The mission of the Estée Lauder Emerging Leaders Fund is to build a new generation of leaders who redefine leadership. Laura Robert Rivera, a participant in the VV Visionaries program, has been passionately working to change the conversation around mental health since she was a teenager—and she’s not stopping any time soon.
Rivera’s mental health story has driven her work to shape the conversation around mental health for both her community and the world at large. While in high school, Rivera founded Stand Up Say No to Child Abuse in honor of her late brother. Her personal struggles working through trauma in therapy have led her to continued advocacy for young girls, child abuse awareness, and overall mental health. Rivera is currently working on a new approach to mental health and eating disorders through her latest initiative, Burnt.
We chatted with Laura about what ignites her passion for community, the importance of addressing mental health, and learning to trust the process while working towards building your dreams.
What fuels your passion for your work?
Changing the culture around mental health is the most personal initiative I have ever worked on. While in college, I struggled with my mental health, and the insight I gained throughout close to a decade of therapy saved my life. I was fortunate and was able to get help to recognize and manage my trauma. Unfortunately, this is not most people’s experience: over half of people facing a mental illness do not receive treatment, and my older brother died by suicide when I was 12 years old. My first-hand experience with the effects of this condition fuels my passion to make a change.
How did you get started in your activism advocating for young girls and child abuse awareness?
As a lifelong Girl Scout, I have a responsibility to leave the world a little better than I found it. Early on, I learned the value of engaging with my community and volunteering, which became especially important to me after my brother passed. He had positively impacted so many people in his short life, and I wanted to do the same. While in high school, I began Stand Up Say No to Child Abuse, a child abuse awareness campaign. It was implemented in 116 schools and, in 2016, ultimately became part of health class curriculum in Puerto Rico.
What kind of leader are you? Or how would you describe yourself as a leader?
My leadership style is shaped by my identity, and my passions have always been at the center of my work. Being a college student helped me understand how leaders balance conflicting needs with limited amounts of time. As a sister, youngest daughter, and partner, I have explored leading by empowering those around me. As a Latina, I can connect and understand a wide range of perspectives, in their native language.
I aspire to be an authentic leader, one who is constantly learning and demonstrating empathy for others and myself. Channeling my passions at a young age has equipped me with vision and a strong sense of self, and I always bring enthusiasm, determination, and compassion to the table.
What was your biggest takeaway from your VV Visionaries experience?
Being a part of VV Visionaries has been one of the greatest honors of my life. The incredible women I have met inspire me and push me to be the best version of myself. From our differences to our similarities, engaging with women from all walks of life and across the world results in action. The conversations we had brought new perspectives, questions, and answers through connections I could not have made otherwise. The energy, collaboration, and community invoked my sense of purpose and confidence.
What was the most surprising or unexpected thing you learned or experienced as part of the fellowship?
To this day, I still hear Lina Khalifeh’s words during the session on Bold Ideas, Bold Action, “If the dream did not leave you, it means you are not done yet”. This was one of the most meaningful things I heard while participating in the VV Visionaries program.
For years, I have been toying with a solution to address the lack of an easily accessible tool to address mental health. It has often felt too big of an issue, and I felt unqualified to solve it. Nonetheless, my passion for it has prevailed, and my curiosity to find a solution never wavered. Khalifeh’s statement felt like catharsis: all my doubts found reassurance by leaning into a deeper meaning to my tireless search, and I found my purpose. Since then, my project has been unveiled before me in stages. When I am ready for the next step, it appears, almost like a dream. It has taken me years to trust the process, but participating in the VV Visionaries program has made it clear that I needed to take that leap of faith.
What’s next for you after the fellowship?
The support of this community has been vital in accelerating my social impact work and advancing my leadership journey. Currently, I am building Burnt, a social enterprise centered on addressing mental health and eating disorders by utilizing tools in the kitchen to flip tough conversations and whip up better self-care habits. In collaboration with food scientists and doctors, Burnt will incorporate Dialectical Behavior Therapy and mindfulness into a wellness-focused baking experience.
How has your cultural background influenced your relationship to beauty?
My identity as a young bilingual Puerto Rican woman, now living stateside, has equipped me with a nuanced cultural understanding. My interpretation of beauty is grounded in the same way my identity straddles Puerto Rico and the U.S.: beauty is meant to be shared; this enables others to do the same. Confidence is at the center of true beauty. As it grows within, it glows to those around you.
Given all of your incredible work with the Girl Scouts and young girls, what is one thing you’d want them to know about the definitions of beauty and leadership?
I have a lot to say about beauty and I have a lot to say about leadership! As girls, we navigate these spaces constantly. While I was at Barnard College, it became clearer how women's perception of both ideals is shaped by a male standard. Pushing against this narrative is what leadership and beauty mean to me. It is a continuous process of unlearning and challenging the belief of a right and wrong way to be you. The more I challenge these identities, the more I can develop myself outside of the stereotypes surrounding them.
How do you plan to pay your experience forward for other woman leaders?
I know how important it is to hear from others with similar backgrounds facing these challenges. As a young Puerto Rican woman, I want to help others feel less alone and engage women of color in conversations we may not be having. Sharing my experience with other women has always been a rewarding experience as it enables me to be vulnerable. This level of vulnerability is necessary to move the needle and make a change.
Discover more about the Estée Lauder Emerging Leaders Fund.