Alejandra Castillo ’92 was sworn in as U.S. Assistant Secretary of Commerce for Economic Development in August, becoming the first woman of color ever appointed to that position. On Monday, Nov. 1, she helped close Stony Brook’s 32nd annual Hispanic Heritage Month celebration, taking part in a virtual Fireside Chat moderated by Angelina Sapienza ’24.
“I grew up in New York City in the 1970s when it was possibly the most challenging time in the city,” said Castillo. “I remember as a kid looking at these abandoned buildings and dilapidated environments. There were no jobs, and I always wondered why my community was so poor while other communities had resources. What did it take to transform a community?”
In her current role, Castillo gets to address this very question and much more as she leads the U.S. Economic Development Administration (EDA), responsible for fulfilling the bureau’s mission of leading the federal economic development agenda.
The Assistant Secretary spoke to us in depth on her current role in government, and a career path that began at Stony Brook.
What are your goals in your current position with the EDA? What do you consider your most important challenge in this role?
We are living in a unique moment in time. As we continue to work to address the devastating health and economic impact of the pandemic, President Biden has challenged us to Build Back Better. To that end, the Economic Development Administration (EDA) stands at the forefront of making transformative investments across the country, and to help build resiliency as we address COVID-19, climate change, and a rapidly changing economic landscape. Under the American Rescue Plan, EDA will invest $3 billion in communities large and small across the country to strengthen the economy, create good paying jobs and help build a workforce ready for the jobs of the future.
At EDA, our investment priorities guide us by providing an overarching framework to ensure that our investment portfolio – ranging from planning to infrastructure construction — contributes to local efforts to build, improve, or better leverage economic assets that allow businesses to succeed, and regional economies to prosper and become more resilient. Notably, ‘equity’ has been added to the top of EDA’s investment priority list.
My goals include making sure EDA continues to be at the forefront of economic development policies, programs and impact, that we listen closely to the needs of communities, and address those needs in ways that match the challenges and opportunities in each community, and ensuring that we are working with populations and underserved communities that have been denied a full opportunity to participate in aspects of economic prosperity in the past.
What are your thoughts on underrepresented groups in today’s workplace?
We continue to see how women are shattering old paradigms and reaching new heights. In fact, we are seeing more women receiving college degrees than men. However, we must also work to strengthen the pipeline of women in STEM-related degrees and jobs.
At the same time, we saw how this pandemic has impacted women in a disproportionate way. Back in October of 2019, when I was serving as CEO of YWCA, we were among the first women organizations to publish a report on the Shecession. We continue to identify ways to accelerate these achievements.
Creating more opportunities for minorities has been my life-long goal. I am committed to ensuring pathways forward and creating opportunities for other minorities by supporting, mentoring, advocating for, and sponsoring other minorities and women. We have an opportunity to leverage our diversity as a nation and unleash tremendous economic growth and resiliency by supporting communities and entrepreneurs of color.
We are witnessing a paradigm shift of what the future of work looks like. The pandemic shed light on some deep disparities in education, access to broadband, the hardship of service workers and how all of these challenges disproportionately affected women and people of color. This is the time to re-imagine the future of work and make the necessary economic and social investments that will help build resiliency for the next natural disaster or pandemic, as well as plant the seed of economic growth that will help strengthen U.S. competitiveness.
I strongly believe we have incredible entrepreneurs who need greater access to capital, contracts and markets. However, we must address the access to capital, especially among women and entrepreneurs of color.
The current moment is unique. It’s been almost 100 years since we last witnessed a pandemic. When we couple the pandemic with an acceleration of automation and other innovations which are causing job displacement, we must be attentive to how government makes critical investments with a lens toward equity.
What career accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m grateful for every professional opportunity that I have experienced thus far and strongly believe that each professional position has provided me with the building blocks that have prepared me for this moment in time. I’m proud for the opportunity to have served under three presidents: Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
I have been fortunate to have worked in the legislative, executive and judicial branches. I consider myself a public servant and a student of government. My goal is to make sure that through my work I’m able to create policies, programs and drive investments that can transform communities. I grew up in New York City in the 1970s. I had big dreams that were just that — dreams. I strongly believe in the American promise, but I also recognize that much needs to happen to ensure that the playing field is leveled and that opportunities are multiplied not for the few, but for the many.
Are there any specific memories from Stony Brook that you are particularly fond of? Did any experience at Stony Brook play a particularly influential role in your post-SBU endeavors?
During my time at SBU I had some amazing professors, friends and mentors. I think about [former Stony Brook professor] Thomas Prusa, who today, two decades later, I still consider a friend and mentor. I also think about Lynda Perdomo-Ayala [administrator, Pharmacological Sciences], who supported my learning and growth as a Latina majoring in economics.
Also, I remember serving as an at-large student representative on the design and coordinating board of the [then] new student union. That experience was an amazing platform to voice the needs, concerns and opportunities that students wanted to see in the design of a new student union. It was a great exercise to sit at the table with the architects, administrators, professors, and business representatives.
Stony Brook has served as my educational bedrock. It was thanks to my education and support at Stony Brook that I was able to pave the road that led me to Washington, D.C.
Is there any advice you can offer to Stony Brook students as they look forward to their post-graduate careers?
Become a true life-long learner. Nurture the curiosity in you and pursue opportunities of learning and growth. This is not only achieved through formal education, but also from experiential leaning and mentors. Push your comfort levels and learn about people, places and things that are different from you and your common environment.