Maria Rodriguez (reduced size)

Capitol Communicator is running a series of profiles of communicators in the mid-Atlantic. In this “up close and personal” profile, we feature Maria Rodriguez, president of D.C.-based Vanguard Communications. Photography for this series by Cade Martin; wardrobe styling by Pascale Lemaire for THE Artist Agency; and hair and makeup by Patti D Nelson and Janice Kinigopoulos for THE Artist Agency.

Maria, please provide us a short bio.

I co-founded Vanguard Communications in 1987 with one of my first mentors (and bosses). We both wanted to put our PR and communications skills to work exclusively on behalf of social issues we cared about, like women’s health, the environment and food safety. At the time, there weren’t any other firms that focused only on social issues. So we had to start one. For the last 14 years, I’ve been the sole owner and president of Vanguard, and the firm is still fiercely committed to working on issues that protect the health and well-being of the planet and its people. We understand that in order to make strides in these areas, we must engage people in culturally and linguistically competent ways, and our team of 30 is devoted to advancing change with that in mind.

Are you involved in any other organizations?

All of Vanguard’s clients are in the nonprofit or public sector, and I’m directly involved with many of them. I have also sought out volunteer opportunities where my skills can make a difference. Currently, I serve on the boards of the National Latino Behavioral Health Association (NLBHA) and the National Network to End Domestic Violence (NNEDV). I was attracted to NLBHA because through my 20 years of work in the mental health field, I know how difficult it is to have the courage to seek treatment for a mental health problem – especially for Latinos, who are further challenged by the dearth of Spanish-speaking and culturally-responsive providers. And domestic violence is another issue that is surrounded by shame and stigma directed at victims and survivors. I’m honored to be supporting both of these organizations that are working so hard to elevate the conversation on these issues and pursue critical policy changes.

What are the things you are most proud of?

I’m the most proud of having created a company that’s dedicated to improving the world we live in. We’ve stayed true to our mission, even through some tough economic times, and that’s really gratifying.

Who were your personal role models?

Without question, my strongest role models have been my parents. They were huge risk takers, having left their rural villages in Spain to find a better life (and each other) in Venezuela. When it came time to start a family, they uprooted again and moved to the United States in search of greater opportunities for my brother and me. Their example gave me the courage to start my own business, even though I was only 27 and had no high-level contacts, which appeared to be an essential ingredient in the recipe for a PR firm’s success.

Did your role models offer professional advice that helped you in your career?

My father always told me that I needed to be the hardest working member of the Vanguard team, and I think that’s why we’ve enjoyed such long staff tenure. People who work at Vanguard know that I’ll roll up my sleeves and help in any way I can, even it’s just to clean out the refrigerator every Friday night so that it doesn’t turn into a smelly mess! (They also know that I delight in coming in on the weekend if I wasn’t able to do my usual Friday “purge”!)

What advice do you have for others?

Work hard and play hard — especially on Mondays. I feel strongly that we need to stop living for the weekend or for our next vacation. It’s important to find joy in the everyday and share it with our colleagues and with our clients.

What’s appropriate attire for your organization?

Just about anything goes here. I’ve been known to tell our designers that they could show up in pajamas if it helped them produce their best work. (They haven’t taken me up on it yet, though the occasional pair of slippers can be seen in the Creative Services department.) The key is to be comfortable, have the opportunity to express your individuality, yet also be responsive to client environments. A fundamental principle of our communications and social marketing work is to “know your audience.” That applies to what to wear when. For me, that means jeans for the annual Farm Aid concert, a dress or skirt suit with heels for a new client pitch, and a black cocktail dress with comfy shoes for the evening events we produce for our clients, since I’m usually backstage helping orchestrate what’s taking place onstage.

Where do you buy most of the clothes you wear to the office?

I love shopping at small boutiques when I travel, especially the ones in Spain and New Orleans. Locally, I’m a devotee of Neiman Marcus Last Call and Nordstrom Rack. I rarely walk out of either without something in hand!

Is there anything else you would like us to know about you?

I’m a huge rocker and have been known to hit the road when Bruce Springsteen goes on tour.


(Check out the profiles of other communicators at Capitol Communicator,

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