In the 1980s the American Club, founded in Havana in 1901 and
transplanted to the penthouse of the Royal Trust Tower in Little Havana,
became a haven for Cuban-American men who rose to powerful positions in
government and business to network among themselves and with their
Anglo male counterparts.
In the camaraderie forged by Chivas-on-the-rocks and after-lunch cafecitos and cigars, alliances were formed, deals made, promotions promised.
"We knew we had to be a part of that scene to get anywhere, so we
started showing up for lunch,'' remembers Aida Levitán, a prominent
Miami businesswoman and one of the trailblazing advertising and
marketing mavens — among them, Maria Elena Toraño and the late Tere
Zubizarreta — who cracked codes and integrated male-dominated South
Florida business institutions.
Hispanic women have come a long way from the days when they
only accompanied their husbands to social affairs, raised funds for
charity and lunched with the girls.
Today, Hispanic women lead
or have led three of the most powerful business groups in Miami-Dade —
the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce, the Beacon Council and the Latin
Builders Association — and are represented in virtually every field
from engineering to medicine. Entrepreneurial, they own businesses and
are in leadership roles in highly-charged professions such as law, real
estate, health services and the media.
But at the rank of CEO,
president, or on boards of directors of corporate America — and in high
appointed government posts such as public administration -- Hispanic
women are missing.
"We've come a long way, but I still think
we have a long way to go,'' said Levitán, one of the speakers at the
National Hispana Leadership Institute (NHLI), a Washington D.C.-based
organization bringing its annual conference and Mujer Awards gala
Thursday and Friday to the Hyatt Regency in downtown Miami.
"Look at the upper echelons of salaries and CEOs you'll see almost no
representation of Hispanic women,'' Levitán added. "Look at Burger
King: Who are among the top five officials? Not Hispanic women. Look at
American Airlines: Sure they're based in Dallas, but boy, do they do a
lot of business in this community, and where are the Hispanic women'' in
the corporate headquarters and board of directors?
the picture is not any rosier: Only 2.6 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs are
women and they hold about 15 percent of the board seats.
Fortune 500 companies, 3.1 percent of board seats were held by
Hispanics — that's 172 of more than 5,000 seats. Of that number, only
44 seats were held by Latinas, less than 1 percent.
these women held more than one seat so some serve on two or three
different boards,'' said Cristina López, president of the National
Hispana Leadership Institute. "When you count actual numbers of women,
only 20 to 25 Latinas are on [Fortune 500] corporate boards.''
There are no Latina CEOs in Fortune 500 companies, a scenario unlikely
to change in the short term. "They're not in the pipeline for this to
change any time soon,'' López said.
To address the
underrepresentation of Latinas, the 23-year-old NHLI — founded by the
Miami duo of Toraño, a Cuban-American business owner and presidential
appointee, and Raquel Cohen, a Peruvian-American psychiatrist who was in
the first class of women at Harvard Medical School — has developed a
series of training and development programs specially tailored to
"Women can do anything they want to do, but I
know that there are tremendous barriers,'' Cohen said. "It's the
barriers that need to be changed, not the women. To get through the
barriers, they need the skills.''
NHLI's programs take into
account the particular needs of Hispanic women such as commitment to
family -- which hasn't changed despite their increasing presence in the
workforce — and gives them access to top-notch training opportunities.
The organization's executive leadership program, the most well-known
and competitive, is broken down into four separate week-long segments to
limit the time away from the home base. Candidates must have at least
10 years of professional experience and have a track record of
leadership in their community.
The first week is spent in
California undergoing "introspective'' self-assessment activities such
as taking a strength-finder test. The second week focuses on public
leadership and takes place at the Kennedy School at Harvard University.
For the third, the women choose a week at one of the three campuses of
the Center for Creative Leadership — North Carolina, San Diego or
Denver — where they get to interact with executives from corporate
America. The last week is spent in Washington D.C. immersed in public
policy issues and meeting government officials and members of Congress.
Another program for emerging professionals, ages 17 to 22, is aimed
at helping Hispanic women begin careers in nonprofit organizations,
which are expected to generate 500,000 to 800,000 jobs in the next 15
years with the retirement of Baby Boomers who have held those jobs.
Another program targeted at women aged 24 to 34 seeks to increase the
number of Latinas in leadership roles in nonprofit organizations by
exposing them to management and leadership training.
"There is tremendous opportunity in nonprofits, but we need to build the pipeline,'' López said.
The goal of all the programs and of the annual conference — coming
to Miami for the first time — is to make our women aware of what
could be achieved if they dare look beyond their current realities,''
More than 600 Hispanic women from around the country are expected to attend the Miami conference, the group's 10th annual.
