Foster MBA Students Experience Community—Comunidad—in Mexico City

Cynthia Vargas Hernandez, a Foster MBA, took the school’s integral value of community to heart and home… in Mexico City

When Cynthia Vargas Hernandez was a young girl growing up in Mexico City, her pride of country and culture was so profound, so prolific, that she dreamed of being an ambassador one day.

“I love Mexico,” Vargas says, “and I always wanted to show it off.”

She did just that last summer. Right before her second year in the Full-time MBA Program at the UW Foster School of Business, in those halcyon days between the end of internships and the restart of classes, Vargas organized a tour of her home region for a group that grew to more than 40 classmates (and a few of their partners).

Serving as travel agent, tour guide, translator and host, she curated a grand adventure of cultural immersion, culinary exploration and even some welcome relaxation along the Mexican Caribbean coast.

Foster MBAs enjoyed an unforgettable experience visiting Cynthia Vargas Hernandez in her native Mexico City.

It added up to an unforgettable experience and an organic bonding opportunity for a large contingent of the Foster MBA class of 2023.

“Exploring a new country was a great shared experience to have with my classmates,” says Ayush Kulkarni, a classmate and friend of Vargas. “Spending a week together was a great way to form deeper connections.”

Exponential planning

The seeds of this inclusive, expansive group adventure may have been sown in the first weeks of the program, when Hernandez established a popular Spanish conversation group in response to the expressed interest of classmates, who hail from across the nation and around the world.

When a friend from the group mentioned that she had always wanted to visit Mexico, Vargas invited him on the spot. The idea spread quickly. Soon, one RSVP for an end-of-summer visit became five. And, wishing everyone to feel welcome, Vargas opened a Slack channel and extended the invitation to the entire class.

“The next thing I knew,” she says, “more than 40 flights were booked.”

That’s when her penchant for international diplomacy and supreme organizational skills really kicked in: “I thought, you know what? I’m up for a challenge.”

Kulkarni describes Vargas as “one of the most organized people I know. She singlehandedly made this trip a successful cultural immersion and bonding experience. She went the extra mile to make sure that her classmates had a great experience.”

Motivated to open minds

After consulting on flights, Vargas helped secure accommodations (after recognizing that interest in the trip had quickly surpassed her capacity to host in her family’s modest home).

She coordinated itineraries and organized outings to museums and cultural sites. She recommended bars, cafes and restaurants. She helped the foodies of the group book a table at the world-famous Pujol, considered one of the finest restaurants in the world (then sadly had to miss the feast due to emergency dental surgery). She chartered a group tour of the nearby ancient Aztec pyramids of Teotihuacan, where she delivered a “great summary of the pre-European history of the various peoples of Mexico and Latin America,” Kulkarni reports. “Elements of this culture are very visible even today.”

After four days bingeing the sights, sounds and tastes of greater Mexico City, Vargas negotiated a relaxing coda in Playa del Carmen, on the Yucatan Peninsula just south of Cancun.

Of course, she had more than just a good time on her mind. “I was inviting my classmates and friends to my home, showing off my city,” she says. “And I saw it as an opportunity to change the perspective that people might have about Mexico. That’s something I was very international about—that everyone learns that Mexico is more than what you see on the news or a Netflix series.”

Mexican dream

The Mexico City of Vargas’s childhood was perhaps a little closer to those stereotypes. She grew up in Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl (Neza), once known as the “world’s largest slum,” which rose from a shanty town just east of the sprawling city.

Her mother, a government worker, and her father, a construction laborer, struggled to pay the bills. But her father was fiercely proud of his city, country and heritage. So was her grandfather, who had traveled widely around the world. They instilled that same pride in Cynthia—plus an unshakeable faith in education.

Cynthia Vargas Hernandez at the Foster School.

