A Passion for
Real Change

A Passion for
Real Change

Grissel Seijo ’06 has dedicated her career to making the workplace more diverse and inclusive. Heartened by the national awakening around racial justice, she is cautiously optimistic about the future.

By Sheila Weller | Photography by Sonya Revell
In the fall of 2019, when I met Grissel Seijo ’06, counsel, employment, diversity, and inclusion, U.S. and international, for Restaurant Brands International (RBI)—the company that owns Popeyes, Burger King, and Tim Hortons—she had just attended the Hispanic National Bar Association annual conference and was excited about the rich discussion of diversity and inclusion that had taken place. As a woman raised in the South Bronx by Puerto Rican parents, this 4'11" powerhouse explained that she wanted both qualities to flourish for the 1,200 corporate and 3,000 restaurant-level employees in her company’s venues throughout the world. “I do everything,” she said. “I advise on hiring, firing, coaching, discipline, and workers’ compensation.” But it’s Seijo’s work as a diversity and inclusion official that is closest to her heart. “It’s my passion,” she says.
The Year That Changed Everything
What a difference a year can make. Though Seijo’s enthusiasm for transforming the workplace was intense back then, the events of 2020—the global COVID-19 outbreak and the rise of a national movement for racial justice—only intensified it. For a company consisting largely of food-service workers and franchisers, Seijo says that RBI’s employees’ and clients’ safety was a consuming challenge, requiring—and begetting—“an all-hands-on-deck response for team members, guests, and colleagues.”
Grissel Seijo in a purple suit jacket and standing in front of a Burger King Sign
While there is now considerable hope for the future as the vaccine rolls out on a wide scale, when I talked with her in March, the number of new cases were still high. “We’re not over COVID,” Seijo made clear. In a year spent methodically looking, daily, at the conditions affecting all the restaurants within which RBI’s 2,500 to 3,000 workers labor, “we’ve learned resilience, and we’ve learned how to manage crisis at a level we’ve never had before. RBI paid for 14 days of quarantine for every worker, and some of those paid quarantines were extended,” she said. In the process, “we learned compassion. ‘Please’ and ‘thank you’ go a long way. We’ve learned to say `How are you?’ and wait for an answer.” When I spoke with Seijo again in May after the vaccine rollout, she said, “There’s definitely been a significant movement in vaccinations, but that said, my company is still offering vaccinations to all who want them. They can be vaccinated in our offices.” As for how the pandemic may have reshaped the business, “It didn’t and it hasn’t. We were always essential workers. We never closed down and we never stopped serving the public. How it ‘changed’ is that we became more empathetic—and we still are.”

“Aiming for a diverse, inclusive workplace is not only the right thing to do, but there’s a business model that proves it makes sense.”

Then, in the early summer of 2020 came the dramatic and meaningful protests—and the enormous subsequent racial reckoning—sparked by the brutal killing of George Floyd. Two things resulted, says Seijo. “On a personal level, it was as heartbreaking as it could be. First, watching my family members and my friends understand how ingrained racism is in our society was itself a beating … we were getting our souls killed.”
Seijo sitting on the lap of her late mother
Seijo and her late mother, Herminia Calderón de Seijo, who she calls “the single most important influence in my life.”
On the other hand, “while others had to race to come up with ways to make their workplaces and cultures more diverse, we were already on this journey—me personally and me at RBI. Unlike the other companies, which were scrambling, we were ahead of the curve—already knee deep into diversity and inclusion. We had rolled out implicit bias training globally in 2019. Did we have a way to go? Of course we did, but we were not caught off guard like a lot of our colleagues were.”

RBI added, rather than launched, initiatives. “We expanded events; we created new franchisee panels, with Black franchisees on Zoom talking about what it is like to be a Black business owner. We started scholarships for Black chefs. I started a ‘Happy Sunday’ series on LinkedIn where I post about what it is like to be a Puerto Rican woman from the South Bronx,” raised in a small apartment by a factory-worker father and a mother who was a day-care worker and a housekeeper.

Seijo’s journey is an inspiring up-by-the-bootstraps American success story. One sister is a judge in Puerto Rico, the other is a global privacy attorney for a pharmaceutical company, and her brother is a nuclear engineer. “My parents skewed the statistics completely,” she says proudly. “Latinos make up 18 percent of the U.S. population, but we are underrepresented in many higher-educational-dependent fields.”

