In the early 1990s, when Maria Robles Meier first moved to Washington, she was told something she'd never forget. The words were from a fellow Latina who worked at a national Hispanic organization, and they were brutal.
"I remember her telling me that I had nothing to offer the Hill, telling me that I was being unrealistic," says Meier, now a senior Senate adviser.
Meier was a recent Stanford University graduate navigating the Washington networking game from scratch: She couldn't afford an unpaid Hill internship while in college, and she came to D.C. without a job. All she wanted was some career advice; she walked home from the meeting in tears.
"If I didn't have a message when I came back calling me in for an interview [for a job in the Senate], I probably would have got on a plane and gone home," she says.
Now it's Meier's job to counsel young people as the director of the Senate Democratic Diversity Initiative in Minority Leader Harry Reid's office. Though she will tear through a resume with a red pen or tell a candidate flat-out that their writing is weak, she will never say those words—"you have nothing to offer"—to an earnest applicant.
Meier—a 49-year-old Omaha, Nebraska, native (a "Midwest Mexican," she says)—is a force of change on Capitol Hill when it comes to hiring: Meier has personally helped more than 200 ambitious and ethnically diverse people find jobs in the Senate since 2011.
The Capitol has long struggled with cultivating a diverse workforce, especially when it comes to senior roles. In 2011, National Journal surveyed 300 high-level congressional staffers. Ninety-three percent of them were white.
"It's always this chicken-and-egg thing," says David McCallum, Reid's deputy chief of staff, who hired Meier. Promotion requires experience; experience requires getting a job in the first place. And applicants for entry-level Hill jobs are expected to have internships—usually unpaid—if they want to be competitive candidates. Many cannot afford a summer in Washington without making any money, and minorities are often left out of the pipeline. Reid created the diversity office in 2007 to combat that problem among Senate Democrats. Meier is the second person to hold the position.
Meier's work goes deeper than just passing on resumes. Every year, she meets with about 350 aspiring applicants, gives them a timed writing test, edits their resumes, and conducts informational interviews. And all that isn't for a job, but just to get into her database.
"I can be really tough, and they have to be tough, too," she says. "No one gets into the database without that process."
When Democratic chiefs of staff in the Senate are looking to make a hire, they're advised to consult Meier, who will dive into her digital Rolodex and offer suggestions.
"Our bigger-picture hope is that, with these youngsters that we're helping right now, we are planting seeds, and some of them might stick around here awhile and move up," McCallum says.
Zephranie Buetow, a legislative counsel for Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, went through Meier's vetting process in 2011. Buetow was then a 32-year-old recent law school graduate with limited Hill experience.
"She told me, quite frankly, the diversity initiative does not get people jobs," Buetow says. "She said she could get my resume in the right hands but it's up to me to follow up with these jobs, to make that impression."
Soon after, Buetow was employed in former Democratic Sen. Mary Landrieu's office. When Landrieu lost her Louisiana reelection in 2014, Buetow went back to Meier. "She forwarded my resume," she says.
It's that commitment to keeping people like Buetow on the Hill when they hit a rough patch—keeping them on that all-important path to senior-level roles—that makes Meier powerful in guiding the future of the institution.
"The idea that Maria has been a part of truly seeding the pipeline—it's huge, because you can't make up time later," says Amanda Renteria, the political director of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign and former chief of staff to Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan. The seeds of Meier's work are already growing outside the realm of Congress. In staffing up the Clinton campaign, Renteria says, "I've already called Maria."
When asked how Meier's work could change the Senate, Reid says, "She's already done it." In the past, he says, it used to be that offices would complain that "we can't find anybody" when looking for diverse job candidates.
Now, he says, "We always have someone available." It shows: Senate Democratic offices are more diverse than Republican ones. According to LegiStorm, 20.4 percent of Democratic Senate staffers in the current Congress are nonwhite. Just 6.6 percent of Republican Senate staffers are. Meier's role is unique to Senate Democrats. She doesn't have a Republican counterpart in the Senate, and the House does not have offices specifically dedicated to minority career development.
"She is such a sweet woman, very proficient and hardworking," Reid says of Meier. "I can't say enough good about her."
Meier still thinks about the woman who told her she didn't have what it takes.
"I'm actually more angry at myself that I internalized that," she says. Too often, she says, women and minorities think they don't belong in a given work environment. Meier's work is about helping people believe they do—not for the sake of tokenism, but because they have the right skills.
"We have those internalized stereotypes and belief systems about everything, particularly when it comes to hiring," she says. "That's a challenge I tell people, and this is also why I'm tough, why I set up this process for the database. I say I won't just move a piece of paper. We have been as successful as we have because offices know we have a reputation of putting forth good people."