Breaking barriers in politics and government isn’t an easy feat. But at the age of 33, Irene Fernando (BF’15) made history when she became the first Filipino American in Minnesota and youngest woman ever to win a seat on the Hennepin County Board in 2018. During that same election cycle, she and colleague Angela Conley conquered another obstacle by becoming the first women of color to win seats on the board since its inception over a century ago. As a young leader who has experienced many firsts, she will tell you she’s not the last.
“To all the young people out there who have been told you are not ready to lead, or to anyone who has been told to wait your turn, this term is for you.”
Fernando’s colleagues unanimously voted her as board chair after she began her second term in January 2023, helping her make history again as the youngest board chair ever to serve the Hennepin County Board. Throughout her life as a woman of color, she’s worked to change the status quo in leadership.
“To all the young people out there who have been told you are not ready to lead, or to anyone who has been told to wait your turn, this term is for you,” Fernando said during her 2023 swearing-in remarks.
She remarked during the ceremony, “It is not enough for us to dream about the world we want to create. We must also ask ourselves, “What are we willing to give up, in order to create that world? What are we willing to do, risk, challenge and invest?”
And that is just how Irene Fernando began her leadership journey from an early age–with curiosity and questions, and with spending time to find the answers.
The roots of her ambition
Born to first-generation Filipino immigrants in Carson City, California, Fernando’s hunger to lead started at an early age. As a child, she watched her family work hard to build a life in a new country while making sacrifices that gave her and her siblings social and education opportunities.
“I feel very privileged,” Fernando says. “That's not always how people with lower economic means are discussed. I was taught of the privilege that I was offered. I think that's always been an interesting conceptual difference.”
Fernando’s decision to move to Minnesota to attend college was a happenstance. A letter in the mail caught her attention. The national Leadership Education and Development (LEAD) program geared at helping underrepresented students go to business school sparked her curiosity.
“I think part of leadership is not always a result but also what we are willing to stand for.”
By using $15 of lunch money, she saved up to pay the application fee, she applied and was accepted into the program. Unfamiliar with the Midwest weather, Fernando researched what she should bring to wear, joking, “I had to look at an encyclopedia on what to pack. I had no clothes for this weather, and everything in the encyclopedia said it was cold.”
During the following summer, Fernando visited the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management for its Summer Business Institute.
When it was time to decide on moving to Minnesota, she struggled with the thought of leaving her family behind. But some advice from family and a friend encouraged Fernando to take a chance.
“The way for me to really test my limits and learn who I am and could be is to remove myself from what I've known,” Fernando says. “That was attractive advice to me. I was really concerned about how different the culture would be geographically and culturally. I had another friend say, ‘If they're going to meet a brown girl, it might as well be you.’ Those two pieces of advice worked for a 16-year-old Irene.”
Fernando started classes at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities in 2003 at age 17. Just 10 days into her freshman year, she and four classmates co-founded Students Today Leaders Forever (STLF), a non-profit organization that began with a simple idea: youth can impact the world.
“It was young people leading young people and believing our perspectives were valuable enough to pursue,” she says.
To make that impact, the non-profit helped students find volunteer opportunities across the nation during spring break, sending them off on road trips known as “Pay it Forward Tours.” The experience helped students “reveal” the leadership skills they already had.
Interest in STLF soared, and by 2007, 1,400 students contributed more than 19,000 service hours. As the non-profit grew, so did the co-founders’ roles. Fernando and her co-leaders developed a paid structure so they could devote more time and energy to the work.
When the co-leads presented the idea to share leadership roles instead of having one executive director, funding sources and advisers pushed back: “Funder after funder, and mentor after mentor said, ‘You ought to think really hard and long about that,’ ” Fernando explains.
Sharing leadership roles isn’t common in most hierarchy managerial structures, but Fernando wanted to change attitudes and explains, “multiple young people could be in charge because through multiple perspectives, we could get at something stronger than a single person could.”
“Multiple young people could be in charge because through multiple perspectives, we could get at something stronger than a single person could.”
Those funding the non-profit were skeptical, but the co-leads persisted. And it worked.
“We were young people with immense conviction,” Fernando recalls, “and we weren't always met with that level of support. But at the time, we had a vision, we were doing the work, seeking feedback, and had a plan.”
One managerial concept the organization had was to cycle leaders, almost like a rotation or term limit, to allow youth working within the non-profit a shot at a higher position–including Fernando’s.
She left in 2014 and says, “We normalized the idea of departure. That allowed us to have a different conversation around continuity, civility, and positioning for success.”
Rotating staff meant that everyone co-led and had a leadership role within the agency. “Shared leadership allowed us to hire people with less experience, because we had a team that offered continuity and collective organizational stability,” Fernando explains.
Although the non-profit dissolved in 2018, Fernando’s 11-year tenure resulted in remarkable contributions helping more than 22,000 students serve 313,000 hours in the community.
Questions, curiosity and personal growth
For several years, Fernando says, she thought about applying for a Bush Fellowship but didn’t want to until she felt she was ready to pursue her goals regardless of her application outcome.