"It's a great opportunity to connect with powerful Latina role
models, to hear fantastic speakers, inspirational and motivational, and
to be exposed to top-notch trainers,'' López said.
role models of powerful Latinas can be found in South Florida, which is
unique in that Hispanics have become the mainstream culture in the last
30 years and hold powerful elected offices. Last week, a Cuban-American
woman, Aminda Marqués Gonzalez, was named executive editor of The Miami
Herald Media Co. -- the first Hispanic woman to hold the post and a
featured speaker at the NHLI conference.
The powerful Latin
Builders Association, once a male bastion, is led by Noelia Moreno,
co-owner of Hialeah-based Moralmar Kitchen Cabinets.
she sits as chair of the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce and a senior
vice president at Bank of America, Maria C. Alonso sees a different
picture of South Florida and how Hispanic women fit into the corporate
``We are not a corporate headquarter town,'' Alonso
said. ``That would be more in line with an Atlanta. We are more mid-size
corporations and small businesses.''
Women like her, Alonso added, grew up with ``seeing Hispanic women in leadership positions.''
She named Remedios Díaz-Oliver, the president and CEO of her own
company, All American Containers, and Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,
both of whom are being honored with an NHLI Mujer Award for their
"Our reality in Miami is warped because of sheer numbers [of Hispanics] here,'' she said.
Alonso's divorced mother, a nurse, owned and operated an adult
living facility and sent her daughter to the all-girls Our Lady of
"I grew up thinking that it was normal to be
successful in business,'' said Alonso, who is market manager for
corporate social responsibility for Bank of America in Miami-Dade and
Monroe counties. "You are surrounded by people that do. The message is
`You do and you can.' I saw that at home, and it was reinforced in my
Originally a University of Miami-trained engineer, she attributes her career success to mentors.
"I think the mentorship part is critical in my own personal and
professional development,'' she said. "I've been fortunate to have had
great mentors along the way, both male and female, Hispanic and
Irma Becerra-Fernández, another successful
South Florida Latina, grew up in a traditional home in Puerto Rico with
the expectation she would get a university education and build a family.
Her career moves, however, were supposed to take a back seat to family.
"I struggled early on with what was it going to mean for me to excel
in my profession and at the same time excel as a mom,''
Becerra-Fernández said. "The priority for me was my family. I thought
about that when I was back in college. Will I have to quit my job to
raise my kids? I didn't have a clear answer to that. Most Latinas still
struggle today with that.''
By staying open and flexible,
Becerra-Fernández carved three careers in male-dominated fields and
raised two children who are now grown and building their own. Her son
holds a finance degree and works in New York. Her daughter is studying
economics at Boston College.
Along the way Becerra-Fernández
discovered that her choices about career and family didn't need to be so
black-and-white, that either-or. Rather, she saw that she needed to
manage her life by adopting business practices like "outsourcing'' and
building "a support system.''
Her Cuban mother, a stay-at-home
mom, helped with child care. So did a sister. She participated in
carpools to cut her driving time.
"I outsourced the cooking,''
she said, laughing. ``Monday was taco night, Tuesday rib night (and
kids ate free), Wednesday pizza night. I never was a good cook, so why
not have someone else do it?''
Her family time was spent on
"valueable things — reading the kids a story, putting them to sleep,
doing homework, staying in touch with teachers, being part of their
Her strategies worked.
Becerra-Fernández was the first woman to earn a doctorate in electrical
engineering at Florida International University. She worked at Florida
Power & Light for six years, and after she was asked to teach the
staff statistics, she discovered she loved teaching and became an
information systems professor at the university level.
the director of the Center for Entrepreneurship at FIU's College of
Business, Becerra-Fernández is organizing a venture capital conference
that will pair investors with Latin American businesses in mid-November.
"Maybe I like the challenges and I'm a survivor,'' Becerra-Fernández said.
So are the women who charted the course for many like her.
Thirty years later, Levitán and Toraño can laugh when they remember
the stories of how they built successful careers in a South Florida
mostly run by men.
One of their favorites: How they tried to get the Asociación de Hombres de Empresa to change its "sexist name.'' When it didn't, they formed their own
group, the National Coalition of Hispanic American Women (CHOW), and
worked hard to give the organization and the women in it public
"We all had our own style,'' said Toraño, who ended
up with a presidential appointment by the Carter Administration that
changed her life and opened doors in Washington D.C.
now heads ArtesMiami, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting
South Florida artists and culture. She also serves on the 23-member
commission to study the feasibility of creating a national museum
dedicated to the history, heritage and contributions of Hispanics in the
Toraño and Cohen are semi-retired, but after
seven years of studying Buddhism, Toraño says she's "back'' and working
on a plan to expand the reach and influence of the National Hispana
Leadership Institute and ``take NHLI to the next level.''
"There is still so much to do,'' Toraño said.