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By Jane Hanson
Did you know that 80% of all new businesses in the U.S. are started by Latinos?
This statistic is especially inspiring as we begin the month-long celebration of National Hispanic Heritage Month, which recognizes the contributions and influence of Hispanic Americans in the United States. And not surprisingly, many are women.
Their stories are uplifting, universal, and particularly relevant today as women strive to have a louder, prouder voice in the business world.
Meet Four Power Chicas
Sandra Campos, a first-generation Mexican American, is the CEO of Project Verte, a platform that helps companies scale their e-commerce businesses. Growing up working in her family’s tortilla factory in Texas, she honed her logistics and supply chain skills as a little girl and leveraged those skills working for iconic designers like Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and as CEO of Diane von Furstenberg.
Melissa Gonzalez is a second-generation Puerto Rican born and raised in the Bronx. The founder and CEO of The Lion’esque Group, and Principal at MG2, a company that helps brands create human connection via experiential retail, started at Lehman Brothers but quickly followed her passion to blend her business prowess with her creativity. Regarded as a retail industry expert, strategist and storyteller who has advised major retailers such as Amazon, Marc Jacobs and Nordstrom, she is also an author and podcast host.
Keyla Lazardi is a powerhouse Latina born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela who is the Chief Scientific Officer at Revlon. Keyla holds a PhD in biochemistry and worked her way up the ladder at Procter & Gamble and e.l.f. Cosmetics before landing that top spot at Revlon. She is most passionate and proud of the product innovation she spearheads at the iconic brand.
Lilliana Vasquez, a first generation Mexican/Puerto Rican, has a long list of titles to her name including Emmy-winning host, tv personality, interviewer, style expert and author (all at the tender age of 41!) But perhaps her most impressive role to date is that of mother to Santi, her 6-week-old son born after her long and public struggle with infertility - a topic rarely if ever discussed in her Latinx community. She is now committed to helping underserved women gain information and access to reproductive health services through the organization Kindbody.
We Are Lucky to Have Them
“You are not lucky to be here. The world needs your perspective. They are lucky to have you.”
These words, spoken by the Hispanic Heritage Foundation president and CEO Antonio Tijerino, reflect the abundant insights and experiences that woman like Sandra, Melissa, Keyla and Lilliana bring to the table. Their histories are all different but the lessons in their stories are universal.
Knowledge is Confidence
While neither Sandra’s nor Lilliana’s mother went to college, these women felt strongly that education would provide the confidence their daughters needed to proudly embrace their Mexican heritage in a white world, and in turn provide the opportunity they needed to succeed professionally. “Knowledge gives you confidence and confidence gives you a voice,” says Campos. “If you’re in a meeting and you don’t know an acronym, it’s more than likely you’re not raising your hand. If you’re not raising your hand, you don’t have a voice at that table.” Her new digital content platform, Fashion Launchpad, aims to give those in the retail sector access to knowledge and thus the confidence to raise their hand. “This is about democratizing the industry and helping people take control of their own trajectory and their own career.”
Lazardi’s mother, college educated herself, promoted education as a means of attaining economic independence. Growing up in a machismo culture, Keyla’s mother felt it was important that Keyla, who went on to get a college degree and a PhD, control her own future. “Economic independence is the priority,” her mother taught her.
You Don’t Have to Be an Ashley
Sandra was one of two women of color in her sorority pledge class. Lilliana was the only Mexican/Puerto Rican in her 70-person private school class (for which she was granted a full scholarship) and wished she could change her name to Ashley. It took years for both women to understand that embracing their differences could be an enormous benefit in their careers. Being raised in a different culture and speaking a second language enables a better understanding of the global customer to whom so many businesses cater today. “I wish I could go back 15 years and realize that it’s actually a really big asset to be able to speak Spanish and a big asset to have this more global voice,” says Sandra.
Keyla, who speaks with conviction, passion and a fairly heavy Venezuelan accent, tells a story of her boss at Procter & Gamble who told her that she wouldn’t get anywhere in the company unless she worked on her accent. Not long after, Fabrizio Freda, now the president and CEO of Estee Lauder Companies, came to speak. His accent was more noticeable than Keyla’s. “That day I decided that my accent is part of who I am and I’m not going to leave it behind.”
Look For the White Space
Lilliana describes her mom, like many immigrants, as an “entrepreneur by need.” Not college-educated, her mom was forced to seek out unmet needs in her community and create income-generating opportunities around them. She started a business to help undocumented people get cell phones and even bought a snow cone cart. “Scrappy is the perfect word to describe her,” says Lilliana. “If you speak English and you’re smart, and you’re scrappy, you can really make a successful business for yourself.”
Don’t Allow the Stigma to Stick
Colorism, derogatory nicknames and stereotypes are not uncommon as Hispanic women work through their careers. Yet Lazardi says it’s difficult to change other people and the best way to deal with it is to control it yourself. “It’s on each one of us,” she says. “The reason I haven’t been stigmatized is because I haven’t allowed it to happen to me.” She adds, “Our work speaks for itself. As long as you are clear and deliver on what you’re supposed to deliver, you gain the respect of others. You need to start owning the part you can influence.”
Girls Can’t Be What They Can’t See
Sandra, Melissa, Keyla and Lilliana all feel it is important to be strong role models and to pay it forward – to share knowledge and resources to help the next generation of Latinas. The women are active in organizations such as Girls Inc., which inspires girls to be strong, smart and bold, Kindbody, which offers education and accessible wellness services for women and 100 Hispanic Women, which inspires Latinas to maximize their strengths and potential. As Lazardi says, “For Latinas, actions speak louder than words.”
Being a minority and a woman can add extra challenges to the climb up the corporate ladder. Gonzales shares a story of a Wall Street mentor who told a group of minority interns, “If you are on time, you’re five minutes late.” Latina women may just have to work a bit harder to achieve their dreams. Sandra, Melissa, Keyla and Lilliana have done it in spades. And now they’re ready to help the next generation of Latinas do the same.