Driving meaningful diversity in communications

February 27, 2024

Leticia Latino-van Splunteren, CEO Neptuno USA Corp

In 2002 my father and I embarked on a journey to the US to explore the possibility of incorporating our family business, Neptuno, a 30-year-old internationally based tower manufacturing company. During this process, we sought guidance from a consultant who, rather tactlessly, advised my father: “Well Mr. Latino, If you are serious about wanting your daughter to run the US business, you have GOLD in your hands, because you can incorporate as a Women minority owned business, and that can be extremely beneficial for you”. Despite the suggestion, which was made to my father without even acknowledging my presence, we chose not to pursue this possibility. We were committed to establishing our presence in the US market with the same principles that had proven successful elsewhere – outstanding products, top-notch services, and unwavering corporate ethics.

Over the past two decades, Neptuno USA, Corp has faced numerous challenges, which are familiar to minority-owned small businesses. These include difficulties accessing capital at competitive rates, exclusion from requests for proposal, demanding requirements from large corporations, particularly in insurance and workforce training, and a struggle to discover federal incentives and programs that could aid our participation. In 2017, I made the decision to obtain the Women’s Owned Business Certification (WBENC) to see if I had, in fact, greatly hindered the company’s growth potential, as a result of our decision not to pursue WBENC status at incorporation.

Re-evaluating business diversity programs

Even though we are now listed in various customer databases as an approved minority-owned business, I can confidently state that after 5 years, our certification hasn’t contributed yet to a specific project. What some have dubbed “diversity washing” means that some companies are just going through the motions and just ticking the checkbox, and not genuinely engaging. What good are ‘diversity programs’ that are only focused on growing the number of minority-owned companies in a database, instead of truly measuring how many of these “new” vendors are given an honest shot at contracting new business, while consistently measuring that instead?

Our story is not unique. Conversations among minority-owned vendors at telecom diversity conferences often center around the question: “Did anything change for you after last year’s event?” Unfortunately, the predominant answer is “NO,” creating a hesitancy to speak up due to the fear of ending up on a “blacklist” somewhere. But the idealistic side of me refuses to remain silent in the face of realities like these. It’s disheartening to witness large companies receiving accolades for their purported support of smaller, underrepresented entities, only to discover a stark contrast with the actual situation.

Pursuing real diversity and inclusion

The need for a more genuine commitment to diversity and inclusion in business practices remains a critical conversation, so a few years ago and fueled by this uncomfortable truth, I made the conscious decision to actively engage in initiatives that could bring about genuine and impactful change in this regard.

Among the myriad opportunities I embraced, two stand out as particularly significant. Firstly, I became a member of the International Board of the Global Telecom Women’s Network (GWTN), driven by the conviction that change could be instigated on a global scale. Additionally, I accepted an appointment to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Equity and Diversity Council (CEDC).

Within this council, I assumed the role of a member in the Innovation and Access Working Group from 2021 to 2023. This Committee was chartered by FCC’s Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel, and was tasked with formulating recommendations on:

  • How to advance equity in the provision of and access to digital communication services and products for all people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, or disability.
  • How to accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access, or “broadband,” in all communities by reducing and/or removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure and investment, and by making recommendations on how to strengthen existing broadband networks and develop new ones.
  • How to accelerate the entry of small businesses, including those owned by women and minorities, into the media, digital news and information, and audio and video programming industries, including as owners, suppliers, and employees.
  • How to create effective means for stakeholders to exchange ideas to create better access to capital, stronger small business mentoring, upskilling vehicles for employment in media and technology industries, media ownership diversity, and procurement opportunities.

The Committee’s objectives were directly related to the FCC’s statutory responsibility regarding broadband deployment, set out in the US Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act 2021 (IIJA), also known as the “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law”, which authorized $1.2Trillion in funding, the largest long-term investment in infrastructure and economy in US history.

