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Latinas Get Down to Business

The women are stepping out of the shadows as entrepreneurs. They constitute a fast-growing and tightknit sorority that is giving new hope to younger generations.


Maria de Lourdes Sobrino began her entrepreneurial journey alone in a cramped storefront, whipping up 300 cups of ready-to-eat gelatin by hand each day. She knew nothing about food processing, had no friends in business or banking, and faced ridicule from her well-heeled family members, who urged her to come home to Mexico City.

Sixteen years later, her Huntington Beach business and a sister company that makes frozen-fruit bars pull in $8 million a year. After designing her own production equipment and experimenting with recipes for longer shelf life, Sobrino ships her popular Mexican gelatina dessert and all-natural frozen confections to 14 states and three countries. She is building a 70,000-square-foot plant to handle growth.

Something else has changed. Although Sobrino battled her way to success alone, she now participates in a burgeoning sorority of Latina entrepreneurs. She recently helped form two local organizations to help other Latinas succeed in business. And she took her story to a Santa Ana middle school, inspiring gawkily written thank-you notes from students who more often see themselves reflected in dropout and teen-pregnancy statistics.

Sobrino's status as boss of Lulu's Dessert Factory, whose colorful trucks promise "More Fun for Your Spoon," left many of the schoolgirls awe-struck, but it is a success they have a better chance than ever of emulating.

Studies show Latinas leading the nation in business formation, creating enterprises at more than four times the rate of the general population. Revenues and employment by Latina-owned businesses are growing even faster than their numbers. And while a majority fall in the service category, the number in construction, agriculture and wholesale trade has grown fastest of all--blasting a hole in gender and ethnic stereotypes.

Latinas are coming together in greater numbers to network, contracting with one another and offering free services to sister start-ups. National Latina organizations that never before focused on business are crafting entrepreneurship programs, with financial backing from big corporations. And across the country, women are stepping out from the shadows to seize leadership roles in Latino business organizations where they have long toiled as worker bees.

"There's a momentum and it's just going to continue to take off," said Small Business Administration chief Aida Alvarez, who honored Latina entrepreneurs--Sobrino among them--at a recent Latin Business Assn. expo in Los Angeles, the nation's Latino business capital.

"It's no accident that I'm the administrator of the SBA at this point in time," Alvarez said. "We are coming into our own."

Latina entrepreneurs credit all this to changing gender roles, rising divorce rates, the entrepreneurial spirit of immigrants and a transformation of cultural values. Long ensconced in the role of behind-the-scenes family leader, Latinas are putting their tenacity, pride and ability to manage multiple tasks to work--in business.

"Before, Hispanic women had always put ourselves at the bottom of the totem pole in terms of our family," said Anna Maria Arias, editor and publisher of Washington-based LatinaStyle magazine, which launched a seven-city business series for Latina entrepreneurs in June in Los Angeles. "Now, we want to take care of ourselves and, by taking care of ourselves, we're taking care of our families.

"When it comes to household decisions--from what toothpaste they use to what car they drive and what vacations they take--it's the woman" who makes them, Arias said. "That's bleeding into the work environment. It's a kind of rebirth of Hispanic women."

Martha Diaz Askenazy, whose San Fernando-based Pueblo Contracting Services reinstalled the Angels Flight funicular railway in downtown Los Angeles, put it bluntly: "Why would I let someone else control my future when I know better?"

The trend reflects a gradual shift in Latino culture.

"For a long time, [Latinas] weren't encouraged to go into business," said Latin Business Assn. Chairman Hector Barreto. "Now . . . there's not a stigma to it."

Between 1987 and 1996, the number of Latina-owned businesses grew by 206%, compared with 47% for all businesses, according to a report by the National Foundation for Women Business Owners, a research group.

The report, released last year, showed a relatively low number of Latina-owned firms--382,400, or 5% of all women-owned businesses. But no group came close in growth rates, particularly in traditionally male-dominated fields: The number of Latina firms rose 428% in construction, 389% in agriculture and 338% in wholesale trade. Overall sales by Latina-owned enterprises grew by 534% and employment jumped 487%.

"It's not only that we have more [Latina-owned] firms; they're larger, more sophisticated and making a greater contribution to our economy," said Sharon Hadary, executive director of the National Foundation for Women Business Owners.

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