Champions of Change – Top 5 Connecticut Latinos


As the end of 2012 approaches, and we in Connecticut have witnessed such sorrow these last few days, is looking ahead to 2013 as a year when we can all increase our efforts to work together to affect change in so many arenas. While this year ends on such a tragic note, we would like to focus on the good and inspiring deeds of so many in our state that  have taken place daily this past year, impacting us all in a positive way.
To recognize these deeds within the Latino community, we launch a series this week called “Champions of Change” that highlights people and organizations that have worked tirelessly to affect change for Latinos and non-Latinos in Connecticut. They have accomplished change through various means, some through their professional work, others by generously volunteering their time, working for change through policy implementation or by using the legal system.
Our “Champions of Change” were selected by our editorial team and represent many sectors that include: health, business, politics, media, art and law. We present them to you in five categories – Top Five, Five Young Latinos already making a difference, Five Non-profit Organizations, Five Latinos in Media & Arts and the Most Visible Latino. Today we highlight Connecticut’s Top Five Latino “Champions of Change”: John Soto, Frances Padilla, Yvette Meléndez, Andres Ayala, and Beatriz Gutierrez.


John Soto

The owner of Space-Craft Manufacturing in New Haven, John Soto has used his business acumen and wealth for social and economic change through  philanthropy. Born in Puerto Rico, he started his company 42 years ago with four employees and today Space-Craft Manufacturing is now recognized as an industry leader.
But, in addition to his success as a businessman, Soto has personally donated hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years and devoted countless hours of his time to Latino related organizations, especially those whose mission is helping Connecticut’s youth. During the past 20 years, he has supported such organizations as Youth at Risk, Junior Achievement, and New Haven’s Latino Youth Development program, among others.
He has also established numerous scholarships for Latino students, and is a major donor to both the Latino Endowment Fund at the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving and the Progresso Latino Fund at the Community Foundation of New Haven. Over the years, he has been an initial funder to help launch numerous programs such as “Latinas & Power Symposium” and the CALAHE/GUAKIA “Dollars for Scholars Golf Classic.” John Soto is a true “Champion of Change.”

Frances Padilla

Through her life-long personal commitment and volunteer work, and as well as now as one of the state’s leading Health Reform advocates, Frances G. Padilla is quietly impacting quality of life for all Connecticut residents.
As president of the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut, Frances has provided strategic direction and visionary leadership to help create a 21st century system of health care for every man, woman and child in the state.  Building on the strong tradition of activism already established by the foundation, Frances Padilla is working toward initiating new partnerships, increasing outreach and deepening civic engagement on one of the most important public policy issues of our time.
Under her leadership, the foundation has ushered in the creation of an innovative philanthropic funding program to build a movement for universal health care through results-oriented partnerships in education, outreach and mobilization.  Prior to becoming president, Frances led the national team of experts that produced SustiNet, the innovative health reform policy initiative passed into state law in 2009, which shaped the building block legislation passed in 2011, and set the stage for the state and federal reforms currently underway.
A graduate of Wesleyan University and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, Frances has also given much of her personal time over the years to benefit the state’s Latino community. She is a co-founder with her husband John Padilla, of the Progresso Latino Fund of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, an endowment fund created to encourage Latino giving and to promote the educational, economic and well-being of Latinos in the Greater New Haven.   Since it was created in 2003, the fund has grown to approximately $250,000 through individual and foundation contributions, allowing it to sponsor educational forums and community events, provide scholarship money to high school students and sponsor summer reading programs for younger children.  Frances, we are fortunate to have you in Connecticut as a “Champion of Change.”

Yvette Meléndez

Yvette Meléndez had held several executive positions in key organizations where she has been able to affect policy change. She is currently the vice president, Government and Community Alliances, for Hartford Hospital. Prior to this post Yvette Meléndez served as chief of staff and chief administrative officer for the Connecticut State University System, deputy commissioner at the Department of Public Health and Addiction Services, and at the State Department of Education where she launched Connecticut’s entry into the charter school movement, serving as the architect of the state’s program and facilitating the authorization of Connecticut’s initial 17 charter schools.
Yvette Meléndez has also somehow managed to find time to sit on numerous boards  to   shares her skills and talents to affect change. She currently serves as vice chair of the Board of Regents for Higher Education, which oversees Connecticut’s state universities and community colleges, and is also vice chair of the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving. She was one of the founding members of the foundation’s Latino Endowment Fund and has served on various local, national and international boards, including the Hartford Region YWCA, the YWCA of the USA and the World YWCA in Geneva, Switzerland; the Connecticut Council for Philanthropy; and various community based agencies serving the Latino community.  Thank you Yvette Meléndez for your commitment to being a “Champion of Change” in so many arenas!

Andres Ayala

Born in Bridgeport, Democrat state Senator-elect Andres Ayala Jr.  is clearly a champion of change in the political arena as well as through his role as a community leader where he has spent his career building opportunities and opening doors for others. He was elected in November to represent the 23rd State Senatorial District,  the first Democrat Latino Senator in Connecticut history.  As a member of the majority party in the legislature and early supporter of Gov. Dannel Malloy, Andres Ayala’s political clout is undoubtedly on the rise.
Andres Ayala’s political life began on Bridgeport City council, where he rose to become City Council president – the first Latino do ever do so.  In that role, he worked to develop and approve Bridgeport’s school building plan, which created five brand new schools in the city.  He has also served three terms as state representative for the 128th district in Bridgeport.
Shortly after arriving at the Capitol, Andres Ayala initiated the first Latino Advocacy Day at the Capitol in 2008 – the first time ever such an event had been held. Latinos from around the state converged on the Capitol to call attention to inequities in state funding for Latino organizations and agencies.
He is an educator in the Bridgeport school system, where he has worked a as a teacher, dean of students and advisor to the Aspira Youth Development Program and he continues his community activism in his city by volunteering his time with numerous community groups such as the Annual Walk to End Homelessness that has raised more than a million dollars for Alpha Community Services, the only emergency shelter for families in Bridgeport.  Andres Ayala is a “Champion of Change” who works for everyone’s future.

Beatriz Gutierrez

Beatriz Gutierrez is helping to change the future of Connecticut by making it more of a global player in the marketplace in her role as head of the Department of Economic and Community Development’s international business development efforts. She brings a unique perspective to economic development in Connecticut: as a Latina with a strong business background and a knowledge of the world.
Born in the United States to Colombian parents, and raised in Colombia, Gutierrez returned to the U.S. to study electrical engineering at Marquette University in Milwaukee, WI, graduating in 1990. After college, she went to work for Allen-Bradley, a division of Rockwell Automation, a Milwaukee-based technology company with a global presence. There, she specialized in business-to-business marketing for controls and automation products.
Her tenure at DECD began as something as a trial by fire, and she jumped right in, starting with Governor Dannel P. Malloy’s trip to China. This high-stakes sales call for Connecticut manufacturers and other businesses sent a group of state and private-sector officials from Sept. 8 to 16. They visited multiple sites in the world’s most populous nation and number two economic power.
Gutierrez’ office is currently putting together a strategic plan for Connecticut to compete in international markets. Also under her umbrella is domestic recruitment – looking at companies in other parts of the U.S. that are looking to expand – and having them consider Connecticut as a place for that expansion. One rationale for hiring a person with her level of private sector experience is for a competitive edge; other states are trying to attract these same businesses, and Connecticut needs top talent in order to market itself.
Thank you Beatriz Gutierrez for being a “Champion of Change” for Connecticut’s economy, which ultimately benefits us all.