Overcoming Obstacles to Succeed

Martha de la Torre’s Wells Fargo Amigos Speech 07

I have been interviewed by Telemundo, Univision and others a few times and my interviews usually start like this.  You have a successful business, a college education, a wonderful family, and you live in a nice area.  How did you overcome the obstacles of being a Latina to become successful? How did you break the glass ceiling? How did you overcome prejudices? How did you do it?

Obstacles?

I don’t see obstacles as stop signs.  Obstacles are simply potential detours and the opportunities for solutions.

Obstacle #1
Going to college and breaking away from the safety net of my family.

My parents are immigrants who came from Ecuador in the 1950’s with virtually nothing.  They came for a better life to be measured by my generation’s success in college.  Although we had a modest household,  going to college was very simple to my parents.   All we had to do was be good kids, do well in school, get a scholarship and go to college or else…My parents set their standards.  And although anyone can set standards, morals and values, my parents made sure we met their standards.  I’m not sure what would have happened if we didn’t but I was too afraid to find out and ended up at LMU.  I could have gone to USC, UCLA or some of those IVY league schools but you know how those Latino parents are.  There was no way I was going to be allowed to live on campus. I had to live at home.

(Moving on Campus)

I had the vision to choose LMU so when I legally became an adult and announced I was moving on campus in my sophomore year, I was able to show my dad that priests and nuns lived in my dorm and watched over us. They fell for it.

(Living on my own)

In 1977 LMU had the one of the strongest accounting programs in Los Angeles.  I had originally intended on becoming a fine arts major but settled into accounting because for my families sake it seemed more secure.  Accounting was demanding and tough.   I had never struggled so much in school and although I had scholarships I still had to work 12 months a year.  Scholarships paid for tuition but I was on my own for room and board.  There was no way my parents would help me in any way with room and board.  I mostly ate hot dogs and canned beans but the sacrifice was worth it because I needed to learn to live on my own.  As a typical young Latin woman, I lived somewhat of a sheltered life and needed to rid myself of fears that unfortunately my family instilled in me so that I wouldn’t get too curious with life and avoid all dangers.  Unfortunately, I grew up in fear of talking to strangers or traveling more than two miles away from home without a family escort.  But fortunately living at LMU, cured all that.  I learned to take care of myself with no excuses.  If I had a problem or got sick, I just had to deal with it and find a solution.  Talking to strangers was harder.  I never used to speak in public and would avoid talking to people I didn’t know on the phone.  But as our company grew, it became my job and responsibility.  Now when an organization like Amigos asks me to speak I say yes before the fear sets in and then just commit to doing it.

(Graduating and Getting a Job)

LMU in the late 70’s was still adjusting to becoming coed.  My LMU accounting class was mostly men, there were a handful of girls in my class and one of them is still a very close friend.  I don’t recall if there were other Latinos in my particular accounting class.  I grew up in a very diverse environment and didn’t really keep track of demographics at the time.  There just always seemed to be people from all different backgrounds but our commonalities were that we were mostly catholic, going to a private university, practicing good school work ethics and achieving success upon graduation. I survived my junior year of accounting and didn’t get “weeded out”.  Like most of my surviving accounting major colleagues that had worked hard at LMU for 3 and a half years, we all got job offers at the major firms (there were 8 then).  I tasted true success by obtaining an offer from the CPA firm of Arthur Young, now known as Ernst and Young.  Going to a good school and working hard really paid off.

Obstacle #2
Entering the Business World

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 winding brass and marble staircase.  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.  My first day at Arthur Young, two LMU alumni took me out to lunch, one was a Latina.  I felt right at home and so began an intensive experience and the foundation of my business expertise.   I got my CPA and was promoted to manager after five years–just before I turned 25.  I often didn’t mind working the long hours and intensive days because I knew I was learning and getting fantastic experience visiting different types of clients and industries and learning to manage and lead teams of high performing individuals.  I was young, had lots of energy and have to admit I loved it.  I was always proud of a good day’s work.  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.   At Arthur Young, where diversity was embraced even before it became trendy, where 1/3 of the Latinos in the LA office were Ecuadorian of all things, 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.

(What do I do when I grow up?) (What’s Next?)

