The Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines sets up their participants for success

Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines Class of 2016. Photo Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

In 2014 the first class of Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines graduated. Many women that participated in this program propelled to success thanks to what they learned as participants of this program. Under the new Executive Director, Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines  is accepting applications for the class of 2021.  

Noemi Mendez, new Executive Director of Latina Leadership Initiative of GDM

Noemi Mendez, new Executive Director of Latina Leadership Initiative of GDM (LLI), is a graduate of Drake University. The educational background of Noemi Mendez consists of a Bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education with a concentration in K-6 General Education Classroom Teacher, Early Childhood, K-8 Reading. K-12 English Language Learner, a Ed.S. in Literacy and Administration, additionally an MSE in PK-12 Principal / Special Education Supervisor and Evaluator. She is  currently serving in the Des Moines Public School District as an ELL Curriculum Coordinator.

Noemi Mendez taught internationally in China Shijiazhuang Foreign Language Education Program. She also helped with professional development to educators in Tsipasi as part of the program, The Move Project Academy in rural  Ghana, Africa. Making Noemi Mendez the essential candidate for Latina Leadership Initiative as the new executive director. 

Noemi Mendez indicated that she learned about LLI about three years ago. 

“I came across LLI three years ago through social media with a posting that stopped me on my tracks with two words, Latina and Leadership,” Noemi Mendez shared. “At the time I was completing my specialist degree in administration at Drake University, so this also came as an opportunity for me to get more involved in our community.” 

After a quick research about LLI she received an invitation to one of the meetings.  

“I clearly wanted to be more involved as it is my passion to work with our community and make a difference in the lives of others. I began with LLI as a mentor, followed by supporting as one of the board of directors, and now I am helping lead the organization as their executive director. LLI is something I truly believe can make a big impact in our Latino/a/x community,” Mendez stated. 

With the help of the LLI program many Latina Alums have become successful business owners, entrepreneurs, authors and more.  

“I am proud to be a part of an organization with today’s top leading women in Iowa’s future,” Noemi Mendez said. 

LLI is open to Latinas  between ages 20 to 30 years old. Prospective participants are required to have a high school diploma or equivalent and/or in the beginning stages of their business careers. Classes begin March 6th,  and due to the pandemic LLI will start with remote learning until further notice. For more information about requirements, fees and financial assistance, application for participants and mentorship opportunities please visit this website:  Anyone interested in sponsoring the program can learn more at:


Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines helped many women to step on the right path towards professional success. Some were not sure if they could reach their fullest potential, others were looking for direction and with the help of LLI they found all that and more, including mentorship. The participants have also created sisterhood bonds that will last them a lifetime and that is one of the most important advantages of being a participant of this program.  Below are brief stories of some of the successful alums of LLI.  


From having doubts on herself to launching 3 successful restaurants

Many residents of Des Moines probably heard or have been to restaurant El Fogon, but not many realize that the success of this restaurant can be partly attributed to everything one of the owners, Blanca Plascencia, learned as a participant of LLI. Originally from Mexico, at first Placencia chose the field of Sociology but soon she understood that her heart was not in it. Looking for direction and searching for different opportunities she participated in LLI.  

“Thanks to LLI I felt like I came back to life,” Blanca Plascencia shared about her experience as an LLI participant. “I started to believe in myself again. I remembered how much passion I have for so many things such as reading, learning and that I always was thirsty to learn more and was very curious. I learned to be sure of myself and I redefined myself again.” 

She added that she has been working in the restaurant business for 17 years and now that she reached relative success she shared that she wants to keep on helping others.   

 “I want to continue to help other immigrants who work just as hard but financially cannot find the means to pursue their dreams,” Plascencia explained. “Immigrants are hardworking and dedicated people who just want to do well in this country but have many barriers. With support from my organization I want to give any immigrant the opportunity to start their own restaurant business, and potentially begin a franchise. Helping one another is the only way we are able to support our community.” 


Blanca Plascencia is now a successful co- business owner, she, along with her husband Said Pineda , Marco Romo and other family members, co-own El Fogon, Cantaritos and El Fogon West Glen.  

Ribbon Cutting of El Fogon on July 8, 2017. Photo Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

From LLI to working for Kamala Harris

LLI also helped Lillian Sanchez. After graduating the program she got an internship with Senator Kamala Harris, D.C. office and soon she joined Harris presidential campaign as the Senator’s Iowa Deputy Political Director. Sanchez credits Latina Leadership Initiative for giving her a boost of confidence from observing some of the very strong Latinas participants of LLI during her experience with the program.  

“We are a new generation of Latinas who are proud in using our voice and unapologetic in exercising our power,” Sanchez shared how proud she is to be part of the group of these strong women.  “We are proud of our heritage, where we come from, and are not afraid to continue to blaze a trail that has been set by our predecessors. We bring value to our community by being our authentic selves and staying true to who we are”. 

Lilian Sanchez and VP Elect Kamala Harris

Taking her leadership skills from Iowa to California

Not all graduates of LLI program stay in Des Moines. Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines graduates go on to build successful careers outside of Iowa as well.  Jessica Mena Flores was very thankful to learn from different speakers and about different careers when she participated in LLI. Currently, Mena Flores works at University of California Berkeley in Northern California as Undocumented Graduate Student Specialist. In this position she facilitates the Marco Antonio Firebaugh Undergraduate Research Program and helps undocumented low-income, first-generation college students at UC Berkeley. 

LLI 2019 graduate publishes book

Vanessa Espinosa, who prefers to be called by her indigenous name CueponiCihuatl Espinosa, is another graduate of LLI who recently published her first book called “We the Inner woven” that was co-authored with Eyad Said, Hirbam Jarmakani, Shalini Jasti, Dhuha Tawil, George Khal and Salma Salama. 

CueponiCihuatl currently works as a dual language Spanish teacher in West Liberty, Iowa and she shared that she greatly enjoyed the service project when she participated in LLI. Her service project was about breast cancer awareness and even now she continues to advocate on behalf of this cause.  

Another successful entrepreneur LLI graduate


Monica Reyes, yet another successful participant of LLI, owns her own business. Her company Inmobiliaria, Inc, works with many organizations offering support with bookkeeping, consulting in financing, permits account administration and other.  

Reyes shared she grew up undocumented and in her household there was belief that male are dominant in the society while the role of female is to be submissive. But those beliefs did not sit well with Reyes and by becoming her own boss, she showed that women can also be boss of their own business.  

She explained that life experiences and LLI sessions about Wage Negotiations helped her to learn to be the dominant one in the professional setting and it helped her to be more confident in herself. She also is grateful for the chance to create that special bond between her and other participants that they keep alive even today.  

Monica Reyes, LLI Class of 2017 and Entrepreneur. Photo Tar Macias / Hola Iowa

Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines is more than a program; it is where successful careers are born. It is a group of closely knit Latinas that learn from each other and make great achievements in their professional lives. The graduates of LLI also feel grateful to their LLI  “sisters” and the sisterhood bond they create during their experience stays for the rest of their lives.  LLI participants also stay in touch with their LLI mentors and receive on-going guidance and resources past the graduation phase. 

For more information about Latina Leadership Initiative of Greater Des Moines please visit 

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