The pro-bono work of Antonio Tijerino has helped him travel a
winding road from Burson-Marsteller to Nike, and finally to a foundation
that recognizes promising Hispanics. He talks to Douglas Quenqua about
Antonio Tijerino's career is proof that pro-bono work pays. He's
executive director of the Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation (HHAF),
funded by the Fannie Mae Foundation.
True, he's made most of his money from places like Nike,
Burson-Marsteller, and the Fannie Mae Foundation. But he's made a living
- or a life, more accurately - from the work no one told him he had to
Born in Nicaragua in 1961, "Tonio," as he's known to friends, moved with
his parents and two siblings to Washington, DC in 1967 - "the summer of
love," as he still calls it. His eager, boyish smile may have foretold a
lifetime in PR, but his tongue didn't. He spoke no English, and the
school system made little effort to teach him the language. "In first
grade, they stuck me in the back of the room. I wasn't learning
anything," he remembers. "I was just ignored."
But life in Washington was idyllic compared to some of the other places
Tijerino has called home. DC was culturally diverse, and plenty of other
kids looked like the way he did and shared his family's values. But
following his parents' divorce, Tijerino moved to rural Illinois.
He used to spend summers in Nicaragua, but the eruption of civil war in
1978 ended that tradition. Tijerino and his family made it out of the
country the day before the airports closed.
But Tijerino is far from the somewhat Dickensian character his
background may suggest. He's funny, lighthearted and gregarious - and he
really, really loves public relations.
He's the kind of guy who makes casual conversation about the "value of a
deadline." If you mention someone who didn't return your call, you'll
get a 10-minute soliloquy on being responsive. Suggest you can get
somewhere in this industry by being ruthless, and he'll give you a dozen
examples of success by friendship. Mention just about anyone on the
Washington PR scene, and he'll tell you how he knows him or her.
Tijerino's PR jobs range from the corporate side to the agency world to
nonprofits. He graduated from the University of Maryland's School of
Journalism in the mid-'80s, intent on becoming a reporter for either The
Washington Post or Rolling Stone. Instead, he found himself writing
obituaries at local community papers.
He switched sides by 1990, taking a job in the newly formed grassroots
department of Burson-Marsteller. Over the next six years, he moved from
project to project, learning the trade, and handling everything from
media relations for the NAFTA campaign to consumer accounts such as Bell
Atlantic and Coca-Cola.
He spent a year launching the DC office of Burson sister agency Cohn &
Wolfe, which eventually gave way to a dream job as director of
communications at sports company Nike in Portland, OR.
Pro-bono work led to his appointment at Nike. He signed on with the
Youth Life Foundation, an organization founded by Washington Redskins
cornerback Darrell Green to help "open doors" for underprivileged DC
youth and their families. (Green was instrumental in getting Tijerino
his post with Nike.) In 1994, he volunteered to be the director of
communications for the AIDS Walk. True to his Washington upbringing, he
also volunteered for the Clinton/Gore campaigns of '92 and '96.
His next job in Washington gave him experience in yet another side of
the business: director of PR and communications at the Fannie Mae
Foundation. "One of the great things about Fannie Mae was that they gave
me the autonomy and the directive to put a PR department in place," he
says. "There wasn't much of one before."
The primary function of the Foundation is to fund other groups that
create better living conditions in communities throughout America. One
of those groups is the HHAF.
"I took a special interest in HHAF because of my heritage," he says.
Each year, the HHAF recognizes an increasing number of Hispanic youth
for notable achievement. Tijerino found himself following the progress
of one, Michelle Mayorga, a girl of Nicaraguan descent who interned at
the White House and has since attended Yale. That closeness made an
impression on the top brass at the HHAF, which invited him to apply for
his first non-PR job since his days at Burson. They wanted him to become
"It was all his experience that led us to this decision," says Heritage
Foundation creator Elaine Dagen Bella, who has occupied the executive
director post for the past 15 years.
"The mission of the foundation is to promote Hispanic excellence and to
provide role models within the community, and that's a PR function."
At only 40, it would seem Tijerino has come full circle. A career that
has mixed PR with charity work has culminated in a position that
combines not just the two, but his heritage as well. So what's left to
"I'd still like to write for The Washington Post."
Director of corporate comms, Nike
Director of PR and communications, Fannie Mae Foundation
Executive director, Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation