We are currently celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, and I’m thrilled to introduce to you our Director of Business Operations at Passages, Alma Hundiak, who is a native of Mexico—living in the Midwest since 1989. With over 25 years of experience in corporate accounting, human resources, and business operations in both profit and non-profit sectors, she enjoys the company of individuals of all different generations, loves to laugh and feels most rewarded when helping others. Alma has been married to David for 27 years and is a mother of two teenagers, Michael (19) and Jacob (15).
This conversation was such a joy. Alma and I talked about her time in Israel this spring, when our trips were cut short due to COVID-19. We talked about the challenges she faced after moving to the US from Mexico and about her working experience and advice for young professionals. Alma’s story is one of sacrifice, determination, and service-oriented leadership lived out on a daily basis…
MD: When did you start working at Passages and what brought you here?
AH: I started working at Passages in June of 2019. What brought me to Passages was really that it was a non-profit in the suburbs of Chicago, and that it was about young people and leadership. I really believe in the new generations, the millennials and gen-Z. A lot of older generations put them down, and I see the contrary to that. I think the younger generations have a lot to offer. They do things differently, and I admire that.
MD: Wow, well, thank you! As a member of that millennial, gen-Z demographic, it feels good to have that support.
AH: You know as generations go by, we were more obedient—we never questioned “this is the way it is.” And you guys are more like, “Why? How?” You know what I mean?
MD: Yeah, that makes sense. So, what were you doing before you made the transition to Passages?
AH: My prior job was a non-profit. I was there for a little over 10 years, and then before that, I came from the profit world. I wish that when I was in school, I would have known more about the non-profit world. Because, if I did, I would’ve done that immediately. I think that it’s a lot more rewarding. And in the case of accounting, it’s pretty much the same job, just minor things that are different…But live and learn.
For me, the story with my family and me started all the way from when I moved from Mexico to the US. I really didn’t know what I was going to do, but I just had in my mind that it was going to be an opportunity. After working for seven years as a waitress, I decided I can’t do this for the rest of my life. I don’t see myself being a waitress at the age of 70. So unfortunately, I had to restart from high school, because US doesn’t accept a lot of schools in Mexico. I had to start from high school, redo my GED and everything.
But when I look back—and I went, yeah this may not be what I want to do, to redo school—at the same token, what’s five years of my life? Compared to the benefits I’m going to have for 40 or 50 or 60 years. Looking at it that way, it was worth redoing school. That’s what you got to do sometimes. You’ve got to do the work if you want to have the rewards. I think really, that’s part of who I am. I’m not afraid of doing the work.
MD: How old were you when you went back to high school?
AH: I think I was like 25? Yeah, 23, 25, when I realized I’d have to go back and do high school and redo my college. But the advantage was when I took the GED test, because there were things I already knew, I got such high scores and got scholarships.
MD: Wow, redoing high school and college. That’s a big sacrifice.
AH: Yep, it is, when you think about it.
MD: Did you go to college knowing that accounting was what you wanted to do, or did that become something that you focused on later?
AH: You know, what I really wanted to do was art. My thing was I wanted to be a music conductor or choreographer. But a lot of people said there’s no money in the arts. Little by little you start getting farther and farther, and then when it came to college and deciding what I wanted to do, accounting was just something that I understood. I just did it because it was practical. Everybody needs an accountant. Doesn’t matter what you do. You can go in any field. So, it wasn’t my passion at that point, it was just practical.
MD: Do you think it’s become your passion?
AH: Um, I do. I don’t think a passion in the sense of I want everybody to know accounting! But I think a passion in a sense that I know how important it is, and I know how intimidating it is for people. So, my thing is, I’m here to help you. Don’t get intimidated by it. Take it in baby steps. Do this, and I can do the next step. For me, that’s what it’s been. To help people at whatever level they are. You know what I mean?
MD: Totally, makes sense. So, you went to Israel back in March, right?
AH: Yeah, that was my very first time.
MD: Ok. What was that like, especially in light of the trip being shortened due to COVID?
AH: Well for me, it was really rewarding. I should say that Jeremy and Scott wanted me to go earlier than that, but because there were a lot of things happening in the office, to me it was like I’ll get there when we’re in a better space for accounting. I looked at the trip as my reward for that.
Just like any other country that you’ve been to, really seeing the people and the culture is different than what you read and see on TV. And then being with the students—for me that was the most rewarding. Seeing how the students were so emotionally moved by everything that was happening.
It was really interesting, because when I got on the bus, they had all been there for like three days. So, I get on the bus in the morning, and they’re all looking at me wondering why I was there.
One of them gets the courage to ask me, “Um, hi. Do you think you’re in the right bus?” I said, “Yep, this is Passages, right?” He says yes and I say, “Yep, I’m in the right bus!” You could tell they were thinking You don’t look anything like us—why are you on this bus? It was really cute. But after a while, they just accepted me as part of the group. Really quickly, you know, you start connecting.