Generosity from Unexpected Places
Seijo has worked her entire career to help change this imbalance, mentoring other Latinx as they navigate choppy corporate waters. She credits her knack for mentoring—another thing she is passionate about—to Fordham Law’s evening program. She enrolled in 2002, at the age of 30, after receiving a B.A. at Columbia College and an M.A. and Ed.M. at Columbia Teachers College while also working at Morgan Stanley as an intern doing contract compliance and international regulation, often for 30 hours a week. “Fordham was and is a very inclusive school,” she says. “Its motto, ‘In the Service of Others,’ is written on the building. But those aren’t just words; it is how we conduct our lives—integrating ethics into moot court competitions and into assignments. As law students we mentored each other, and I became co-president of the Latin American Law Students Association alongside Ana Bermeo. We organized events on civil rights, among other things, and the deans were very supportive, especially Nitza Milagros Escalera, the [now retired] assistant dean of students.”

Indeed, the humanity of three members of the Fordham Law community in particular taught Seijo that heartfelt generosity can make all the difference in a struggling student’s life. Though she was financially pressed, Seijo funded her own education. But between her second and third years at the Law School, she suddenly found herself unable to pay tuition. “It had just gone up by $2,000,” she says. She was also dealing with a crisis at home. Her father had suffered a severe stroke and she and one of her sisters were co-funding his medical care. “Since I couldn’t pay tuition, I wasn’t allowed to register. I just didn’t have the money, even though I was already working 30 hours a week as a legal intern at Morgan Stanley.” Her voice catching, Seijo recalls bursting into tears in a hallway at the school, where she was overheard by class president Greg Xethalis ’05, who took it upon himself to talk to Escalera about getting Seijo a scholarship.

“Everyone was working to save me, and I didn’t even know it!”

Nitza Escalera smiling in front of a dark blue background
Nitza Escalera,
former assistant dean of students
Greg Xethalis wearing a black suit and sitting in front of a white background
Greg Xethalis ’05
Helen Bender wearing a black suit jacket
Helen Bender
Meanwhile, Helen Bender, an associate professor of law, also noticed her distress and asked what was wrong. “I can’t even register—I can’t afford it,” Seijo answered. Bender, who knew Seijo only slightly from her contracts class, immediately said, “Come with me,” then walked her three blocks to her own apartment, where she took out her checkbook and wrote a check for $2,000. Seijo was astonished, and grateful—and even more so the next day when she told Escalera about Bender’s generosity. That’s when Escalera revealed that she and Xethalis were working together to secure funds for the $2,300 Seijo needed for the second semester.

“Everyone was working to save me, and I didn’t even know it!” says Seijo, who is still in regular touch with Xethalis and Escalera. “Within 24 hours I went from being deficient $4,000 to being registered for the year without any roadblocks. The folks at Fordham are ridiculously special.” She says the student body was diverse and welcoming, and the Law School’s emphasis on advancing social justice made it possible for her, a smart daughter of working class parents, to succeed.

Ascending the Corporate Ladder
After finishing law school, Seijo was a summer associate at Winston and Strawn, specializing in labor and employment litigation. Following that she was an intern at the law school’s Law Tax Clinic, representing indigent clients in front of the IRS, and also participated in Fordham’s Mediation Clinic. Then it was back to Winston and Strawn as an associate attorney, representing real estate and construction clients, working on collective bargaining matters, and defending against claims of discrimination. This experience was followed by working for hospitality corporate clients at Akerman Senterfitt (now Akerman), resulting in saving them money, defending them in their battles for restrictive covenants and against claims of executive misconduct. After that, as a partner at Hudson Calleja, she both defended corporate clients (rising to partnership by amassing a quarter-million-dollar book of business) and helped the firm become a member of the National Association of Minority & Women Owned Law Firms. Her agility with working on behalf of powerful corporate clients and for minority and low-compensated employees was due in part to Fordham Law’s distinctive ability to help its students master unique career pathways.

“There are tons of studies on how greater diversity in the C-suite and in leadership will lead to greater profitability.”

The work Seijo does now has at its core the same humanity that benefited her as a law school student. She oversees trainings that help managers and employees avoid implicit bias. She teaches colleagues that biases can be unconscious, and also wider and more subtle than the prejudice against certain ethnicities, religions, or sexual orientations that we typically think of.

