ROMPIENDO BARRERAS (BREAKING BARRIERS)

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Corporate executives looking to contract a janitorial service used to be taken aback when Elizabeth Gonzalez-Gann walked through the door with her bid. She could read their thoughts: A Latina might be fine for cleaning the house, but janitorial work was for men. But things have changed and nowadays, corporations seek her out. This child of migrant farm workers, who grew up laboring in the fields of California, is founder and CEO of Jan-Co Janitorial, a Tucson, Ariz. firm that now has 65 employees, an average $747,283 in annual revenues and contracts to service facilities ranging from government offices to the stadium where the Colorado Rockies have their spring training camp.

“I did not start with a business plan at all when I began 16 years ago,� Gonzalez-Gann confesses. In fact, much of the firm's startup funds came from her personal credit cards. But now, at age 47, she and her brother, whom she took on as a partner in Jan-Co's second year, are thinking about the very long-term future of the business. “We're looking and saying, ‘Where do we want to take this? Do we hand it over to the family? Do we want to sell it?’ It's a big question, and we have actually only started to think about it.�

It's a question not only for the increasing numbers of Latina entrepreneurs who are Boomers, but also for banks, accounting firms, insurance brokers and other financial service providers. Mainstream corporations were almost entirely absent during the surge in startups of women-owned businesses in the Hispanic community. Now that these women and their businesses are maturing, the issue is whether corporations will also miss out on the many marketing opportunities as Latinas seek first to grow their businesses faster, and then to transfer them to the next generation.

But this market won't just fall into the laps of financial services marketers, and those who want to pursue it in the decade ahead had better start now, warns Barbara J. Robles, a professor and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin who specializes in the financing of Hispanic enterprises. “It requires a lot of time investment and long-range investments, and corporate America is not real keen on those kind of outlays,� she says. There are also knotty cultural issues to navigate, she and other experts say. But there's a big payoff if companies do it right. Robles adds, “The Latino population is very brand-loyal. Look at brands like Colgate-Palmolive, which Latinos are completely devoted to — corporations would kill to have that kind of loyalty.�

DATA POINTS

The businesses built by Boomer Latina entrepreneurs are worth the trouble, researchers say. Latinas control just 8 percent of all women-owned businesses, but no segment of that market is growing faster. Between 1987 and 1996, Latina-owned businesses grew 206 percent, compared with 47 percent for all businesses, according to a 2000 study by the Center for Women's Business Research in Washington, D.C. As of last year, the center estimates, Latinas owned or controlled 470,344 firms, employing nearly 198,000 people and generating $29.4 billion in sales. Already, Latina-owned businesses account for the greatest share of women-owned firms in six states: New Mexico (20 percent share), Texas (18 percent), California (17 percent), Florida (16 percent), New York (14 percent) and Arizona (13 percent).

Latinas aren't just building businesses fast they are building them big. “There's a myth that Latinas are only in food service or accommodations — just small businesses. Well, our studies are myth-busters,� says Sharon Hadary, the center's executive director. Just 4 percent of Latina businesses involved accommodations or food service, she notes, while 10 percent of Latina entrepreneurs ran construction companies. The increases in Latina businesses are especially striking in enterprises that have traditionally been dominated by males: up 428 percent in construction, 389 percent in agriculture and 338 percent in wholesaling. The range of businesses now owned by Latinas was reflected by the women entrepreneurs honored in the fall of 2002 by the Los Angeles-based Latin Business Association: Belinda Guadarrama, the president and CEO of GC Micro Corp., a computer hardware and software reseller with annual revenues of $35 million; Concepcion M. Powell, president and CEO of CPS National, Inc., a pharmaceutical distribution company and Irene V. Ibarra, the president of O&I Incorporated, an acquisition and relocation consulting firm.

Who is this new Latina entrepreneur? For one thing, she's grayer than the Hispanic population at large; Boomers definitely dominate among women business owners. While the median age of the U.S. Latino population is nearly 10 years younger than the entire population — 25.9 years compared with 35.3 years, according to the 2000 census — Latina entrepreneurs in 2000 were, on average, 48 years old, with 42 percent in the prime Boomer years of 45 to 54, and another 15 percent age 55 or older. Latina business owners are also more likely to be married, to have more children and to be less educated than other women entrepreneurs of color. Not surprisingly given their age, Latinas tend to be well-established in their businesses: 38 percent had owned their firms for 10 to 19 years, and another 18 percent had been in business at least 20 years. Just 14 percent of those identified by the Center for Women's Business Research had been operating for 4 years or less.

