At first glance, Oklahoma doesn’t have too much in common with Minnesota. One state is known for its open plains, the other for its 10,000 lakes. But if you ask Esther Cortez, there is one thing that both places have in spades—a strong sense of community.
Esther grew up just north of the Texas state line in Davidson, Oklahoma, population 296. Even as a young girl, she knew she wanted to get out of the small town. When it came time for college, she headed 200 miles north to the city of Stillwater to attend Oklahoma State. It was a school in a much bigger city, but still had that small-town feel.
Four years later, with an Agriculture Leadership major under her belt, she was ready to make an even bigger move. This time it was 750 miles north to the land of lakes.
“I came to Minnesota for a Community Relations internship at Land O’Lakes,” Esther says. “I spent a summer managing the Answer Plot® Community Gardens program. Then, when it came time to find a job, luckily Land O’Lakes was a perfect fit for me. They aligned with my beliefs. It was very inclusive. I felt like even though I was hours from home, I had family here.”
That family feeling might have something to do with the support and comradery Esther found in working with the Land O’Lakes Foundation and the LOL Amigos, an Employee Resource Group (ERG) at Land O’Lakes, Inc.
“The Employee Resource Groups are a place for people to come and get to know more about a culture, or get to know more about the people we work with on a day-to-day basis,” says Esther. “The LOL Amigos are a growing group. We're high energy and inclusive, and we’re really trying to get our name, and Land O’Lakes’ name, out there in the community.”
A career at Land O’Lakes
When Esther first started kicking around the idea of moving for college, her parents were initially nervous. She says she’d never been away from home for more than a week at that point. But with her family’s support, she jumped.
The way she tells it, college was a “culture shock,” in a good way.
“The town I grew up in was primarily Caucasian, and Hispanic,” she says. “And a lot of our friends, their families had been in the area for years. Some of that culture or heritage had been lost. So, when I moved to college, it was very diverse. It was a complete culture shock, for sure.”
For the first two years, Esther focused on making new friends and doing well in her classes. At the end of her sophomore year, she was feeling settled enough to try something new. She decided to join a Latino-based sorority known for its community outreach and inclusion efforts.
“I thought it was a way to help me get more in line with my culture, and be more culturally aware. When you grow up in a small town, sometimes you have a mindset that everything you know is what you know,” she says. “You don’t always broaden your horizons. I joined the sorority because I wanted to broaden mine.”
The sorority, and networking connections she got from it, also helped Esther land her internship at Land O’Lakes. She knew she needed an internship, so she began asking around. Her school had a focus on agriculture, so it wasn’t long before the opportunity at Land O’Lakes headquarters came up.
“I thought the internship would be a perfect fit, and it was,” she says. “I was a part of the Community Relations team. I got the opportunity to make a difference. I helped with the Community Gardens, I helped retirees do volunteer projects on site. I helped organize volunteer activities with American Red Cross, Gillette Children’s Hospital and the United Way.”
When a full-time opportunity came up, Esther jumped at the chance to stay with Land O’Lakes. Today, she’s a customer logistics liaison for the Dairy Foods team.
“Growing up, my parents owned a restaurant. So, customer service comes naturally to me,” says Esther. “I started with our Global Dairy Ingredients team, where I handled primarily powders. Now I support the foodservice and retail side of the business. It's different, faster paced, and it's great. I feel like I'm building my talents.”
Becoming an amiga
After permanently moving to Minnesota, Esther kept networking. A sorority connection led her to a new friend, and soon-to-be fellow Land O’Lakes employee–Tommy DeMarco.
“I met Tommy because his fraternity is connected to my sorority. Now, we are friends for life. He’s like a brother to me,” says Esther. “I actually recommended that he apply for a job at Land O’Lakes.”
After Tommy got settled, he soon became a member of the LOL Amigos ERG. ERGs are company-recognized groups of employees who join together to foster a diverse and inclusive workplace. Land O'Lakes has six ERGs: African Ancestry, Asian Affinity Connection, LOL Amigos, Pride Alliance, VETS and the Women's Leadership Network.
Having grown up in a close-knit community, Esther was happy to find one within the company. The ERG was also a way to give back, something that was important to her.
In 2016, within the Twin Cities community, the LOL Amigos participated in several events, including the first annual CLUES Gala Latina. CLUES is the largest Latino-led agency in Minnesota. This nonprofit offers programs and services to connect families to resources, skills, institutions and systems and create an environment for people to be engaged and empowered. The LOL Amigos decided to make a commitment to develop a stronger partnership with the organization.
That’s why earlier this year, the LOL Amigos invited a group of Latino and Hispanic high school students to Land O’Lakes headquarters. During their visit, the students learned about the business, took a tour of the R&D labs and participated in a volunteering event.
For all the Amigos that helped, their volunteer hours will go farther. The Land O’Lakes Foundation recognizes employee group volunteer projects by providing a $1,000 grant to the organization. “The Foundation and Community Relations team here is amazing. They help us and the other ERGs so much with these types of events, either through planning or matching our volunteer hours,” she says. Esther says the CLUES event was a success, both for the students, the Amigos, Land O’Lakes and the community.
“The LOL Amigos are having a positive impact,” says Esther, “And we’re always trying to do better. By getting involved with high schools within the Twin Cities, we can have a big impact. We can show students that Land O’Lakes is the place for them. Our group can continue to help the company build and keep talent. And it may sound cliché, but to me, it’s all about getting out in the community and making a difference.”