ANALYSIS: Profile - From the back of the class to classycommunicator

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

his journey.



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

do.



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

executive director.



"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

do?



"I'd still like to write for The Washington Post."



ANTONIO TIJERINO

1990-1997

SAE, Burson-Marsteller

1997-1998

Director of corporate comms, Nike

1998-2001

Director of PR and communications, Fannie Mae Foundation

2001

Executive director, Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation



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