Most Powerful Women: Creating connections

Most people are aware of the need for creating a healthy work-life balance, but talk to Renata Soto and you might rethink that entire concept. Soto doesn't try to balance the demands of her professional and personal life; she merges them.

You could call it 'work-life fusion.'

Soto surrounds herself with folks she considers important -- and like family. And she connects with most of those people through her role as executive director and co-founder of Conexión Américas, Nashville's premiere Latino outreach organization.

"I believe that we are the most successful when we see our work and our personal values and passions integrated into one," Soto says. "I don't differentiate much between the two. The decisions and actions I make in both my professional and personal life are connected."

 Serving Nashville's emerging Latino community

A native of Costa Rica, Soto came to the United States on a one-year visiting scholarship at Kenyon College in Ohio in 1993. Three years later, she and her husband, Pete Wooten, moved to Nashville after a short stint in Atlanta, where Soto worked with the nonprofit Latin American Association.

When she arrived in Nashville, Soto searched for a similar Latino outreach program but quickly found none existed. She went to work in marketing and communications at United Way of Metropolitan Nashville and also co-hosted a radio show, Café a la Siete (Coffee at 7), on the local Spanish-language station Radio Melodias.

"When I hosted the radio show, I'd have many different guests from nonprofits, and we'd have immigration lawyers," Soto says. "The experience really gave me a good sense of what was happening in Nashville in terms of services needed in the emerging Latino community."

Soto's impact on the immigrant community in Nashville had begun -- and it was only the beginning. By 2002, she was ready to make it her sole focus, launching Conexión Américas. She teamed with Jose Gonzalez, who still serves as finance director, and Maria Clara Mejia, who is now retired.

As Soto plunged into activities and programs that empowered the local Latino population with services focused on job skills, money management, home ownership, language lessons, youth outreach and immigration assistance, Davidson County's Hispanic community was indeed exploding.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, that figure grew 134 percent from 2000 to 2010, with the county's Latino population now about 10 percent of the overall approximately 650,000 residents.

 Casa Azafrán: A central gathering place

Soto's vision from the beginning was to provide programs that would help Latinos improve their social, economic and civic lives. That dream grew to be comprehensive.

First, she envisioned more inclusive conversations, events and possibilities within the immigrant community-at-large. Second, she wanted to see longtime Nashville residents, many of whom live in neighborhoods near the immigrant-rich Nolensville Road area, benefitting directly from Conexión Américas and interacting with its clients.

Her vision came together in 2012 with the opening of Casa Azafrán, a 28,800-square-foot $6 million complex located south of the Tennessee State Fairgrounds on Nolensville Pike.

The building, the result of five years of work Soto spearheaded, houses a tapestry of 10 nonprofit agencies that offer services to many, from Latino to Kurdish to Somali to native Nashvillian. The nonprofits, which include Conexión Américas, are as follows: the American Center for Outreach, the American Muslim Advisory Council, Family and Children's Service, the Global Education Center, the Financial Empowerment Center, Justice for Our Neighbors, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition and United Neighborhood Health Services.

"I never could have imagined back in 2002 that we'd create a neighborhood hub of this magnitude," Soto says. "The immigration and refugee communities come together here, and it's something they can be proud of. It's so much more than bricks and mortar."

 Having the 'confidence of our opinion leaders'

Lisa Quigley, chief of staff for longtime friend and U.S. Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tennessee), admires Soto's ability to bring people from radically different backgrounds into the same room. She cites a recent example when, in December, Conexión Américas and Casa Azafrán, led by Soto, hosted President Barack Obama for a major speech on immigration. Sitting side by side in the same room were both prominent Nashvillians such as philanthropist Martha Ingram and undocumented immigrants.

"Renata is completely infectious," Quigley says. "She's an incredibly positive force for Nashville's past, present and future. She makes everyone feel good and always considers you a potential friend or ally. I'm amazed at all her relationships. She has the confidence of our opinion leaders. She does an amazing job of making everyone look good, and in the process she gets them to agree."

Soto is never happier than when she's in the thick of things at Casa Azafrán.

Yet, her star often attracts attention far beyond Middle Tennessee. In 2014, when Barbara Walters and Jenny McCarthy announced their departures from the popular ABC talk show The View, the producers contacted Soto and interviewed her for a chance fill an empty seat on the show. At the time, she didn't know how the show's producers found out about her or even know much about the show.

Soto was recently featured, along with Conexión Américas, in an extensive piece in international magazine The Economist.

Always moving forward, Soto has her sights set on new project she believes will bring the community together yet another way.

"We have been spending quite a lot of time in the past few months working with Mayor [Karl] Dean to acquire the property next to us," Soto says. "It's a little bit less than an acre and it used to be a used car place. We are going to turn it into a beautiful public park that will serve not only the families and young children who come to our center but the neighborhood. We hope it will become a beautiful destination park and a gateway into our international part of the city."

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