Panel: Latina businesswomen can embrace differences

Diversity and cultural intelligence are keys to success in a global economy.

Nowhere is that clearer than in the number of growing small businesses — of which Latinas are the fastest-growing segment — and the increasing push to have diverse boards and leadership teams.

The Statewide Hispanic Chamber of Commerce highlighted some if its successful businesswomen at its annual event this week: The Art of Being a Modern Latina.

Some of the anticipated struggles — overcoming stereotypes, discrimination because of their accents, and balancing their cultural values — have, in fact, been key character-building experiences rather than deterrents.

Patricia Campos-Medina, a well-known political and labor leader in New Jersey, moderated the panel, held at Bergen Community College in Lyndhurst. She asked the women to tell the crowd of more than 100 men and women if their ethnic heritage ever got in the way of their work.

She posed the questions to Linda Estrada-Page of BCB Bank; Gail Smith, CEO of Impacto Latino; Lili Gil-Valleta, CEO of CIEN+; and Claribel Cortes, co-founder and chief operating officer of Setroc Group.

Smith said she found that, sometimes, her otherness helped her climb in corporate America — at Coca-Cola and General Motors.

“The fact that I had an intuitiveness about international affairs, the fact that I spoke another language, the fact that I had experience with other cultures helped me grow in company. I think it was an advantage that I had,” Smith said.

Gil-Valleta said she was disheartened by the question.

“It makes me sad if anyone is thinking that being Latina holds you back,” she said. “It’s not an endearing term, it’s not meant to be cute or diminishing, it’s empowering. Until we start believing that, we are going to stay our corner of whatever story we are telling ourselves as a community. And, yes, the numbers need to be elevated. However, as Gail just said, there’s a cultural advantage for anyone that has a bi-cultural, bilingual upbringing. We have one of our sponsors (Goya Foods), a company that is the fastest-growing food company today because they owned their Latino-ness.”

And, too often, the non-capitalistic cultures lose out on opportunities to monetize on things that are considered everyday and foreign in the U.S. landscape.

Case-in-point: coconut water.

Caribbean, Latin American and South Asian countries, among others, have long known and appreciated the value of coconut water.

But none thought to market it.

“It still makes me sad when I think about Mike Kirban — does anyone know who that is? That’s the guy who ‘discovered’ coconut water. We all grew up with that,” Gil-Valleta said. “But it turned upside down a $3 billion category in the beverage industry because we didn’t realize this cultural thing we grew up with could turn into Vita Coco.”

On the flip side, being Latina does come with all the pitfalls women in the workplace often face. That includes thinking twice about applying to jobs that they aren’t wholly qualified for and hesitating to speak up at meetings.

On the former, Campos-Medina asked the women how they overcome the imposter syndrome in the workplace.

Cortes said she knows the feeling all too well.

“I have suffered from that. I was always the first Latina in any department I worked in. And I was actually the first Latina in the newsroom when I walked in, in 1996,” Cortes said. “Part of me (questioned) why are they looking at me, did I wear too much lipstick. Then I (thought), no, I belong here. I know what I’m talking about, I belong here. So, I had to talk to myself and shut up that little voice in your head.”

Cortes was also recently elected to the North Brunswick Township school board.

Gil-Valleta said not following the “fake it ’til you make it” strategy is key.

“Don’t do that,” she said. “If you’re faking it, then you’re faking it. You own it. If there are things you need to learn, you go back and learn it.”