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Corporate Exodus: 
Hispanic Entrepreneurs Find Happiness and Freedom

by Striking Out on Their Own
By Christine Granados
[This article first appeared in Hispanic Magazie July-August 1999 Issue]
 

Many Hispanics in corporate America no longer worry about cracking the glass walls and ceilings they encounter daily on the job. It isn’t because these obstacles no longer exist, mind you.

As a matter of fact, the Federal Glass Ceiling Commission found that minorities and women make up two-thirds of the U.S. population and 57 percent of the workforce, while they account for only 3 percent of senior management positions at Fortune 1000 industrial and service corporations.  Glass ceilings do exist. Latinos, however, are no longer standing idly while opportunities to advance pass them by. They are creating fortunes and happiness by starting their own businesses like millions of other Americans.
Take Ada Díaz Kirby. A corporate manager five years away from retirement, she was no longer able to stand a stifling corporate environment that pigeonholed her, so she started an interactive multimedia business in Denver, Colorado. For Ruth Vela, it was a family crisis that rushed her toward an epiphany. She was bored and didn’t like the monotony of the corporate world. She wanted a challenge. So she struck out on her own and became a real estate agent.
            Many workplaces are a study in dysfunction and in a large corporation the negatives are magnified: from infighting and office politics to bosses pitting employees against one another to colleagues who do not pull their weight. Most Latinos do want work; they just don’t want to put up with these annoying distractions. Filiberto “Fil” Pacheco, CEO of PB, Inc., in Albuquerque, New Mexico, says he left corporate America because “what I was doing for the company I could easily be doing for myself and even better.”

   Apparently many Latinos feel the same way. The rise in Hispanic-owned business since the late ’80s has been phenomenal. There were 422,373 Hispanic-owned businesses in 1987 compared to 771,706 in 1992, according to U.S. Census Bureau statistics. Firms owned by Hispanic women are the fastest-growing segment in business ownership in the country.

The number of businesses owned by Latinas grew by 114 percent over the 1987–1992 period with sales receipts growing from $4.3 billion in 1987 to $17.2 billion in 1992.  Kirby, 48, an executive director for US West, Inc., with a six-figure salary after 24 years on the job, says, “I definitely felt a glass ceiling. I’ve got this glass hammer on my desk—a glass ceiling breaking award (from US West). It’s ironic because I didn’t see a future for myself in the company anymore. It seemed like I had to fight like crazy to maintain my position. The company was undergoing a lot of change and I saw that they were moving people in to top-level jobs from the outside. I felt underutilized and not appreciated by the corporate environment. I started to feel kind of embarrassed by my tenure because if you have a lot of years of service, they start looking at you differently.”
             It wasn’t until Kirby spoke to her mentor, Chuck Lillis, about her entrepreneurial spirit that she decided to leave and start her own business. “That’s when I thought maybe I am valuable outside this monopolistic society,” Kirby says. “Just thinking about it sparked the energy in me and I hit the point of no return. I should have found another job first, but I was tired of the politics and so much bureaucracy. The thought of staying five more years gave me chills. I just quit and walked away.”
              Kirby, like many new entrepreneurs, had absolutely no notion of how to start a business but had an excellent business idea and was a quick study. In 1994, she created CommTech International, Inc., in Denver, a full-service training company specializing in multimedia technology and telecommunications. Revenues for the first year surpassed the $1 million mark, and the company now has 13 employees. Starting up was tough, however. On many nights Kirby catnapped under the desk in her office to fulfill her contracts.
               She went to FastTrac, a training program given by Small Business Development Center to help women and minorities start their own businesses, and began taking the classes the day she opened the doors of CommTech. “I knew the day I stepped into the first class I had made the right decision. I would go to class, then back to my business and implement what I had learned from FastTrac that day,” she says.
              “When I look back now I think, ‘What an idiot.’ If I had stayed [at US West] I would have been able to retire with a fairly good chunk of money. I would have been able to do what I did and live comfortably. But I never felt so much alive [after starting my own business].”
             Live is what Vela wanted to do. The 37-year-old Pharr, Texas, native says all her skills were not being used at Tandem Computers, Inc., in Austin. Being a cost analyst—or “bean counter,” as she puts it—bored her. What cemented her decision to leave the security of corporate America and enter the fickle world of real estate was her father, Orlando Rodríguez. He was diagnosed with cancer and his near-death experience startled her. Her father’s advice, “Mi’ja, don’t wait if you’re not happy,” was all the incentive she needed to leave her comfortable job.
              “You can live and die doing that work [financial analysis]. It’s a steady, honest living. Some people can live like that, but I wanted more. Being boxed in a room made me feel claustrophobic and after fourteen years I reached my limit,” Vela says. “I felt stifled—like I was only using the left side of my brain and there were no rewards.”
              She took the plunge last June, and after working to pay off all her bills, selling some stock, and getting licensed, she began working with Coldwell Banker Richard Smith Realtors in July. “Last week I closed on a house with a couple.
They were so happy I helped them buy a house here [in Austin] they gave me a big hug. Compare that to doing books. I never got a hug from one of the engineers,” Vela says with a laugh.
               “It’s been seven months now and I’ve closed on my seventh house. I have no income and I haven’t broken even yet. It’s a lot of work.
               Everyone says to give it a year or a year and a half before I start making a profit. [But] I have so much more freedom.”PB owner Pacheco, 62, knows firsthand about the excitement and madness that comes with starting your own business. It took his engineering services company five years before its first contract. “I started out in my own bedroom,” Pacheco says. “I went five years without a paycheck. The only check I was receiving was from my retirement.” (Pacheco served in the U.S. Army for 3 years.)
               “It was crazy. I drove my wife bananas. I lost my house. I used my IRA and maxed my credit cards. I was $150,000 in the hole.” However, Pacheco believed in his abilities, and now his business is a multimillion dollar corporation with a 16,000- square-feet headquarters in Albuquerque and additional offices in Española, New Mexico; Oakridge, Tennessee; and Washington, D.C. The company has more than 35 employees, and revenues of $18 million.
               Using their corporate experiences as a guide, Latino entrepreneurs are careful about how they structure their own companies. As Kirby’s company continues to grow, she is adamant about not allowing corporate America’s strict rules and regulations to seep into her work atmosphere. “Everything I despised at the corporation we don’t do here. We don’t have a lot of restrictions and rules. We have flexible hours. I smoke cigars in my office. At meetings we break out beer and cigars,” she says. “That doesn’t mean we don’t get results. That’s one place where I don’t waiver. If we don’t get results we can’t operate. We want people to feel good about coming to work, and that’s one reason we’re able to retain such skilled technical people, because it sure isn’t the money.”
              Latino entrepreneurs, especially women, are showing the way for those workers who are frustrated by the corporate environment and are no longer content to be cogs in a machine.
 




Christine Granados is the author of Brides and Sinners in El Chuco (University of Arizona Press, 2006).  Her website is www.christinegranados.com and she can be reached at Christine@rockdalereporter.com.