A resignation letter addressed to the board of directors of the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has shed some light on the abrupt January departure of its president, who describes being undermined and berated for speaking out.
The letter, written by Diane Sánchez and obtained by the Rivard Report, states that “the inability to practice good governance principles while ignoring and undermining the good work that has been done, hinder my ability and that of the staff to successfully perform our duties and execute this vision.”
The chamber announced Sánchez’s resignation just prior to the end of her one-year contract, which she chose not to renew just days before the annual SA to DC trip co-sponsored by the Hispanic Chamber and other local chambers.
Chamber Chairwoman Erika Gonzalez said the board received Sánchez’s resignation on Jan. 25 but had not been expecting it.
Sánchez was named chamber president and CEO in January 2019 and followed in the steps of Ramiro Cavazos, who had led the chamber for more than a decade before departing in September 2018 for the top post at the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C.
A South Texas native, Sánchez was selected from among more than 100 applicants, said John Agather, board chairman at the time, because of her corporate experience. Before being named CEO of the Hispanic Chamber, Sánchez served as a senior advisor for TriCap Partners, an independent merchant banking and alternative asset management firm based in New York. Agather did not return a call requesting an interview.
Following Cavazos’ announcement in 2018, the selection committee for a new chamber president was headed by Erika Prosper, who also served as chairwoman prior to Agather. Prosper, the wife of Mayor Ron Nirenberg, did not immediately return a call for comment.
In an interview with the Rivard Report prior to the chamber’s annual gala, her first official day on the job in 2019, Sánchez said she wanted to help San Antonio get “ahead of the curve and make sure we do it right.”
Her recent resignation letter stated: “I came here to help navigate the chamber through what I saw as a transformational opportunity, to restore profitable growth, to transform our organization in playing a greater role in facilitating inclusive growth and economic development in San Antonio’s Small Business Sector and to help transform the business of our members.”
Sánchez spoke with the Rivard Report on Feb. 1, to address the reasons behind her resignation, but avoided speaking directly about the chamber due to a nondisparagement clause in her contract. She deferred to the chamber’s attorney, Andrew Casillas, who suggested Sánchez contact her own attorney, Kyle Watson, regarding speaking freely to the media. “All I can say is, I will confirm that there’s no pending legal action at this time,” Casillas said.
Watson did not return several calls for comment.
However, Sánchez said she was excited about the alliances the chamber created with organizations in the community and some key initiatives intended to move the business community forward. “I am very proud of the work that we’ve done so far and I guess it would have been nice to finish what we started,” she said.
But, she added, her “issue was more working and trying to function in a hostile and abusive environment was very difficult for me and my team,” though she would not elaborate on that.
Her letter explaining her decision to quit is only slightly more detailed:
“I anticipated the headwinds like the economic segregation experienced for years in San Antonio that has made this transformation even more difficult but yet challenging. Undermined and berated for speaking out on matters of public concern and urging Board compliance with operational guidelines has taken its toll. The distractions that we have seen, the constant drumbeat of the same issues over and over again driven by the inability to practice good governance principles while ignoring and undermining the good work that has been done, hinder my ability and that of the staff to successfully perform our duties and execute this vision. These continuous distractions and negativity over the last several months, inhibits our ability to make positive change and stay focused on the mission at hand. Addressing the noise by itself is damaging as well as working and trying to function in a hostile and abusive environment. Hundreds of hours of my own time and that of my staff have gone into this recently.”
When asked to comment on Sánchez’s claims regarding governance issues, Gonzalez, the chairwoman, responded through her spokesman with a statement: “We have a diverse, strong and extremely talented board with vast experience sitting on non-profit boards which includes having a broad knowledge of proper Governance. Furthermore, we have a Governance Committee which is charged with continuously improving Board procedure and process. I am proud and honored to serve alongside each and everyone one of these well-respected community leaders.”
Sánchez’s team saw significant turnover during her final months at the chamber, with one source who requested anonymity naming several chamber staffers, including Sánchez’s executive assistant and board liaison, who have resigned or been terminated. Gonzalez confirmed that employment matters, such as hiring and firing of staff, were the CEO’s sole responsibility and did not involve the board.
But Sánchez said she approached every job she’s held with the intention to “get the best people to do what we need to do and align with the vision and the mission,” she said. “I don’t look at it as turnover. I don’t look at as anything else other than making sure that we have the best people … to do what we need to do and accomplish our goals.”
Cavazos, as former president and CEO, said he was not involved in the selection process for his successor, nor does he know Sánchez personally or have any direct insight into her decision to resign. But, he added, such positions are very demanding and turnover is not unusual.
“This happens – it happens with all organizations,” Cavazos said. “Change is hard, transition is hard. I was there for over 10 years and we had a strong DNA and that DNA will continue beyond this change.”
Sánchez also stated in her letter that she plans to continue her work to support the Hispanic small business community in San Antonio.
“It’s not like a venture per se and there are going to be initiatives that will be launched with certain organizations, but right now it’s trying to keep … things moving into the direction that we need to move in the city,” she said.
In a Jan. 27 letter to chamber members, Gonzalez wrote that the board of directors is working “swiftly” to identify an interim president and CEO. “We are focused on making sure the next potential successor is part of a pool of small business-minded candidates with excellence in operational efficiency, community engagement, and advocacy,” the chairwoman’s letter states.
Reporter Nicholas Frank contributed to this report.