Laura Nieto: Trailblazer Purpose Award Recipient

Laura Nieto, the Director of Community Outreach at Southwest Airlines, is the 2021 recipient of the ACCP Trailblazer Purpose Award, given to a senior CSR practitioner whose leadership, strategy, and programs demonstrate significant business and social impact over time.

As this year’s recipient, we wanted to learn more about Laura, both personally and professionally.

Tell us a little bit about your path to CSR and your current position at Southwest Airlines.

Throughout my 25-year career, I have developed strategic and innovative programming, championed multicultural initiatives, and established a broad-reaching community affairs platform. While my initial path wasn’t directly within the social responsibility space, my passion for building relationships and serving others has allowed me to become a trusted source and company spokesperson across our diverse communities as a CSR leader, a community advocate, and a diversity champion. As Director of Community Outreach, I oversee Southwest’s strategic community investments, employee volunteerism, foundation giving, and social impact initiatives.  

How did 2020 impact/change your CSR efforts?

This year, we gratefully celebrate 50 years of connecting people and championing communities. In 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the airline industry, Southwest’s business, and our traditional approach to serving and giving back to our communities. The Community Outreach Team was able to adapt quickly, remain agile, and reprioritize our giving to ensure we could serve our communities at a time when they needed us most. Because of our commitment to strong financial stewardship, we were poised to find innovative and creative opportunities to give when our business was at a standstill. Our partners rallied and supported us because of the goodwill we had generated over the last two decades. We knew our giving would look different, but we were confident we could still serve our communities in a meaningful way.

What do you wish those outside the field knew about CSR?

Corporate giving has evolved and is now a critical driver in achieving business goals. There was a time when giving was a “nice-to-have,” and now CSR has advanced so much that it’s a “need-to-have” that impacts talent recruitment and retention, brand reputation, risk mitigation, employee engagement, customer loyalty, and much more. I’m excited about the future of CSR and how we, as practitioners, can continue to make progress within the space to support business imperatives and priorities.

What unique thing do you bring to your team at work?

I hope my team would agree that my leadership style encourages creative thinking, ownership of work, flexibility, and a fun-loving environment. At Southwest, we have a rich culture that embraces individuality, a strong work ethic, a fun-loving attitude, and a lot of heart!

What piece of advice would you give someone new to CSR or considering entering the field?

In the CSR world, we are empowered to make a meaningful difference in our everyday work.  Look for opportunities to contribute in ways that align with your values and strengths to make meaningful connections and contributions to the business. Use your voice to share your successes, express interest in advancement, learn a new skill, or take on a new role.  As you grow, success may not look like the path you envisioned. Be open to change. Dream big and live in the moment. I’m reminded of a quote I saw on a plaque just before experiencing my first skydive over the Las Vegas desert. It said, “The biggest risks in life are those not taken.” In your pursuit, open your heart and your mind and have the courage to jump.

If you had to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Courageous. Adventurous. Authentically ME.

Are there any fun facts about yourself that you’d like to share with us?

  • The streets aren’t busy at 5:00 a.m. As a gift of personal time, health and wellness, I decided to run a marathon for my 40th birthday. Ten years later, I’ve completed 14 marathons and am a World Marathon Major Six Star Finisher, having completed the Berlin, Chicago, New York, Tokyo, London, and Boston marathons.   
  • It’s a cool summer. Growing up in the 80s, I was a latch-key kid and took advantage of the educational programming available to our community by the local colleges and universities. While in middle school, I attended summer enrichment programs focused on science and engineering. My career aspirations were to join the military and land a job working at the Defensive Mapping Agency.
  • Smiles all around. In high school, I entered into a citywide scholarship contest hosted by the local dental auxiliary. I won and was named Miss Smiles San Antonio 1990 and featured on the local paper’s front page. My winning essay was on the topic of the importance of dental hygiene and a healthy smile.

Congratulations to Laura and the other recipients of this year’s Purpose Awards. For more information about the awards, please visit our website.