Good Morning… I am honored to be here at the Woman’s Leadership Legacy Conference hosted by the LA County’s Department of Public Works to tell you about my “Journey”.
I am the founder and publisher of El Clasificado, a Spanish language publication I started in Los Angeles with my husband in 1988. In the past when people in media found out I was a CPA with an Accounting degree from LMU, I often got asked “what is a bean counter doing publishing a Spanish language paper? I had no experience as a journalist, never published anything, and for that matter barely spoke Spanish and certainly could not write it.” However, what people really didn’t know about me was that I actually had not planned on being a CPA; I started off wanting to be a fine arts major and had a summer dance scholarship to UCLA. On day one of dance class I was told to pretend I was a Fried Egg and dance….. A career in Modern Dance was not for me so I decided to go to LMU, be practical and major in accounting with aspirations to go to law school. I was looking for security and that seemed like a nice and safe choice in majors.
But the connection to my journey begins in an even more disjointed way. As an accounting major at a small school in 1978, over 95% of the graduates expected to join a major CPA firm, then known as the Big 8, now it is the Big 4. That was my predictable path. I liked predictability and security. But significant in my Journey is an incident that occurred just prior to my graduation. One of our professors asked each of us what we planned to do after graduation. We all said join a major CPA firm, except one person said “I want to be an entrepreneur”. I didn’t really understand what that meant. There were no entrepreneur degrees, or any discussion that I could recall about creating small businesses. I thought entrepreneurs had to invent things and have lots of money to start new businesses. There was no talk of the SBA. In 1978 I poo-pooed small businesses and entrepreneurs. I wanted to work for a major company with lots of security. I thought that anyone who had the ambition to start something new, risk their career options and become an entrepreneur was no less than “Crazy”.
The Corporate World Dream Job
The next part of my Journey was joining the corporate world. I joined the firm of Arthur Young, now known as Ernst and Young. I had worked in Parks and Recs, a bookstore and a restaurant before graduating. I had no previous exposure to the corporate world, my mom worked in a factory, my neighbor drove an ice cream truck and although my dad had an office job, he was too afraid of ever letting us visit him for who knows what reason. Downtown LA was vibrant, the floors at Arthur Young were marble and there was a beautiful winding brass staircase. This looked like my Dream Job. However, I worried that I wouldn’t fit in, know how to act appropriately, was not smart enough to compete with my colleagues and would not survive working intensely for 40 hours a week. Little did I know that working 10 hours a day, 6 days a week would be the norm.
In college I did not join clubs and did not seek leadership positions. I did not like the responsibility of being a leader especially since I usually worked 20 to 40 hours a week to help pay for college. At LMU I always liked being under the radar screen with extra-curricular activities. That way if I screwed up it would not really be noticed. This I do not advise but it was my reality. I was focused on getting a good job after graduation and working through school fortunately counted as an extra-curricular activity on my resume.
But at Arthur Young you had to be a leader. Each year you got promoted whether you liked it or not because if you didn’t that meant you were out the door. I would have been happy and comfortable being number 2 on my jobs, the perpetual semi-senior but that was not an option. I must say that the leadership training at AY was excellent; it actually wasn’t too bad being number one in “the field” because every job was a pyramid of leaders and there was always someone above me that I could turn to for help and seek advice. I was a hard worker, worked 24/7 even before that term was used, liked to get things done, was always looking for best practices, was not afraid to ask questions and I actually loved what I was doing. I no longer had aspirations to go back to law school. I stayed at AY, became a CPA and was promoted to manager at the age of 24.
So here I can stop and say reflecting back, what skills and traits I nurtured as a young adult that helped me on my Journey for the future regardless of the path I took:
1. You need to get a solid education and continue to get educated. Take advantage of all conference and training opportunities. Use Lynda.com, youtube and audible books or get an online degree if necessary.
2. Set goals and focus on getting them accomplished.
3. Don’t be afraid to ask questions or admit you don’t know something. People will see that you are an honest person and will trust you more.
4. Be a dedicated worker and set a good example for your staff, peers and superiors.
5. Get things done and do them well. Deliver quality on a timely basis and everyone is going to want you to lead their project.
6. Have a great attitude no matter how challenged you are. You will learn from every experience and use it in the future even if you have to work on weekends once in a while without acknowledgement or extra compensation. You might not get paid today but you will get paid in the future.
Continuing on my “Journey”
I usually didn’t mind the intensive days at AY because I knew I was learning and getting a great experience visiting different types of clients and industries. But especially important, I was learning to manage and lead teams of high performing individuals. I was young, had lots of energy and as I said I loved it. I am very grateful for my years at Arthur Young, where I spent 7 ½ challenging and empowering years under the guidance and training of many experienced minds and mentors who opened my eyes to the business community of Los Angeles, a community where I never before dreamed I could participate.
