Back to the Bronx

Lourdes Zapata on her next chapter at SoBRO and the bright future for the South Bronx

In July 2019, it was announced that after years of working in public service Lourdes Zapata, who for almost two years served as New York State’s Chief Diversity Officer, was leaving the Governor’s office. Following the departure of Alphonso David, who served as Counsel and a close advisor to Governor Cuomo, shifts throughout New York State’s key leadership positions were expected, leading us to think, what’s next for Lourdes?

Before her appointment as Chief Diversity Officer in February 2018, where she worked on policy and legislation related to diversity and inclusion efforts throughout the state, Lourdes served as Executive Vice President and Executive Director of the Division of Minority and Women’s Business Development at Empire State Development (ESD). ESD serves as the economic development arm of New York State government as it creates programming and initiatives that are dedicated to attracting businesses and talent to New York. In her role at ESD, Lourdes oversaw the Governor’s MWBE Program and focused on creating and expanding opportunities for businesses owned by women and minorities.

A Passion for Community, Built on a Mother’s Entrepreneurial Spirit

Prior joining the State, Lourdes served as Senior Vice President of Community and Economic Development for the South Bronx Overall Economic Development Corporation (SoBRO), where she recently returned as its newest President and CEO. In fact, Lourdes laughs as she states that it’s actually her third time working at SoBRO – a non-profit organization dedicated to enhancing the quality of life in the South Bronx where she was born and raised. She said “I’m back, and it feels great to come home.” She continues, “The work I’ve done and now get to continue to do at SoBRO is incredibly powerful and rewarding. I’m thankful that I am afforded the chance to empower this community through knowledge
building, skills, development and economic opportunity.”

Lourdes also notes that she came back to SoBRO because of her connection with the South Bronx. She said, “I am inspired by this job because it motivates me as a professional on a personal level.” She added, “I see my family and myself in a lot of people we serve here, and that’s what drew me back.”

When it comes to her family, Lourdes is referring to her mother, who owned and operated a neighborhood hair salon in South Bronx. She recalls how her mother’s salon served as a home base for the community, where customers gathered from early morning to late night. “A Latina woman owning her own business in the South Bronx is already a unique individual, but during the 1970s, Latina business owners were true pioneers,” she said. “She was the neighborhood hair-dresser, building a business from the ground up, working with clients and handling the day-to-day operations. That’s when I saw the power of economic opportunity and the impact small businesses can have on the communities they serve.”

Growing up in the South Bronx, Lourdes also sees herself in the young people that look to SoBRO for support. “Whether people in our community are coming to get information on education and training, or alternatives to traditional schooling – they are striving to better themselves and the conditions of their families. In the 70s, it was my mother who pushed and inspired us all to do better – we saw her struggles, her aspirations and pride as an entrepreneur.”

When Opportunity Builds Upon a Neighborhood’s History: The Next Phase for the South Bronx

One of SoBRO’s core missions is to address the aspects of community and economic development in the South Bronx. Alongside small businesses assistance, job readiness training and youth programming, the organization is also committed to creating affordable housing and commercial spaces.

“We engage and are supportive in development that respects the heritage and community of the South Bronx, while advancing our neighborhood’s access to opportunities, technology and quality of life,” said Lourdes. “If I look out my office window, I can see at least four large-scale development projects under construction now. We aren’t saying growth is bad, but we want to ensure that people aren’t getting priced out of the community they’ve called home for generations, and that we are also protecting what made our community great to begin with – its people.”

It’s important to note that Lourdes isn’t new to real-estate development and the challenges that can be brought on by gentrification. She previously served as the Director of the Department of Planning and Development for the City of Newburgh, and in her previous position at SoBRO, she developed and managed over 750 units of affordable and special needs housing scattered throughout the South Bronx and Harlem. She also led SoBRO’s planning efforts during the rezoning of Third Avenue and Brucker Boulevard and the brownfield redevelopment planning in Port Morris and Eastchester. To sum her lessons learned into one statement “Responsible development can be a terrific tool to support the larger community good.”