading impactful initiatives at the growing human resource software company. Most recently, she has been focused on building an advocacy organization within Justworks to remove barriers for business owners who have been historically excluded from opportunities to achieve their entrepreneurial goals of starting and growing their own businesses.

“Justworks is such a young company with really big aspirations,” Ramirez explained. “When we're talking about leveling the playing field for entrepreneurs so that entrepreneurship is accessible to everyone, that is something deeply linked to undoing some of the injustices of the past and promoting fairness and equity.”

In doing this work, Rameriz is operating in alignment with her values and motivators, and she recommends that students and alumni interested in impact-driven work do the same. “Think about your career as a set of interesting problems that you want to solve or experiments that you want to run,” she advised. “Really tease out what is the thing that I care about here, or what is most important, which is a powerful question. When you’re so aligned with what’s important, you can quiet the noise, and your experiments can be structured and executed with a greater degree of success.”