Very few of us who work at Passages came from the same background that I did—not being a Passages alum or having gone to Israel. Only a few of us came from the outside world if I can say that. So, after coming back, I told Jeremy and Scott, “People have to go.” It makes a difference when you’re sitting at a desk and things don’t work the way you expect it to, just to remember why you’re doing what you’re doing. I’m a huge advocate that everybody has to do the trip.
MD: That’s great. I’m glad that it was a good experience, even though it took some unexpected turns.
AH: You know, it was really unexpected when the students heard they had to go home early. You can’t imagine how everybody was feeling. Some of them cried. But the guide told them, “Go to your room, do what you need to do, cry if you need to cry, let it out, and then tomorrow’s a new day. You guys still have two more days, and we’re going to make the best out of it.”
By the next day, they had all bounced back and were positive again. That was really awesome. Again, that’s something I admire about young people. In a way, they’re more resilient.
There was one day when we were walking through the market, it started to pour, like really, really raining. And it got cold. So, I’m like, ok, I’ll buy coffee for everybody. And everyone was like oh, thank you so much, but my point is nobody was complaining.
MD: I mean, if it’s raining and you’re in Israel, at least you’re still in Israel!
AH: Yeah, and there’s a couple people who said that. They would always go back to no matter how bad it is, it’s still a blessing.
MD: I love hearing stories like that. Our students are great!
AH: Absolutely, they are.
MD: Ok, I have a question that I’m excited to ask you. As we’re celebrating Hispanic Heritage Month, I’d love to know what this means to you personally?
AH: For me personally, it’s a reminder of the melting pot that we have in the United States. Just a reminder that even though we speak Spanish we’re not all the same. And that each culture is unique and has different things. A lot of the ancestors were here before the conquistadors came and they have their own culture. It’s unfortunate that some of them were destroyed, and it’s amazing to see how much has survived after 500+ years. To me it’s a reminder of trying to get to know other people and their stories, not just mine, and honor their ancestors, you know?
MD: That’s beautiful.
AH: My kids say the best part is that I have some color in my skin. Because they’re pretty light, they’ll always say, “Why couldn’t we get your color?!”
MD: Aw! You mentioned that you moved from Mexico to the US, and it was at that point that you went back to high school and then college. How does your experience in accounting and HR play into your role here at Passages?
AH: I think it’s a little more accounting, but in the organizations where I’d work, accounting always did HR. It wasn’t like these huge organizations where they have them completely separate. For me, when it comes to HR, it’s to give people the feeling that they can come and ask questions, where they feel comfortable.
MD: Sounds like for you, your job is very much about people—like the way you look at it is very people and service-oriented?
AH: Yeah, it’s interesting because, everybody makes the joke of accounting being so boring, and accountants not being about people. But for me, it has never been that way. Maybe because my personality is more of a people-person, I always tried to make the people the most important. And then I tell people to try to learn accounting a little bit, because the more you move up in your career, the more you’re going to be expected to know accounting, no matter what you do, in any field.
MD: That’s good advice! In your experience as the Director of Business Operations at Passages, what are some thoughts you have on leading in the workplace, creating a healthy team culture? What’s some advice you have for young people who want to lead in the workplace and do it well?
AH: I think the first thing is that there will always be something you’re an expert in and something you’re not. So, you just need to find out what you’re an expert in and then use that to help people. Everybody appreciates when someone notices they need help and reaches out to them about it. Find ways to lead up. Come up with little ideas that can help others.
MD: I have one final question. How do you manage your work/life balance, as an HR professional? And how do you advise others to manage their own work/life balance, especially right now as many people are working from home?
AH: My first thought is don’t feel guilty. Whatever choice you make [with your time], don’t feel guilty about it. Don’t feel guilty about spending too much time at work if this is what you feel that you need to do—or if it’s the other way around, where you feel that you just need to take it easy, because last week maybe you worked really hard and are tired.
If you’re getting your work done and your supervisor is happy with what you’re doing, and you know that you’re performing well…just give it your 100 percent. On some days, your 100 percent will look like yesterday’s 60 percent. But you’re still giving your best. Tomorrow, your 100 percent could be 150 percent. The point is, you’re giving your 100 percent today.
MD: Wow, what a great way to look at it!
AH: Yep, and don’t feel guilty about it.
MD: Thank you for that! This has been so much fun. Do you have any final thoughts that you didn’t get to share but would like to?
AH: I just think one thing I want to share is that I think Passages is very unique as a workplace. Obviously, we’re not perfect, but I think we’re really unique in the sense of really treating each other as a family. A lot of companies say that, but it doesn’t really mean that. I kind of give a caution for people who work here and haven’t had much experience working anywhere else. Eventually, people will move on from Passages, especially young people. It’s good to remember that you may not find a place like Passages everywhere you go.