Ellie Nieves, Guardian Life Insurance, Hopewell Junction

Meet one of our top women in business in 2013: Ellie Nieves

With a background in law, high-stakes politics, and corporate lobbying, Ellie Nieves has a valuable perspective on the challenges — plus the rewards — that women face in the business world.  

Nieves grew up in the South Bronx and developed a taste for both politics and communication early in life. Her mom was a community activist; her dad was a newscaster at a Spanish-language radio station.

Nieves went to Fordham University and majored in communications, then opted for law school at Pace University in White Plains. She set her sights on becoming a legislator, and realized law school was the ideal choice. “I wanted to understand the workings of the legal field if I was going to someday make laws,” she says. 

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After law school, she learned the ropes in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, serving on several local and state campaigns, with an initial emphasis on urging Latinos to get out and vote.

“Then I was asked to become New York State political director for Al Gore’s 2000 presidential campaign,” Nieves says. In 2001, she represented another high-profile candidate, serving as campaign manager for Fernando Ferrer — one of the first Latino candidates to run for mayor of New York City. “Although Ferrer didn’t win, it did help boost the political influence of Latinos throughout the region and state,” she says.

Nieves eventually segued away from politics and into the business world. She was recruited for a job as a legislative lawyer in the government relations department of the MetLife insurance company, covering mostly states in the Midwest. “I spent a lot of time on the road, representing the company before legislators and regulators in my assigned states.” After five years as a legislative lawyer, Nieves was named chief of staff to the president of MetLife International.

Her chief of staff experience served as a catalyst for entry into the entertainment industry, when she was hired as chief of staff to entertainment mogul and businessman Sean “P. Diddy” Combs. “I was a liaison between various departments of the company, and learned a lot about the business of music, TV and film production, and other aspects such as restaurants and apparel.”

Eventually she returned to the insurance biz; she is now second vice president and counsel for the Guardian Life Insurance Company of America. She and her husband live in Hopewell Junction.

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Nieves’ desire to give back — especially to other women — inspired her to also become certified as a life and leadership coach. In addition to maintaining her career as a lawyer, she has since launched her own business, Leadership Strategies for Women, in which she works with companies and groups giving keynote presentations, seminars, and webinars to train emerging women leaders to become more effective. She also produces a women’s leadership podcast that is available on iTunes.

Two elements are especially key to Nieves — her heritage as a Latina and as a Christian. “My background and my faith are both very important to who I am,” says Nieves, who also offers women’s leadership programs at local churches and for Latina business groups.

Her advice for women in business stretches back to her early days in the political world. “It’s usually the same question: ‘How do I get ahead?’ ” she says. “I’ve learned over the years that it’s essential to have a strategy. A lot of women think, ‘I’ll just do my work, keep my head down, and if I work hard enough, I’ll get promoted.’ But I tell them ‘No, it doesn’t work that way.’ Be strategic about how you spend your time, even about the job you select. Ask yourself if there’s a future in your industry for you. Are you thinking two, three, five years ahead?

“A lot of women don’t think that way,” she continues. “Men do. I think that one reason why is because men usually play sports growing up; sports are all about being strategic. Fortunately, we’re seeing more young girls being trained in sports, and taking part in groups like the Girl Scouts that teach leadership, which can be very helpful as they grow up and forge their own paths.” Nieves notes: “Meg Whitman, the CEO of Hewlett-Packard, once said she believed she was so successful partly because she played sports in school as a girl. There’s something to that.”

Pondering her busy, impressive career path, Nieves says, “It’s very satisfying that I can be helpful to women. That’s what energizes me.” She emphasizes the importance of businesswomen showing each other the ropes and offering a helping hand — and the value of workshops, seminars, and other networking tools that help empower females.

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“A lot of women may be struggling to get ahead in silence in the business world because they think other women are not experiencing the same challenges. But when they hear other women in the room sharing a similar story, they realize, ‘I’m not the only one!’ When I give presentations, I see a lot of light bulbs going off for women. We need to create more opportunities to inspire, motivate, and challenge women to achieve their vision of success.” 

» Return to the Top 10 Women in Business 2013


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