One example: “In performance reviews, you have to train managers to not write that a woman is ‘emotional’—that’s not helpful,” she says. There’s also bias against more introverted workers. “When you have a meeting and you have someone who is less vocal, it doesn’t mean they’re less analytical,” she tells managers. “Correcting bias can be encouraging everyone at the table to speak by asking, ‘What’s your opinion?’ Half of the problem with being inclusive is that we focus on some obvious differences and exclude others. It’s also challenging assumptions—that someone with dyslexia is not intelligent when it’s really a reading disability, not I.Q. we’re talking about. Or, that if someone is Black, it means they’re poor, or that a Black franchisee deserves a higher interest rate on loans. The George Floyd situation didn’t change the world; it opened people’s eyes. We—people of color—already knew it existed.”

Grissel Seijo in a purple suit jacket and white pants, standing in front of a bright orange photoshoot screen
Her work isn’t always easy. When RBI set a goal that 50 percent of the final-round applicant pool needed to be diverse, she heard, “So, basically, no straight white men, right?” Her reply: “I say, ‘No, no! That’s scarcity thinking! You can be a white man and a veteran. Or you can be white and a member of the LGBTQ community. Or you can be a white woman and a vet. Or a white woman and a Muslim.’” Expanding the makeup of the workforce this way not only benefits workers, but also the company. “The more we grow the company’s pie, the more that company will grow. There are tons of studies on how greater diversity in the C-suite and in leadership will lead to greater profitability,” she says. “Aiming for a diverse, inclusive workplace is not only the right thing to do, but there’s a business model that proves it makes sense.”

That’s why, when her colleagues are hiring, she encourages them to look at a résumé and “not only see what’s on it, but what’s not,” she says. “If an applicant has a 3.0 average and was working 35 hours a week to self-fund her education, then that 3.0 average just gained status for me. Saying 3.0 without taking the circumstances into account isn’t enough.”

In part, Seijo learned to keep an eye out for those circumstances as a lawyer in the Miami office of Littler Mendelson, the world’s largest labor and employment law firm, where she worked just before coming to RBI. Her mentor there was Mishell Parreño Taylor, the managing shareholder of the firm’s San Diego office, who says that Seijo’s relationship with the firm’s 60-member Latino/Latina affinity group Reunión is ongoing. “Grissel talks about how being multilingual and multicultural can be an advantage,” says Taylor. “She continues to be a resource to us. She leads by advice and also by example.”

Recently, as co-chair of the Latina Leadership Academy, Seijo found herself talking with another group in need of counsel: 35 Latinas who had been in the workforce 10 years or less and were looking for advice on how to get a seat at the corporate table. “Sometimes, I find myself having conversations people don’t always like to have. But we must have them and we do,” she says. Those conversations might include tough questions like, Is there a right and a wrong way to look? “Image matters,” says Seijo. “It would be lovely if we lived in a world where it didn’t. Unfortunately, we do not live in that world.”

A Mother to Look Up to
It’s a good bet that Seijo inherited that kind of realism from the woman she calls “the single most important influence in my life”—that is, her mother, Herminia Calderón de Seijo, who died of lung cancer in 2011. Besides raising her children to hope and dream on a factory- and day-care worker’s salary, Herminia also taught her kids the importance of keeping their feet on the ground.

“After I graduated law school, someone said to my mother, ‘Oh, you must be so proud of Grissel.’ My mother put her cigarette down—she was a smoker; that’s who she was—and said, ‘I don’t really care about titles. I care that my girls are good girls, that they remember where they came from, and that they take somebody with them.’” Seijo smiles at that memory. “That last sentence of hers is ultimately what diversity and inclusion are all about,” she says. “Marching is lovely, but it’s just marching. A real cultural shift comes when everybody actually changes, and I have not seen that.”

She thinks of her mother often. When we last spoke, Seijo— who has been married for 19 years to a political advisor (“a normal person, not a lawyer,” she laughs)—was driving her 12-year-old daughter Nadia to a socially distanced birthday party. “Making the world better for her: I dedicate my life to that,” she said. When I told her those words were inspiring, she again said, with deep meaning, “Thank you. That would make my mother very, very happy.”

Grissel with her daughter Nadia.with her arms wrapped around her shoulders
Grissel with her daughter Nadia