CULTURAL VALUES

However, Latina entrepreneurs cannot be defined only by statistics. Their lives have been shaped by Hispanic culture, and their business practices reflect these deeply imprinted values, experts say. “It's almost as if the Latina woman's cultural characteristics prepare her to be an entrepreneur, in terms of being more collaborative, better listeners, better organized and more strategic,� says Monica Lozano, president and CEO of La Opinión, her family-owned Los Angeles newspaper that is the largest Spanish-language daily in the United States. While Latin culture gave the world the word, “macho,� the male's leadership in the family household is often more symbolic than real, adds Ricardo A. López, president of Hispanic Research Inc. in East Brunswick, N.J. “In the Hispanic community, traditionally the male had the better-defined role. But in reality, a lot of that was just an image being portrayed, while the female, behind the scenes, was really keeping the family going.�

Latino resentment of Latina entrepreneurship has disappeared and been replaced by support, says Mabel Tinjacá, who operates the Overland Park, Kan. business consulting firm Strategies for Growth. “I feel like a lot of the successes we have had are because of generous, forward-looking men who have understood that when women enter the business area, and we enter as leaders, it does make for a richer business community. We couldn't have done it without them — and we couldn't have done it without each other, either.�

As it has with other ethnic communities, the immigration experience both loosened and reinforced the traditional role of the Latina, according to López. “Hispanic females who grew up here become more Americanized,� he says. “They are picking up from the non-Latino population the idea of how to succeed themselves and for their family, while keeping the strong family values they inherited from their mothers. They've evolved into what I call the New Latina.� In a change from other ethnic immigrant experiences, however, Hispanics are not dropping their cultural values the longer they live in the United States, sociologists say. University of Texas professor Robles says one reason is the continuing immigration from Latin America: “One-third of the population is constantly comprised of first-generation immigrants. That keeps the model that otherwise would be diluted if there weren't first-generation people in the community. So there's always a fresh influx of people maintaining values of the extended family — even as that influx depresses socioeconomic statistics of the community as a whole.�

Family is the key to understanding the Latina entrepreneur, asserts Tinjacá. “Success is defined differently for the Latina,� she says. “I wouldn't say we sacrifice revenue for other things, so much as we include revenue as one factor along with others such as family and giving back to the community.� Gonzales-Gann, the Jan-Co Janitorial CEO, is a typical Latina entrepreneur in that sense. “One of the greatest joys of owning my own business is I'm able to control my future, and the other joy is that I'm also able to employ quite a few family members,� she says. At one point or another just about everyone in her extended family has worked in the business. Right now, the business employs both her brothers, a couple of uncles, several nieces and nephews and even her 78-year-old father. Her two children worked so often as last-minute substitutes for absent employees that they're frankly sick of the business, Gonzalez-Gann says. Her niece's husband is not only working for the business, it's possible he will someday run it, she adds.

HANDING IT DOWN

That sort of transfer of the business to family members outside the nuclear family, and even to people who are not, strictly speaking, family, is common among Hispanic entrepreneurs, and is likely to be a frequent occurrence as Latina Baby Boomers look to their retirement or deaths, says Robles. “These pseudo-kin relations — a godparent, the ‘adopted’ aunts and uncles, third and fourth cousins — are crucial to the Latino family. There's a trust factor that is very high,� she says.

Family members are also the main source of advice for Latina entrepreneurs, with some 45 percent saying it was their most important source of guidance, according to Robles: “It's a conservative model of using traditional values and traditional networks. With big families there's a larger group to canvass for advice.� It's also a limiting model that presents big opportunities for companies offering professional financial services, Robles believes.

Latina entrepreneurs have so far followed a similarly conservative route in growing and expanding their businesses, says Hadary of the Center for Women's Business Research. “Some 56 percent use their business earnings as their primary source of capital for growth. When you do that, you really are dampening the growth of the business,� she says.

Here, too, there are huge opportunities for mainstream companies. Consider the experience of San Francisco-based Wells Fargo Co. In 1997, the bank became one of the first to introduce a lending program tailored to Hispanic-owned businesses. “We did a study on access to financing that indicated that Latina and Latino business owners saw that as one of the biggest barriers to starting a business,� says Tim Rios, the bank's national spokesperson for Latino business issues. Wells Fargo set a goal of lending $1 billion to Hispanic businesses within six years. They reached that sum in just two years, so they raised their goal to lending $3 billion by 2007, according to Rios.

The bank did it by stressing that they want an ongoing relationship with Hispanic family businesses. Says Rios: “We're not just pushing a loan.� To reach Latina entrepreneurs specifically, the bank has become active with women's business organizations, and it has created scholarship and grant programs to encourage Latina business students.

Corporations must first build trust to get the business of Latina entrepreneurs, says Robles. “You have to build a presence in the community by partnering with grass roots and community-based organizations that have been there a long time. The fastest way to build trust is by making a big investment up front in education. The biggest issue for Latinas is education,� she says. The effort is worth it, adds Rios, because Latina businesses are good investments. “These businesses are succeeding, they are not failing.�

Corporations will be tested again as Latina Baby Boomers begin making decisions about what will become of their businesses without them. A new generation of Latinas is increasingly interested in continuing mom's enterprise, Rios says. “There didn't used to be as much talk of leaving the business to their sons or daughters. But with the businesses these women have built, this is no longer about a son or daughter taking over some small operation. The kids now see these as hip businesses, and they want to follow in the footsteps of their mothers.�

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