But there was something else about Arthur Young. There diversity was embraced even before it became trendy, where 1/3 of the Latinos in the LA office were Ecuadorian like me. In the early 80’s AY actively sought not only a diverse employee force (AY was the only Big 8 firm to have female partners – they had 2… in the whole nation) but they also sought a diversity of clients especially small businesses, Hispanic, African American and Asian clients”. AY was the first firm to start an Entrepreneurial services group. OMG there is that word again “Entrepreneur”. But I stayed away from this Group. I liked working on mergers and acquisitions. I was fascinated with the growing acquisition of Hispanic media companies by major general market companies. Value was growing in this niche market and I saw emerging opportunities.
I left Arthur Young because it was the 1980’s, I was still in my 20’s and I worried that I personally was not going to be able to balance a career as a CPA with a family. Also I met my future husband at Arthur Young and thought it was a good time to leave.
Fortunately at AY I was transformed into a “business person”, economic advisor, problem solver and team manager. Without this valued experience I could not have worked through the challenges of my future although little did I know I was going to become an entrepreneur.
The next part of my journey was as CFO of La Opinion, the largest Spanish Daily in the nation at the time. La Opinion was one of my clients for several years at Arthur Young. As a manager at AY, I saw the growing interest in the Hispanic market. As I perused the entertainment weeklies I saw more coverage of Hispanic Art and Culture. I thought La Opinion had a lot of potential for growth. So when La Opinion offered me the CFO position around the time I decided to leave AY, I jumped at the offer.
In 1985 La Opinion was considered small; it was a family run business that had outgrown its infrastructure. Since there was no previous CFO or controller I was not going to inherit any baggage. I reported to the President so I was happily Number 2. This career change seemed a bit risky to my parents but I convinced them that if it didn’t work it would still be a great experience because with a college degree, AY background and CPA I still had future job security.
The first thing I did as a new CFO was learn how to use a PC by reading essentially a book for dummies. In the early 80’s we were still programming giant computers with little index cards. AY was ahead of the game by giving selected people MAC’s but I was not one of the chosen. I knew the power of PC’s but I had no idea how to turn one on so I locked myself up for two days with a PC, a video and a how to book and learned. If I was going to be a successful CFO of the future I assumed I needed to learn to use a PC. I also read books on how to be a CFO. I knew how to be an accountant, a CPA, but never had training as a CFO so I read about other CFO’s and mimicked what I had learned from working with CFO’s while at AY. I also discovered a book that was titled using the term “Intrapreneur ”. Intrapreneurs are people who want to run a company like they own it, but without the risk, and with the security of a paycheck every week. Now that sounded wonderful. That is what I wanted to be “an intrapreneur”, an official Number 2.
I started from the beginning, built a strategic plan, created budgets and forecasts and obtained financing for a new press. However, I didn’t do this in vacuum. I interviewed all my colleagues and key operational people. I didn’t want to write a plan based on theory, I wanted a plan that was relevant and realistic. I wanted to make sure it was successful so it was important to assess existing resources and identify the low hanging fruit; the profitable changes that could be made without or with minimal additional investments and resources.
Here is another leadership success tip:
Often today as a business owner, I am presented with advice and plans based on theory or a success story template without any consideration of our company’s resources, its existing talent and capabilities and the unique characteristics of our niche and market. This is a big mistake. If you want to be a successful leader and present a plan that has real value, you must make sure you have done your homework and thought through on how you define and measure success. A great idea is just a theory. A great plan is executable and delivers positive and measurable results.
At La Opinion I learned what my biggest weakness was as a leader. I had virtually no training in managing people of different skills. I was a failure at human resource skills. As a CPA I new how to collaborate and manage CPA’s just like me. We were all a bunch of clones of each other with essentially the same ambitions, aspirations and goals. This is still my weakness as a leader but at least I know it. I try to get whatever training necessary to help me improve my skills. We hire people and experts to do the daily work and keep us out of trouble. I personally work hard to always place myself in the shoes of the person I am dealing with, to think like them and understand their needs and expectations. One of my favorite books that has helped me tremendously is the Dale Carnegie book, “How to win Friends and Influence People.” This book reminds you to be kind and empathetic when dealing with people and that you should always try to find something nice and positive in everyone. This is a must read for any leader.
Within two years of implementing our strategic plan, La Opinion turned its financial direction to levels it had never seen. In 1987 La Opinion had virtually no competition and with the advent of desktop publishing, there was so much potential to expand as long as it was controlled. At the end of 1987 I left La Opinion because at that time it was a family business and I essentially had hit the glass ceiling in trying to grow personally. I continued as their consultant and also did some pro bono work for nonprofits.
Next was the real turning point in my career. I had contemplated going back to school to get an MBA so I could become an investment banker. I liked writing business plans and doing forecasts of “what ifs” for other entrepreneurs.
