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Latino Entrepreneur-Author Dares Others to Share Dream

Lionel Sosa's been there, done that. His book is all about self-confidence and breaking down psychological barriers.

April 15, 1998|LEE ROMNEY

Lionel Sosa grew up on San Antonio's west side listening to his mother say he would be a success "even though you're Mexican." By the mid-1960s, he had launched a design studio that became the biggest in Texas. He later founded Sosa, Bromley, Aguilar, Noble & Associates--which became the largest Hispanic ad agency in the United States with annual billings of $100 million, and went on to head DMB&B Americas, a network of 20 ad agencies specializing in Latin America.

After retiring from the advertising giant, the millionaire Sosa translated his experience into a book that is part self-help, part business primer. "The Americano Dream: How Latinos Can Achieve Success in Business and in Life," published in March by E.P. Dutton, delves into the psychological barriers that hold Latinos back and provides simple advice on ways to overcome resistance, from inner demons and mainstream corporate America alike.

Sosa, 58, is currently CEO of KJS Marketing, a small ad firm launched by his wife of 11 years, Kathy Sosa.

He will participate in a small-business panel on overcoming obstacles to success at the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books on April 25. He spoke to small-business reporter Lee Romney.

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Q: This book is really about teaching self-confidence to a group of people who you say were raised as underachievers. What are the shackles you describe in your book?

A: The cultural shackle is our subconscious voluntary servitude. Everybody's heard of involuntary servitude but, over 20 years of doing research for advertising, I noticed a very different body language among Latinos--an inability to really express their opinions fully. They seemed to be wondering why anyone would want their opinion, almost putting themselves in a second-class status. This attitude comes from our conquistadores, our oppressors, who "taught" us the correct way to run our lives. We were taught to leave things to God, and that has become the Hispanic marketing plan. We bought it so well that it is to some extent a part of every Latino psyche--especially the Mexican and the Central American. That unconscious slave mentality lowers our self-esteem and also lowers the goals that we set for ourselves and our children. In Spanish, ambicioso is negative. We were taught that words having to do with getting ahead are negative words.

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Q: You note the disparity between Latino demographics and statistics on Latino success. Can you elaborate?

A: Nearly half of all Latinos don't complete high school. Only 9% graduate from a four-year college, compared to 13% for African Americans and 23% for the general population. So if it were only discrimination, then Hispanics and blacks would be about even. That's where I began to understand--it's not them doing it to us; there's something that we're doing to ourselves, but at a very subconscious level. People say 'How dare you insinuate that we're underachievers, that we think of ourselves [as] less than others. We don't.' And I say, we don't want to think that we feel this way. In any 'Anglo' success book, the first step is to have a very clear goal. We have to take two steps back and brainwash ourselves into believing we deserve the success that everyone else deserves.

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Q: What do you see as key stumbling blocks to Latino success?

A: If you think you're going to be discriminated against, guess what? You will be discriminated against every time. If you expect to be a millionaire, you will be a millionaire. So [the mind-sets of] 'They don't like Latinos,' 'I'm a minority, I'm disadvantaged,' 'I'll be happy with my piece of the pie' are all examples of expectations of failure before failure can surface.

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Q: What about some of the personality types you say Latino business owners should avoid?

A: We sometimes take on the personality of the conquistadore, sometimes the personality of the slave, quite unconsciously. We start a business and think, 'What I say is the only thing that's right. I don't need to listen to anybody.' That's the patron. The peon is the fellow who misreads good service as servitude. The trabajador, the hard worker, feels, 'The more I work, the further ahead I'll get,' but the work is all related to sweat. The pobrecito thinks, 'I'm going to work hard, but I know that in the end, I'm going to die poor.' And today, this is what the priests still preach in Mexico.

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Q: You seem to have strong feelings that the Catholic Church has been bad for Latinos.

A: I love my Catholic Church, but I also understand that the gospel can be interpreted any number of ways. For Latinos, particularly in Mexico and Central America, the priests were the tool of politics because religion and politics are almost always intertwined. I don't think there was any conscious agenda to make these people feel unworthy. But there was a conscious desire to put them in the hands of God; therefore they were taught to leave everything to God. It doesn't work in this country, because the U.S. is a country of overachievers.

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