“Sometimes people apply, thinking that, ‘This will impact my leadership so that I can do this thing,’” she reflects. She told herself, “The things I'm pursuing are things that should be pursued. I am pursuing that with or without the fellowship.”
“I wanted to be able to go all in on my own bet,” she says.
With that in mind she applied and was awarded a Bush Foundation fellowship in 2015 to further explore leadership styles and managerial systems, like STLF’s shared leadership model.
“It allowed me to test and experiment with the ways I learn and the ways in which I process learning and growth. I was able to engage different parts of my brain, interests, and curiosities because I was unattached from an organization.”
“I don't think it should be a manager model for everybody, but these are viable management models that shouldn't be seen as a lesser form of managerial structure. I had such conviction around that,” Fernando says.
The fellowship gave her a fresh leadership identity outside of a work setting and on her own terms. “It allowed me to test and experiment with the ways I learn and the ways in which I process learning and growth.”
During her fellowship, attending a conference as Irene Fernando without an attached job title felt different. Instead of attending sessions related to talent and job-related business, she attended sessions about physics and science, saying “I was able to engage different parts of my brain, interests, and curiosities because I was unattached from an organization.”
“Bush allowed me to go places and pursue questions myself and not through the lens of leadership on behalf of a mission that’s separate from me,” she explains.
Making history as a young leader
A few years after her Bush fellowship, Fernando changed careers. She first learned about the Hennepin County board through a Google search. She and a friend attended a board meeting over lunch in February 2017 and after the board voted to spend $10 million on transit, Fernando was intrigued with the role of a commissioner. “I remember thinking, ‘Cool, I agree, but also, what? $10 million? That's so much money. What is this place?’ That's what got me on the journey,” Fernando says.
Over the next few months, she printed and hung precinct maps on her walls while researching how a county board makes decisions that affect community members. “I’m a social entrepreneur and a person who's moved by curiosity,” she explains. Her decision to run for a Hennepin County Commissioner position started because she liked the job description.
“This is an interesting job, and the entity does interesting work,” Fernando explains. “I am qualified to do this job and there are questions I have. It wasn’t about the predecessor; it was about me occupying that job in a way I thought would be beneficial.”
She launched her campaign in September 2017 while also working full-time and attending graduate-level classes. The campaigning was demanding, but after an historic election win, she began representing Hennepin County District 2 in January 2019.
One of her immediate priorities was to address race inequities. At the height of civil unrest after the murder of George Floyd in 2020, Fernando and Commissioner Angela Conley, the only other board member of color, co-authored a resolution declaring racism a public health crisis.
Fernando says she believes just talking about race is progress, and naming it a public health crisis is a crucial step to finding solutions: “We can name it, we are willing to collect data on it, we are willing to say that we are not meeting standards, and that we want to close those gaps.”
“I think there's a lot of progress with that. There's a lot more work to do in order for us to realize that ideal, and more importantly, to reverse those outcomes,” Fernando explains.
And sometimes, putting in the effort to challenge policies even without a solution, is still worth it to Fernando. “I think part of leadership is not always a result but also what we are willing to stand for,” she says. “What are we willing to take risks on, and who are we willing to take risks on behalf of?”
Open communication with her colleagues is also important to Fernando. "A lot of how I lead is to create space for others to hopefully feel a little bit more comfortable on how they might want to lead. It's less about coming up with the finite solution. I hope when I say those things, it allows for other members to feel a little bit more comfortable with saying what they wish to say they maybe would not have said if I wasn't in the room.”
As a commissioner, Fernando tackles transit expansion, food accessibility and housing affordability issues, as well as gender and anti-trans violence. She supports work being done for increased mental health help, too. One example includes embedding the first social worker into the Hennepin County 911 call center to answer mental health crisis calls. With this new role, residents can access resources and mentorship from social service professionals.
By returning to some knowledge she gained in the human resources classes she started in 2017 as she works toward earning a doctoral degree (thanks in part to funding from her Bush Foundation Fellowship), the self-proclaimed “HR nerd” was also able to create a code of conduct specific to Hennepin County elected officials recently as part of her commissioner role.
The landscape for the work ahead
As the new board chair beginning her second term, Fernando says supporting marginalized communities, creating cross-agency partnerships, and expanding “who sees themselves in the story of leadership and politics,” are her main concerns.
Fernando wants more women of color to become elected officials, saying, “There are a lot of us who are very qualified mapping out how we see our careers in our 20s. I hope more women, women of color, and younger women in future decades, see themselves doing eight or 12 years in local office. If it turns into a career politician, great. If not, we move on, and hopefully [have] made a meaningful contribution to our local place.”
Using her leadership style that she says is consistent but not static, she hopes the skills she’s gained so far will continue to evolve as she navigates her work.
Taking on risks as a 17-year-old is comparatively different now for Fernando, but she says the approach and philosophy are similar. “I hope I'm applying it [leadership style] relative to the demands in the community and the realities and the injustices that are occurring,” Fernando says. “I hope I am pushing myself to listen to my own stability. I am inarguably at one of my most stable, strongest leadership positions. What am I going to do with that? I sought to earn and create this space to continue to take risks relative to who I am today.”