For Christopher J. Nieto ’97, leadership is in his blood. His father, Ernesto Nieto ’64, is the president and founder of the National Hispanic Institute (NHI), an international organization dedicated to developing future leaders within and for the expanding Latino community. His mother, Gloria de Leon, is co-founder and senior executive vice president. Chris Nieto grew up volunteering with the organization and served as senior vice president for nearly five years.


Today, Nieto is continuing the family tradition as chief program officer for Leadership Austin, a nonprofit that develops and connects community leaders in Central Texas. Nieto designs leadership programs for Austin-area professionals that create more equitable outcomes in the community. In this role, he leads two 60-member cohort leadership programs, two community-based programs, and the annual Leadership Austin Conference.


“Chris has amazing energy and charisma,” said his wife, Xochitl Gamas. “He is always thinking about how he can help others become leaders in the community and develop as individuals. He has a big heart and wants to create opportunities for everyone.”


As NHI senior vice president, Nieto impacted communities throughout the United States by creating a rationale for investing in high school youth leadership development and college readiness programs with the intent of redirecting students back to their community to build equity. He also led capacity-building workshops for parents, ensuring they had the tools and resources needed to guide and support their children. He has directed over 80 summer leadership programs that served more than 10,000 high school students.


John F. Lopez ’89 is a member of the NHI Board of Trustees and has been involved with the organization since 1983. He notes that Nieto played a particularly crucial role during the COVID-19 pandemic.


“When COVID struck, NHI was faced with an existential crisis. The in-person programs that drove NHI’s operating revenues were not possible,” Lopez said. “Chris showed exemplary leadership during this pivotal moment. He worked to identify key curricular elements and develop mechanisms to deliver that curriculum in completely new ways. He helped to train student and adult volunteers in new approaches to working with high school youth. He worked to analyze program outcomes and student feedback to strengthen NHI’s online approaches. He worked tirelessly to make sure that NHI would continue to impact the lives of young people.”


Nieto leads by example and makes time to volunteer in his community. He has served on councils and boards for several organizations, including Austin Community College’s Hays campus and Capital Region Destination Imagination. He was a member of the Arthritis Foundation National Board of Directors and also served on the boards of the organization’s South Central Region and Texas chapters.

It can be argued that leadership begins at home, and Chris Nieto excels in that regard as well. Ernesto Nieto says he is a loving son and dedicated father.


As an infant, one of Chris’s daughters developed juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. Chris couldn’t have been a more attentive and caring dad. He was always on time for medical appointments, invented games that guided his daughter through the ups and downs of her condition, and stayed on schedule with her prescriptions, which included shots to her ankles,” Ernesto Nieto said. “Today, that daughter is 19. She serves as a senator on the college student government, is on the dean’s list, and is a founding member of a student-based organization that advises her school on the special needs of students with special disabilities. Chris has played a significant influential role as a dad with his daughter’s coping abilities and social success.”


For his exceptional leadership and commitment to strengthening individuals and organizations, the Southwestern University Alumni Association is proud to honor Christopher Nieto with the Distinguished Professional Award.