She did social work that took her from Brazil, where she worked with children in daycare centers, to Houston where she helped low-income families. She even counseled men convicted of domestic violence.
Now Rojas-Ungár, 38, is the U.S. Travel Association's vice president of government relations, where she's been busy pushing for relaxed visa restrictions on Brazilian visitors. CEO Update named her a top lobbyist this year on its annual list.
Rojas-Ungár, born in Mexico, came to the U.S. when she was about 4 and grew up in Texas. She pursued a master's degree in social work and ran an after-school program in Houston. Later, she focused on domestic violence, saying it was a prevalent but hidden problem. "I wanted to figure out if there was a way to basically stop the cycle," Rojas-Ungár said.
She had a chance to run court-ordered counseling sessions for men who had been convicted of domestic violence.
"Here I am, five-foot-one inches," she recalled, "and probably 24 at the time. And I thought, 'Sure. I've always enjoyed challenges, and that sounds like a great idea.'"
The idea of counseling the abusive men was intimidating before she started, but she quickly adapted, saying it was a "powerful experience" to see their transformation. At first, they denied they had anything seriously wrong, but eventually accepted responsibility for their crimes.
But in time, she wanted to better understand the issue's policy side. She came to D.C. in 2001 on a Women's Research and Education Institute fellowship, and worked for Rep. Lucille Roybal-Allard, D-Calif, the first Mexican-American woman elected to Congress.
"I thought, 'I'm coming to Washington on a woman's scholarship, I want to work for a woman, and someone with Mexican heritage," Rojas-Ungar said. "I wanted to be supportive of somebody of my background who had gotten that far."
Roybal-Allard was on the House Appropriations Committee and after Sept. 11th, 2001, the Subcommittee on Homeland Security, where she worked on a broad range of national security and budgetary issues. After more than four years, Rojas-Ungár switched to the Senate, working on Senate Homeland Security Committee issues for Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Again looking for a new challenge, she switched to the private sector, where she applies her background in immigration issues to bolstering the American travel industry.
"In all my career, all I had ever done was work for nonprofits or the government," she said. "I wanted to be well-balanced."
As woman of color, she's also a rarity of sorts on K Street, saying she's "very conscious" of how how her identity sets her apart. And while she's noticed a considerable uptick in diversity on the Hill, she said supporting other people of color will help diversify the private sector lobbying world.
And although she's now in the Washington influence game, Rojas-Ungár hasn't left her past far behind. "I will always have that social work mentality in the back of mind on everything I do."
Photo: Courtesy of Patricia Rojas-Ungár.
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