Nicolás Kanellos, Ph.D. majored in Spanish at Farleigh Dickinson University, and then earned a Master's degree in Romance languages and a doctorate in Spanish and Portuguese at the University of Texas at Austin. He was also trained as a theatre specialist at the Universidad Autonoma de México and attended University of Lisbon in Portugal. From a young age he discovered that although Hispanics were a big part of the U.S., their artistic production was marginalized from main stream culture. In 1972 he founded, and edited until 1999, the acclaimed Revista Chicana-Riqueña, which was a major step for Hispanic academic criticism. In 1980 he became a professor at the University of Houston and founded Arte Publico Press the largest, oldest and most esteemed no-profit Hispanic publishing House in the US.
In 1992, Arte Publico launched the "Recovering the U.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage" project in order to recover, index and publish lost Latino writings dating from the American colonial period to 1960. In 1994, they created Piñata Books, their children's and young adult literature imprint. In 1994, President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Kanellos to the National Council on the Humanities. In 1996, he became the first Brown Foundation Professor of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston. In 2008, he was elected to the Spanish American Royal Academy of Literature, Arts and Sciences.
ON LEADERSHIP AND THE ART OF MANAGING:
How did Arte Publico become a reality? Was it something you dreamt about?
Yes. I definitely dreamt about it. The magazine was doing very good, along with my academic career, so I was offered a job here at UH as an associate professor. I asked the University to support my idea of opening a non-profit publishing house. They backed me up giving me a space to launch the project and my salary as director, or CEO.
It seems easy… I wonder what you are not telling me
It certainly wasn’t! I mean… do you know how many times I have heard the word “NO”! Since I started my career, as I told you, racism was always mixed in the equation. You know how many times my articles were not published because I would attack the U.S literary cannon for keeping Hispanic literature and art out of schools. Do you know how many grants I got denied for Arte Publico? I mean…you got to understand: still now a days there are so many people in power that want to keep us quiet. Especially with my work, as when I was younger I would be fighting for Hispanic’s civil rights. Censorship was (and still is) a way to say “NO”, to keep us quiet and show the world we are not important, we are not worth the same. For example, there has been two times when the University has stopped me for printing a book. Two times I had to go to trial to defend our right to print!
Did you win?
Yes! I did! After a lot of “NO’s”, of course.
As a leader, how have you’ve been able to cope with all the “NO’s”?
I think every time I hear the word “NO” I get angry. And anger is a productive state (At least for me). Or I guess I made it that way. Every “NO” feeds me. Gives me energy. Makes me want to show how that tiny word has a big positive power too. And I like to show people how I am able to turn their “no” into a “yes” somewhere else. That’s what I’ve been telling you! You can’t let a “no” make you sad as I’ve seen. It should be your power, your drive.
Is success the power to turn a “no” into a “yes”?
For me it has been. Or, the ability to shift things. You know, fortunately nothing is static, so we have to know how to take advantage of that. Everything is changing all the time, so you have to know how to take advantage of that.
It’s like the ocean!
Yes: you have to know which wave you take would help you swim forward and would help you get out. Is it something like that?
Yes! Without letting any of them drown you, of course!
What artistic skills do you use in your role as CEO of Arte Publico Press to keep the business from drowning…or to know which waves would take you further?
None. To be honest, I hate being a CEO. I am passionate about editing, about teaching and about writing, but I am certainly not passionate about managing people and business. I think this CEO position requires another side of the brain. I mean, of course I use my acting skills to promote our work, to teach my courses and even to relate with writers, but…I don’t think I use any of my literature or theatre training in my management position.
How do you relate with people working for you at APP? What is your approach to leading and managing them?
I designed a structure where the four directors of each area work close together with me and we are in constant communication and I am involved in everything they do. They are four women; each of them is head of an area (Marketing, Editing, Development and Design).
So you don’t have any contact with the people who work for them?
I just keep closer to the head of each team.
And what are the pros and cons of this structure?
The pros are that the four of them have been working for me for more than ten years. Two of them were actually my students. So they all know me very, very well. They know my flaws and they feel free to tell me what to do, sometimes. I’m not scared to be told what to do. For example, if I get angry with a writer or his managers and my immediate reaction will be dismissive, then my team will calm me down and tell me the reasons why I have to swallow my pride and negotiate with the writer, or put up with their tantrums, or go and ask that person or that foundation for money because they want to invest in the Hispanic community. I think my team has my best interests and APP’s best interests, and I trust that. Always.
How do you remind your staff of APP’s vision?
I’m always involved with their work and kind of directing it, in a way, or orchestrating each area and then putting together their work as a whole. Sometimes one area gets out of balance so I have to be close enough to say: “This will clash with what the other areas area doing”.
Do you still think that you don’t use any of your artistic training to manage APP?
Now that you say it: I suppose my work, as a CEO, is similar to the work of the director in a play. You supervise the actors, the stage managers, the costume design, the light design, the stage design, and they all have to serve your vision and how you want to stage the text. And you yourself have to serve your own vision but most importantly the text and what it is important to communicate from it with the resources you have. Exactly! I guess that’s it! I’m a theatre director that manages resources to take the text on its feet!
What do you look for in the people you hire? I look for someone that is creative and strong enough to contradict me. As I said, I need to be controlled at times, and I need to be told what to do, and I need someone that is not scared of saying: “You are probably going to mess up if you do it your way”.
ON THE ART OF THE TURNAROUND:
What did you decide to do in the face of some financial struggles? I decided that I should be the first to suffer the consequences. I downsized my salary and did not pay myself for the summer term. I then decided to get rid of some positions. Just close the positions. So I had to fire two more people.
I came up with a couple a projects that could not be turned down by the government or the private medical institutions. We started a new collection of health and lifestyle books for Hispanic kids. As we already had the children’s collection: “Piñata Books”, we knew the market and we knew the way to get inside the bilingual education. So we developed a new line, a new collection of children’s book that would teach them how to eat right, the risks of diabetes and obesity and help them develop a healthier life style and make healthier choices. We new this was a problem not only in Texas, but worldwide, so we decided to use our print to help acknowledge this issue in the Hispanic community.
Did that solve the problem?
Certainly! We got new government’s funding and other health institutions supported the project. This allowed us to keep all staff on payroll and keep on publishing literature on the side.
So you followed the “health trend”…
I guess you could say that. And now, after three years, we are not in deficit. I mean, we are not doing as well as before the recession, but we are on our way back.
How do you keep up to date with what your target needs?
I am very active in the Hispanic community and I teach. As a professor I research a lot and my students always give me new perspectives.
What would be your advice to the students that hope to becom a leader in the arts, like you?
Use the power of the “NO” and let no one censor you. Trust your team. They are on your side. And know when it’s the moment to tell your staff what to do, and when is the time for them to tell you what to do. And just enjoy it.
CONCLUSIONS:For Doctor Kanellos, success and leadership depend in three main aspects:
- The power of “NO”
- Trust in your team.
- Know when it’s time to surrender to a trend.