But while at La Opinion I had often wondered why there wasn’t a penny saver in Spanish. In 1987 Classifieds were one of the primary reasons people bought La Opinion. A Spanish-language, home-delivered, free shopper sounded like a good idea. Someone should do it. Friends and colleagues also thought it was a great idea and said why don’t I do it. But I thought, not me, that’s crazy, I don’t want to be an entrepreneur ; on the other hand it would be fun to write the business plan.
So, to meet the growing business interest in the Latino community and culture I wrote the business plan for El Clasificado, modeled after the “Pennysaver” in Spanish with consumer tips on parenting, health, and education. I completed the business plan and got El Clasificado started. I reluctantly launched it even though less than 50% of the capital I estimated was needed had been obtained.
I was supposed to be the sweat equity investor. I bought equipment, leased offices, hired employees with my starting capital from family and then the major cash investors went bankrupt right after the launch, their investment check bounced, the recession of the 1990’s began early in the Hispanic market and I found myself with an undercapitalized company on the verge of bankruptcy almost from the get go.
I asked myself “What have I gotten myself into? Why did I throw away a prestigious career and how will I get out this financial mess that I created?
During the first ten years of operating El Clasificado I had essentially given up on success, just looked forward to surviving and meeting payroll each week, avoiding bankruptcy and was grateful I still had a husband, my family and some friends left.
My husband Joe and I raised capital from friends and family. I became the salesperson and marketer while my Joe took care of operations after his day job. We struggled, we didn’t take a paycheck for over 10 years, we made mistakes with our business model and everyone said we should just give up and go bankrupt. But the ethics drilled into me by my education and training would not allow this. Thank goodness for my financial training and experience because good or bad I always knew the Company’s financial position. At El Clasificado even when we didn’t have money, I at least knew exactly how much we didn’t have so I could arrange for credit terms that I could meet. This trust and relationship I developed with creditors kept us afloat, together with a lot of prayers.
Well, I am happy to say that El Clasificado is now a profitable $20,000,000 company with 170 employees. We have circulation of over 500,000 copies weekly zoned to target 46 communities as far north as Fresno and as far south as Chula Vista. Our online portal has over 10 million monthly impressions and is ranked among the top 9000 websites in the U.S. We have emerging sites in all the top Hispanic markets in the U.S. as well as Latin America and China. We are no longer a just a print publication but a multi platform media company with events, mobile, and social solutions for our Quinceanera.com, El Punto, Al Borde, Su Socio De Negocios, EmpleosLatino and 200 other emerging media properties. We are now EC Hispanic Media.
El Clasificado is our passion! There was a time when I never thought I would see the light at the end of the tunnel, that El Clasificado would never become a viable company and that I would have to work for the rest of my life to pay off my debts. There is not a day that goes by that I take our success for granted. Now I have even more of a responsibility to succeed. 170 employees and their families depend on our success. Our business is our passion and our employees are not only the biggest asset but also our biggest motivation and inspiration.
The personal trait that has helped us most succeed is that Joe and I both get so much pleasure from helping people learn to improve their lives through their own efforts. Our business has given us the opportunity to provide jobs and guide inner city students to graduate and then pursue management careers here. Watching someone grow from very humble beginnings to a successful career as a leader in EC Hispanic Media is priceless.
• We have found success, but is our management team capable of taking EC Hispanic Media to a new level?
• Have my husband and I reached our limits of expertise to lead the company?
• Will new Latinos who are on craigslist, twitter and facebook, read El Clasificado and El Punto?
• Should we sell, or should we step down.?
• If we make the wrong decision will we degrade the value of our company?
Deciding to become an entrepreneur takes a lot of honest self-analysis. You need to evaluate the adequacy of your skills, identify your strengths and weaknesses and most of all assess how much risk you are willing to take. The difficult years will put a lot of pressure, both financial and emotional, on your family and friends. It took a lot of self-sacrifice, humbling and tenacity to not give up. It will also take a lot of leadership skills to decide to step down, step aside, stay in or take a different path for the good of the company and our employees.
Being an entrepreneur is now fun. Watching our employees who many of them started with us in high school grow from having nothing, to having homes, families and children in college is so fulfilling. Having a product or “widget” that the community loves, that customer’s praise; that our employees are proud to produce is unbelievably satisfying. We are very fortunate but there is no denying it was hard work and that hard work never stops.
I had planned to retire once we reached a circulation of 500,000 a week. That’s not happening anytime soon. I often feel like a new entrepreneur starting again as our company transforms from mostly print to mostly digital.
But at the end of the day, it has been a great journey and I look forward to being Number 2 to our employees, our customers, our community our families and my spouse. We will always be number 2 because the Team will always be Number 1.