Diego Santos, Vital Strategies Operations Manager in Brazil, was given two opportunities as a child growing up in Rio de Janeiro that later opened more doors than he or his family imagined.
Diego’s mother worked long hours as a hospital receptionist, and Diego was largely raised by his grandmother, and in the streets of his neighborhood where children did not always have toys but where there were always friends to play with.
When Diego was 8 years old, an accomplished Brazilian ballroom dancer, Carlinhos de Jesus, came to the hospital where Diego’s mother worked.
“She said, ‘Oh, my kid doesn’t stop dancing,’” Diego said. “And the dancer said, ‘You can introduce me to him.’ And then I went to this ballroom dance school, and I danced, and I got a scholarship. As I was just a child, I didn’t understand what that meant but I was happy when my mom explained it meant that we would do the dance classes for free. When I began, I was the only kid doing ballroom with adults in the school, and I did it for 10 years.”
Ballroom dancing fed Diego’s passion and provided him poise and structure, and also many of his closest friends. When he was a teenager, Diego went on to teach ballroom dancing to younger kids.
At around the same age as when he began ballroom dancing, Diego was watching television with his grandmother when he saw an ad he didn’t understand. He asked his grandmother what it was about, and she explained it was for English classes. Diego asked if he could learn English, even though no one else in his family spoke the language.
Diego’s grandmother used what money she had to enroll him, and Diego went on to take classes until he was an adult.
“She worked very hard to pay for my English course. Even though we were not in a great economic position, she found the resources for me to do that. With English I got many opportunities. I got jobs working for hotels and international organizations. Language skills open lots of doors in Brazil.”
Diego went on to study Spanish, which he speaks fluently. It was that television commercial for English classes that eventually led him to Vital Strategies.
After he finished high school, Diego got a degree as tourism technician and began working in tourism. At just age 17, he worked as an intern and then as a regular employee at J.W. Marriott Hotels in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil and then he got an internship and worked for 18 months at the Miami Dadeland Marriott Hotel in the U.S.
When Diego returned to Brazil, he went to university at Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro to study business administration. While in school, he worked as an administrative assistant for the International Transport Workers’ Federation, a trade union that represents about 19 million transport workers globally. Diego organized the international events for the union, managing logistics and flights.
Then, he went on to work as the operations coordinator for Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative (DNDi) in Brazil. In his seven years there, he managed procurement, logistics, IT, offices and international events, and was responsible for the Latin American region.
For two years, he was elected to be one of two employee representatives to the executive committee, a role he approached with great responsibility and which gave him courage to become a greater advocate for his colleagues. Diego created a survey for employees at the beginning of his term which allowed him to challenge the executive committee of DNDi on various HR policies.
“I was taking these challenging topics to the executive team and all of this was taken to the board,” which was mostly white men from Europe, he said. “I had to learn as a first thing that this is something new, I am going to be here saying things they don’t like. This is part of the job and the game and I can’t be uncomfortable with that.”
Diego is particularly proud that one of his efforts—to increase opportunities for exchanges and mobility within offices and between offices—was successful.
Diego joined Vital Strategies in October 2020, as the pandemic raged in Brazil.
“I left DNDi on Monday, and I joined Vital on Tuesday. I didn’t leave my home and I never met anyone in person. It was awkward and challenging, but I was very happy. It was something I had dreamed of.”
It has helped Diego to work at a public health organization to feel purposeful during the pandemic. In 2020, for the first time in many years, Diego moved in with his mother, who works as an x-ray technician in a hospital, and he regularly sees his sister who is a nurse.
“They both inspired me. Even when we didn’t know what was happening with the pandemic, they said, this is a war and this is the profession I chose so I have to keep going. They are still working on the front line. They inspired me to keep going.”
There has been a lot of misinformation about the pandemic in Brazil, including instructions from the government not to wear masks and hesitancy about the vaccine.
“We don’t have country coordination, which is why we have such high numbers. I saw most of my close friends living their life normally, and I couldn’t believe people couldn’t have empathy,” he said. “That was a really, really hard thing for me.”
In his new role, Diego overseas operations and human resources. Right away, he focused on how to engage employees during a stressful time and with everyone working remotely. He organized mental health sessions for staff and strategic meetings to align people, and build trust, exchange opportunities and synergies within the programs.
In his first year, the Brazil office staff has more than doubled from 10 to 26 people, a hiring process Diego managed. He is now focused on diversifying the staff.
“As we are growing, we have the opportunity to include people, diverse people in the organization. And it is an opportunity to include Black people who make up the majority of the country’s population and due to the social inequalities don’t have the access to equal opportunities white people have.”
Following the movement for racial justice in 2020 and the death of George Floyd, some organizations in Brazil started to focus on prioritizing the recruitment of Black people, and Diego worked with Vital HR and leadership to integrate similar policies into Vital’s work in Brazil.
He identified that the main challenge to hiring Black Brazilians is English fluency. Diego has engaged a recruitment consultant, and has made English an optional skill, unless it is required by a specific position.
“We do not need to find someone who fits the job description exactly. Just like I was given the opportunity, someone does not have to have all the skills and competencies.” he said. Diego remembered the expression from Verna Myers, a well-known thought leader author: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance.”
In the future, Diego would like to do a master’s degree in Human Resources and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Diego is also proud that he can help his sister’s 8-year-old son by paying for his twice-a-week English lessons.
“I want to help my community. That is one of my goals,” he said. “I have an optimistic plan. I want to become an executive of an organization. I am on the way to that. I want to keep traveling. And one day I want to have a little hotel in a nice neighborhood close to the beach, with good customer service for people. And for now, I am very happy in this position. I am very grateful to be operations manager and be in HR. I can affect the lives of a small group of people in a big way.”