I stayed at Arthur Young until a few years after I was promoted to manager.   I wanted to have a family and realized in the 80’s (a time with no cell phones, laptops or internet) that this goal was possibly not aligned with becoming a partner at Arthur Young.  AY was great in trying to offer concessions and a different career track to try and accommodate my expected needs as a woman (I was one of the few female managers at the time) but I have never wanted special treatment to achieve my personal goals.  So I left and took a position with La Opinion as their Chief Financial Officer in 1985.  La Opinion had been my audit client for years.  While at Arthur Young I saw the Latino market start to grow and thought I might have an opportunity to grow my career with it.  So I went to La Opinion in 1985, wrote their first business plan, moved the company from years of deficits to profitability and began to build operational infrastructures to prepare La Opinion for the future.  I looked forward to being an “intrapreneur”, someone who risks her career to get things done is willing to do the right thing to serve the customer and make the company better, a person who can be innovative in a leadership position and grow a company but still be an employee with the security of a weekly paycheck.

However, my vision of growing La Opinion was challenging.  The publication had 60 years of traditions and change is often difficult.  After two years at La Opinion I reached my limits of growth and I decided to leave in 1987.  I was contemplating going to graduate school to become an investment banker.  I wanted to work on mergers and acquisitions of businesses targeting the Latino market. More as an exercise while I decided what direction my future would take me, I began to write the business plan for a free, Spanish-language, home-delivered publication.   As I worked on the business plan and shared my ideas with others the plan started to become a reality.  I had never planned on being an entrepreneur but I could not miss the growing business interest in the Latino community and culture. I thought someone should publish a “Pennysaver” in Spanish with consumer tips on parenting, health, and education. Well, with some reluctance, finally I did.  Some attorneys I knew offered to fund the publication if I executed the business plan and launched El Clasificado. We launched in May 1988.

I was supposed to be the sweat equity investor but the cash investors went bankrupt after the launch, their investment check bounced, the recession began early in the Hispanic market and I found myself with an undercapitalized company.

Obstacle #3
Facing Bankruptcy (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 husband 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.  My ethics, founded in my LMU experience, wouldn’t allow me to do this and if it wasn’t for my accounting background and tenacity I could have never survived to see our present success.

We basically had a good idea and just had to find the right model.  We had the time to find the right model because of the emotional and financial support of family, friends and employees who believed in what we were doing.

• I am grateful to my parents for finally saying they wouldn’t loan me any more money but would work without pay

• My mother delivered magazines in Wilmington in her high heels.  She also would not let me leave the office on a sales call without the sign of the cross

• My retired father delivered magazines in Lennox in his used Mercedes Benz. He also invited me to house sit his home for 7 weeks and I stayed 7 years.

• In the early years many of our employees went home Friday without a paycheck but remained loyal to now see their own personal success as managers at our Company.

• My husband worked two jobs for 13 years to fund our cash flow shortages initially and later to help fund our expansion.  Now fortunately he only works at El Clasificado, is the Chief Operations Officer, the secret of our success in distribution and understands enough Spanish where we can’t talk about him behind his back any more.

I am very lucky to have family, friends and employees who have given me such generous support to overcome obstacles, that I mostly created myself through inexperience and overconfidence.  But we all worked hard together to find solutions, we all made sacrifices, and fortunately our vision has become a reality and financially successful for all of us.

Obstacle #4
Finding success, but is our management team capable of taking El Clasificado to a new level?

Have my husband and I reached our limits of expertise to lead the company? 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 put a lot of pressure, both financial and emotional, on my family and friends.  It took a lot of self-sacrifice, humbling and tenacity to not give up.

After finally reaching success with El Clasificado we started taking a more controlled and conservative direction.  We didn’t want to take risks and we just wanted to enjoy the fruits of our success. We were approaching a hundred employees and felt responsible for their careers and livelihood.  We needed to keep our company strong for their sake as wells as ours.

But then the good years got too good and we began growing like gangbusters.

The competition noticed and got really fierce. Hispanic, non-Hispanic, and non US businesses want to buy us, copy us or crush us.  This is the price of success.

So is this an obstacle?

No, it is just a wake up call that we have to build a stronger infrastructure and grow stronger to stay ahead of the competition.

So once again, we are reengineering El Clasificado.

• El Clasificado is currently the nation’s largest free, Spanish-language classifieds weekly. Not only do we want to continue holding this spot, but we also plan to expand our reach outside of the Los Angeles DMA, and to eventually be distributed outside of California.