An inspirational legacy

I take immense pride in, and am filled with hope and inspiration by, the dedicated efforts of the entire committee during its two- year existence. With over 60 committed industry stakeholders, we collectively shared a passion to exhaustively examine challenges and formulate recommendations, as detailed in the following reports1:

  • “Connecting Communities to Broadband During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Lessons Learned and Recommendations”, submitted by the Digital Empowerment and Inclusion Working Group.
  • “Access to Capital Report and Recommendations”, submitted by the Innovation and Access Working Group.
  • “America’s Digital Transformation Urgent National Priority and Opportunity: Digital Upskilling” submitted by the Innovation and Access Working Group.
  • “The Future of Work and Non-traditional Anchor Institutions”
  • submitted by the Diversity and Equity Working Group.
  • “Enhancing Media Ownership and Entrepreneurial Opportunities for Minorities and Women” submitted by the Diversity and Equity Working Group.

Stepping into the new FCC Building in DC on June 15, 2023, for the final meeting of the Committee and voting on the adoption of the issued recommendations, I couldn’t help but reflect on the significance and scale of the work we had accomplished.

I found myself particularly inspired by FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel’s opening remarks. She compared the event’s celebratory atmosphere to that of a graduation day, drawing attention to the coincidental timing with her favorite graduation speech by Steve Jobs at Stanford University, which happened exactly 18 years prior, which he concluded with the famous phrase “Follow your heart.”

“You’ve lived this cliche. You’ve spent the past two years working on this committee you’ve put your heart and soul into and I know that and I appreciate it”, she said, continuing with: “When people, and especially young people, venture out into the world, we always tell them you should go follow your hearts, just like Steve Jobs did that day. Follow your passion. Now, implicit in that message are a few things, but it’s really the idea that if you work hard, persevere, play by the rules, that is just the path to happiness and success. See, there’s a catch. That path is not the same for everyone. Where some find open doors, others are going to be met with obstacles. Because, let’s face it, no matter who you are and what your aspirations are, it’s not always easy out there, but it’s even harder if you don’t have the same access to capital as others who are trying to start a business. It’s even harder to believe you can do great things when you look at others who are out there and you don’t see too many success stories like you. It’s even harder if you don’t have the same access to broadband because you just don’t live in the right zip code. That’s why the CEDC exists, to help us level the playing field, to make sure that following your heart isn’t a false promise if you don’t fit in the right demographic profile. And as the first woman to lead this agency, confirmed to do so after 87 years, believe me, I know something about not fitting the demographic profile”.

My gender may have been GOLD in your mind, Mr. Consultant, but it’s crucial for you and others to recognize that there’s still a significant need to really ’level the playing field’ if we genuinely aspire to challenge and transcend the existing paradigms of diversity, equity, and inclusion and bring about lasting change.

With over 25 years’ experience in the telecom industry Leticia Latino-van Splunteren went from working for Merrill Lynch and telecom giant Nortel Networks to accepting the challenge of extending the legacy of her family business, founded by her father in Venezuela in 1972, by establishing it in the US back in 2002. Neptuno Group has helped deploy some of the first cellular networks in the Americas where they have built over 10,000 Towers. She was appointed CEO of Neptuno USA, Corp in 2017. Under her leadership, Neptuno has patented several tower designs and has applied 3-Dimensional technologies to Site Surveys, Tower Mapping and Virtual Telecom Assets Libraries. The company also contributed to the development of NAAP, an AI fueled Telecom Asset Management Software, geared to help manage Asset Lifecycles, and is taking an active role in the Smart Cities movement through their innovative multi-host, multipurpose Smart Pole, branded as SmartTecPort.

  1. Reports can be accessed and downloaded at: https://www.fcc.gov/communications-equity-and-diversity-council ↩︎

Leticia was included in the 2023 Most connected Women in Telecom by Conecta Latam, and is a recipient of multiple recognitions, including the ‘Women in IoT’ award by Connected Magazine, Revolutionary CEO’s by Aspioneer and one of the 30 most influential Leaders in Tech by Insight Success. In early 2022 she was appointed by the United States Federal Communications Commission Chairwoman Rosenworcel to serve in the Telecommunications Interagency Working Group, which was formed as a requirement of the Infrastructure Investment Jobs Act and is tasked to present a recommendations report to US Congress on how to address the Telecommunications workforce shortage by January 2023. She was also an appointed Working Group Member to the FCC Diversity and Equity Council and to the FCC’s Broadband Development Advisory Committee. She is a member of the Board of Governors of the National Wireless Safety Alliance and sits on several Boards including the SmartCities Expo Miami Advisory Board, The Global Telecom Women’s Network and The Acceleration Project.