Her schooling, like her upbringing, became a team effort. The entire family scraped together the funds to send her to private school, where she would learn English and make connections. When there wasn’t enough left over for supplies, her grandfather gifted her a toolbox to carry her lunch and her aunt donated a purse to serve as her bookbag.

Vargas remembers yearning for the gleaming new Barbie backpack that a friend wore the first day of class. But, in time, she came to view her hand-me-down accessories as symbols of the power of family.

“I realized that I had much more,” she says. “I had a family who came together to focus on my education, because they knew that education was going to get me out of there.”

Education as a passport

She did, eventually. While her family was able to move away from Ciudad Neza after her father started his own business repairing electric doors, Vargas flourished at school. The first in her family to attend college, she earned a spot at the prestigious Tecnológico de Monterrey. An honors student, she initially studied international relations before graduating with a BA in business administration and management.

During the summer of 2014, she participated in an international exchange at the UC Berkeley Haas School of Business.

It was her first time encountering Americans who weren’t partying on spring break. And she realized that she held as many misconceptions about them as they likely had about her. “At Berkeley, I met regular people who were kind and open and curious,” Vargas says.

The tone was not always so positive. Her move to the United States, to work in talent acquisition at Sevenstep, coincided with the early Trump presidency. “It was a hard time to be an immigrant from Mexico,” she admits.

Even speaking Spanish on the phone—her job was recruiting in Latin America—felt uncomfortable.

Cynthia and her husband, Anthony Velasquez, were indefatigable hosts of her Foster classmates and partners.

Eventually, the political chaos gave way to personal connection, largely through the force of her open nature and relentless positivity. If anything, Vargas’s early struggles only fueled her resolve to bridge the cultural chasm. Maybe she couldn’t change the world. But connect with everyone in her world? That she could do.

Fostering community

Vargas brought this outlook to the Foster School, which she joined as a means of pivoting her career in talent management and analytics to the tech industry.

During her time in the Foster Full-time MBA, she was determined to do much more.

As a fellow of the Forté Foundation and the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management, president of the Global Business Association and a Fritzky Leadership Fellow, Vargas has worked tirelessly to engage everyone in the program, and to celebrate the rich mosaic of diverse cultures they represent—whether it be organizing celebrations of Diwali and Lunar New Year or leading salsa lessons and inviting an entire class to her family’s home in Mexico.

In doing so, she joins a long and unending chain of Foster MBAs who have transformed classes into communities.

“The Foster School’s MBA programs have a legacy of individuals who have gone above and beyond to make an impact on their community,” says Norah Fisher, director of student experience in the Full-time and Evening MBA Programs. “Throughout her time at Foster, Cynthia has been the embodiment of community and collaborative culture. She cares deeply about people—personally and professionally. Her own legacy will be encouraging her cohort and the Foster community to discuss and embrace its cultural differences.”

Before she joins Microsoft this summer, Vargas is treasuring the final days of her Foster experience, and the people who comprise the uncommonly close-knit community she helped create.

Cynthia Vargas Hernandez, an MBA student at the UW Foster School, took the school’s value of community—comunidad—in Mexico City Foster MBA Students Experience Community—Comunidad—in Mexico City

After returning from the Mexico trip, she reflected on the journey and the immense gratitude she felt for the openness and curiosity of her classmates as they experienced her world. “I was so excited to show off my country and my culture,” she recalls. “Seeing everyone so interested in learning more about my home was incredibly gratifying.”

Moreover, Vargas is proud to have served—for a week, at least—as a de facto ambassador for Mexico and the wide world beyond.

“I hope this trip helped my classmates open their minds,” she says. “I love the United States. I have family and friends here. My husband is from here. It’s my home now. But I want people to understand that there’s more than just the US. You can live such a richer life if you’re open to learning more.”

Avatar photo Ed Kromer Managing Editor Foster School

Ed Kromer is the managing editor of Foster Business magazine. Over the past two decades, he has served as the school’s senior storyteller, writing about a wide array of people, programs, insights and innovations that power the Foster School community.