• In addition to expanding the print media, we are also positioning ourselves as the leading multiplatform company that offers advertising opportunities through sponsored events, section sponsorships, street team promotions, web sites, and mobile services. Please look for us in the future as EC Media.

• We just moved from a 3000 square foot building to a 16,000 square foot building with the help of an SBA loan from Wells Fargo.  We have a little too much space so with the help of our clever Al Borde employees, we are now going to host Acoustic Sessions in our warehouse with bands like Volumen Cero and sponsors like Monster Energy .  These sessions will be available on video stream as well as Al Borde Mobile.

• We love our company and do not want to have to sell it to grow.  We plan to make strategic alliances with the right companies that will help us reach our vision.  We want to be the leader in connecting buyers and sellers in the U.S. Latino market through classifieds in print, online and mobile technology while building better communities where our services are reached.

• Also on our team are some of the best business consultants and advisors in the Hispanic media industry. The consultants’ contributions have permitted us to implement a complete restructuring of El Clasificado and set a clear mission. Thanks to the collaboration and assistance of these consultants, we are a more effective and efficiently-run organization, and are well on our way to perfecting our day-to-day business operations.  One of these consultants, a Booz Allen alumni, has just decided to join our executive management team.  Together with some recent new high-level hires that spent the last few years as entrepreneurs but now see El Clasificado as the perfect platform for intrapreneurs, we look forward to the breath of knowledge, innovation and mature experience this new talent will bring to our organization.  I am sure that these new members of our team will help coach our current young management team to new levels of personal performance and success.

We are proud of El Clasificado’s economic contributions, especially the jobs we create in the community. Through coaching and flexibility we have successfully guided many inner city students to graduate and then pursue management careers at El Clasificado. We always look for the potential skills in every single employee, and provide training to facilitate everyone’s growth to his maximum potential. We now have 110 employees and no matter how much we grow, our company is committed to maintain a culture of fostering growth within our own company and creating more job opportunities from the communities that most need our support.

In addition to our economic contributions, we are proud of the community outreach we provide through consumer awareness editorials and events.  Our editorials include advice to parents on getting their children into college, becoming a citizen, starting a business, improving wellness, and becoming a smart consumer.  Through our events we expand on our editorials by providing seminars in Spanish to small Latino businesses or members of the community that want to become entrepreneurs and start their own business.  In a few weeks we are offering our First-Time Homebuyers Seminar and Expo.  It will be in Spanish, it will be free and besides realtors and bank sponsors we have members of HUD, LA City and other agencies to assist these first time homebuyers and teach them the process to realize their dream for a new home, help with grants for down payments and help each family learn to avoid fraud and misinformed financing decisions.  Mentoring, promoting higher learning, and informing readers; helping our Latino community learn to help themselves to make their lives better, their communities stronger, safer and more prosperous, this is our vision.

I did not set out to inspire and motivate people with our story of El Clasificado, it was a long hard and painful road, one that initially I wanted to forget and not relive by talking about it.  However, if my story motivates and inspires you to pursue a worthwhile cause that helps the community improve then I am happy to share it. Hopefully you can in turn go to schools in the Inner City, give a little bit of your time to some nonprofit, share your experiences and help change someone’s direction to a life of hope for life to get better if you work hard and persevere with sound values and goals.

Now here to share a different perspective of life at El Clasificado are two of our wonderful employees who in turn inspire me with their passion, innovative ideas, dreams and dedicated work ethics. (I would like to introduce Gaby and then Melvin)….

Los Angeles Child Guidance exists because….

Sadly South and Central Los Angeles:

• Has the highest number of children living below the poverty level

• Has the highest number of youth on probation

• Has the highest percentage of child abuse and neglect reporting

• Has the lowest rates for high school graduation

Thank goodness for Los Angeles Child Guidance, who helps children and youth who are mentally ill, seriously emotionally disturbed, abused or at risk for mental health.  LA Child Guidance has been recognized and awarded locally and nationally for their programs that provide family-centered, culturally sensitive and clinically sound mental health programs and for their dedication to improving the well being of the community.  That is why I thank you today for your honorarium and will redirect it to the Los Angeles Child Guidance Clinic.  Thank you.

Copyright 2007 Martha de la Torre