Mari Salazar was in her late 20s when she was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. She was told the condition would begin to affect her quality of life within six months to a year.
Many people would be devastated by such news, but not Salazar. Her research on the autoimmune disease revealed some people use running to combat the symptoms. She accepted the challenge, kickstarting a journey into long-distance running, including ultramarathons.
"I was reading a magazine article about how people can carry on their lives with rheumatoid arthritis, and it mentioned 'some people even run marathons,'" she said. "I started with a 5K, a 10K and then a half marathon. It just kept escalating."
Salazar has long defied the odds. She began life as a member of a migrant farm family, traveling the country with her parents to pick produce. She is a Latina leader in a male-dominated world, serving as senior vice president for the Energy Financial Service group at BOK Financial®. And she is a mentor and longtime community volunteer.
This month, Salazar will be honored with a 2021 Comcast Hispanic Hero Award in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month. Nominated by Small Steps Nurturing Center in Houston, she is among eight community volunteers recognized for their volunteerism, mentorship, advocacy and civic engagement.
Earlier this year, Salazar earned recognition as one of the top 25 Influential Women in Energy, an annual award presented by Hart Energy.
"She builds a very strong team environment so that everyone is rowing in the same direction," said Chris Butta, a longtime friend and director of petroleum engineering at BOK Financial, who works two doors down from Salazar.
"She runs a tight ship, and people know her expectations. But at the same time, she's mentoring people and helping them along. She's one of the reasons I jumped at the opportunity to apply because I knew Mari and the culture of the bank."
Connection to the land
Salazar's inclusive and insightful outlook on business and life are based on transformative childhood experiences.
Her early years involved frequent moves around the country with her family of migrant workers. On the weekends, she worked alongside her parents and developed a strong connection with the land.
“It's a tough job but also a very basic, fundamental kind of job. It's very fulfilling to know that something you did yielded something. You feed people, and that's what life is about.”- Mari Salazar, senior vice president for BOK Financial's Energy Financial Service group
Salazar's father once told her there were two ways to make a living in the world: with your brains or your back.
"My dad was a big advocate for education and my mother was a giver," Salazar said. "She always gave back in terms of her faith and because this country gave back with so many opportunities. She felt like she needed to pay it forward."
As a teenager, Salazar lost both her parents within the span of a few months and relied on the support of her two older sisters and large network of family. She earned a degree in economics from the University of St. Thomas in Houston and chose to honor her parents by supporting volunteer initiatives that focus on education.
She is being honored for her work at Small Steps Nurturing Center, an early education program that serves underprivileged children. At Small Steps, parents pay for school by contributing volunteer hours.
“Seeking education is how you break the cycle of poverty. Having your parent as your primary advocate for education is the most important thing.”- Mari Salazar
She has volunteered at Small Steps since 2000, including a seven-year term on its board of directors ending in 2017. The organization's executive director, Ana Schick, said Salazar is a familiar face with students, staff and parents at the facility, and has shared her story with them to inspire hope.
"Many of the moms were moved to tears by what she has overcome and how successful she is," Schick said. "She's on the front lines with us, especially in times of crisis—participating in our food drive during COVID and serving at our Thanksgiving feasts and Hurricane Harvey spaghetti dinner. She still serves as an unofficial coach and mentor to me, and has taken Small Steps graduates who are now in college under her wing."
In addition to her community involvement, Salazar is a member of the University of St. Thomas alumni board and serves as a student mentor. During the pandemic, she established the Maria Cruz Salazar Interview Closet, named in honor of her mother, which provides suits, accessories and everything a student or alumni might need to dress for success at a job interview.
Salazar's BOK Financial role as manager of energy banking closely aligns with her analytical nature and love for numbers, but she offers more than just expertise in energy and lending.
An ultrarunner who once twisted her ankle within the first five miles of a race and still crossed the finish line, Salazar possesses a kind of "no quit" attitude that allows her to thrive at BOK Financial. Marty Wilson, the company's Houston energy relationship manager, recognized her level of commitment when he hired her 18 years ago.
"We needed that kind of motivation in the office," he said. "She's very good at high-level planning but is also extremely detail oriented and thinks strategically."
With company training and mentorship opportunities that enable employees to reach their highest potential, Salazar said she's thankful for the BOK Financial colleagues who give her the grit to go another mile. Overcoming adversity also left an imprint on her character. While most would see her nomadic childhood as a setback, she's grateful for what it gave her.
"It taught me to adjust and pivot, and I'm not afraid of change," she said. "I was fortunate to meet so many different types of folks from different backgrounds—you learn to focus on the person in front of you and not pass judgment."
In a race, in the office and in life, Salazar's energy and determination are unmatched.
"My career path wasn't always easy or straight or conventional, but eventually I found my stride and learned what I'm capable of," she said.
Top photo: Mari Salazar reading to children at Small Steps Nurturing Center, an early education program that serves underprivileged children in Houston.