How Pilar O’Leary Put Latino Culture on the Map

Pilar O'Leary
Pilar O'Leary
Washington power broker Pilar O’Leary has launched and run dozens of programs that lifted, grew and enriched the lives of Latinos in Washington, D.C., Latin America and across the globe. By finding a need and stepping up to the plate, O’Leary has modeled the power of the intersection of personal drive and connection to a community.

O’Leary is a leader across multiple fields

Pilar O’Leary has worked in a mix of corporate, law, executive, and government positions throughout her career. Prestigious appointments include the Smithsonian, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan & Co., and Fannie Mae. She became a high-profile public figure in Washington when she was appointed the Director of the Smithsonian Latino Center in 2005.

She is a sought-after player on the international stage

O’Leary is considered is considered to be a sought-after player in the Washington and Latin American business, diplomatic and government spheres. Her special skill set—building strong, lasting Latino-focused organizations—has propelled her onto the international stage as a thought leader and strategic adviser.

How O’Leary brought together Tango and a Supreme Court justice to send Latin American children to the Washington Ballet

The Washington Ballet’s Latino Dance Fund is a scholarship program for high-potential Latin American dance. The program brings those students to Washington, D.C. to receive professional training at the Washington Ballet. The program was founded by O’Leary along with the ballet’s Artistic Director, Septime Webre, and philanthropist Isabel Ernst.

“The Washington Ballet is one of the top ten dance companies in the United States, and it has a very distinguished reputation internationally as well,” O’Leary said in a Youtube video promoting the Washington Ballet Latino Dance Scholarship Fund. “In Washington, D.C., it's really a point of pride because it's one of the best arts institutions in the nation's capital. What's amazing about the Washington Ballet is that it not only brings amazing works from the traditional ballet classic repertory, but under the direction of artistic director Septime Webre, we're also seeing exciting, new and original works.”

O’Leary, a non-stop prolific fundraiser, created and ran a tango-themed fundraiser for the ballet. “Noche de Pasion: Tango Soiree” received wide media attention in outlets such as the Washington Post and Huffington Post.

She organized several groups including the Washington Ballet’s Women’s Committee, Jete Society and Latino Dance Fund Host Committee. The show was held on November 8, 2014 at the Organization of American States building on 17th Street, Northwest, in Washington, D.C. David Drake wrote in the Huffington Post’s Arts & Culture section: “The venue was transformed into a Buenos Aires Tango Club. Around 500 guests attended the ballet fundraiser, including the ambassadors of the Organization of American States as well as leaders in the business, arts, politics and the community. I had dinner the night before with the Ambassadors of Spain, Uruguay and Argentina. Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor also attended this fundraiser. I was glad to see her, and be able to exchange views on legal aspects of the new financial regulations.”

O’Leary and her team raised over $30,000 that evening, which went toward the Washington Ballet’s annual pledge of $435,000 to support scholarship programs, including the O’Leary’s Latino Dance Fund.

O’Leary transcends party lines for the good of the Latino community

Pilar O’Leary has looked past party lines when it comes to building inclusion for the American Latino community. Although she had served in the Bush Administration, after President Barack Obama was re-elected in 2008 she volunteered as the talent director for the 2008 Latino Inaugural Ball. O’Leary’s rolodex again proved to an asset: she brought out an A-list lineup including Shakira, Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony, and Alejandro Sanz.

How she launched the Spanish-immersion academy Isabella & Ferdinand in response to a market void

One of O’Leary’s greatest contributions to the Latino community was her founding of a Spanish-language immersion academy known as Isabella & Ferdinand in 2009.

The school, formally called Isabella & Ferdinand® Academia de Español™, is located in Washington, D.C. and Miami, Florida. Isabella & Ferdinand’s aim is to make its students fluent in the Spanish language and culture. Curriculum includes intensive Spanish instruction as well as Spanish and Latin American music, theatre, art, literature and culture.

When asked why she launched Isabella & Ferdinand, O’Leary says that she looked for a culture-based Spanish program for her own children, but couldn’t find one to her liking. She talked to other parents and found that many were in the same boat; they wanted a quality Spanish immersion program for their kids, but the existing academies all seemed to fall short.

According to the Washington Post, the Washington metropolitan area saw a 73 percent increase in Latino residents over the decade beginning in 2000. In real numbers, the increase was from 408,885 to 709,193 Latino residents. That amounted to roughly 15 percent of the population.

Demographics and O’Leary’s and her friends’ unmet needs immediately created a market.

“Unlike the past, where Latino immigrants often urged an English-only policy with their children in order to ensure assimilation, Hispanics are now eager to preserve their heritage and their language,” O’Leary told the Washington Post in December 2011. “I wanted my children to know this is not just their mom’s weird background. I wanted them to know this language connects to this amazing culture, all these significant artists and cultural heroes.”

O’Leary grew the academy’s enrollment 600 percent in five years while simultaneously producing a Spanish-language children’s CD

By 2011, just two years after its founding, Isabella & Ferdinand expanded into educational software, music camps and summer camps. About half of the academy’s students are Latino. In 2011, the tuition for 10 one-hour classes over 10 weeks was roughly $350-425.

As the co-founder of the academy, O’Leary handled nearly all aspects of the launch, ranging from the high-level work—such as developing the strategic business plan and marketing program—to the nitty gritty, even writing curriculum and posting ads for jobs. During her tenure, she increased enrollment six-fold in 5 years from 80 to 500 students.

Pilar O’Leary’s record of accomplishment at Isabella & Ferdinand was tantamount to the successful launch of a start-up: getting funding, building a workforce from scratch, creating the product, and getting the customers (in O’Leary’s case, students).

While directing Isabella & Ferdinand, O’Leary produced a music CD for children called Ole & Play! The Songs of Isabella & Ferdinand Spanish Language Adventures. The CD was widely acclaimed by the Latino music industry and children’s programming communities.

Ole & Play! is a collection of original Spanish language songs. The songs were recorded by a handful of pop stars, including Gaby Moreno from Guatemala. The Washington Post described Ole & Play! as “the anti-Dora product for weary parents: kid-friendly tunes with adult-tolerable content.”

O’Leary co-produced several documentaries, including those aired on Showtime and the Smithsonian Channel

Ole & Play! wasn’t O’Leary’s only venture into media production. She was a co-producer of the documentary The Accordion Kings: The Story of Colombian Vallenato Music, which aired on the Smithsonian Channel and Showtime.

She was the Executive Producer and Talent Coordinator of The Price of Silence, a video commemorating the 60th Anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights produced for Amnesty International.

She was also a Co-Producer of the video Podemos Con Obama, a film that supported the election of Barack Obama as President and focused on issues affecting the Latino community.

For more information about the Isabella & Ferdinand academy, visit

To see Pilar discuss the Washington Ballet, watch “The Washington Ballet's Latino Scholarship Fund Video” on Youtube at

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Organization of American States

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