In Puerto Rico, Deborah Aguiar-Vélez was one among many.
She had dark brown hair, light brown skin, a flair for entrepreneurship and a head full of big ideas.
In Puerto Rico, she was Puerto Rican – she fit in with the crowd.
Aguiar-Vélez moved to the states at age 21, with a chemical engineering degree behind her and a job at ExxonMobil lying in wait. At Exxon, she says, she fit what she saw as the standard company profile: top-notch student, hard worker. She was young, female and Latina, working alongside “a bunch of white men.” But she never felt like she was any different.
That changed years later, when Aguiar-Vélez took a job with the U.S. government. It was there, she says, where her skin color mattered for the first time. There, 10 years after moving to the states, she felt like a minority.
“It hurt, because you were no longer evaluated for your performance or your expertise,” she says now, decades later. “They would just look at you and say, ‘What did you say?’ or ‘You speak funny.’ ”
Aguiar-Vélez will talk about these challenges – as well as her successes on the way to becoming a two-time CEO and accomplished businesswoman – as keynote speaker at Saturday’s Latino-American Women’s Conference. The daylong event will be at the Hilton in uptown Charlotte.
These days, Aguiar-Vélez works to help other Latina women fight the stigma and find the same success she did.
“For Latinas, what we have to do – and what we are trying to do – is eliminate from our minds the idea that we are part of a minority group,” she said. “It’s a disadvantage.”
The conference, first held in Raleigh in March, aims to bring together up-and-coming Latina women to help them network and gain expertise in a number of different areas – from fashion to finance, health to entrepreneurship.
Organized by La Noticia, the Spanish-language newspaper, the conference is also supported by the Latin American Chamber of Commerce of Charlotte and the small-business program at Central Piedmont Community College. Both organizations provide programs and resources to support new entrepreneurs, many of which are Hispanic.
“Learning is the focus of the conference, to make each other stronger and more understanding,” said Hilda Gurdian, the publisher of La Noticia.
“But it’s also an opportunity to share and get inspired by other people.”
A growing population
The conference will be the first of its kind in Charlotte, a city where the overall population is rising and the Hispanic population is rising even faster.
From 2007 to 2012, the city’s overall population grew 14 percent, according to the most recent census data. Over the same period, the Hispanic subset grew 41 percent.
Charlotte is now home to about 112,000 Hispanic residents, said Astrid Chirinos, executive director of the Latin American chamber. The number marks an additional 15 percent increase in the Hispanic population since 2012.
“About 20 years ago or so, we still didn’t have a critical mass of business professionals,” Chirinos said of the Latino population. “Now we do.”
She said the chamber itself has grown significantly in size and popularity since it opened nearly 18 years ago.
The trend matches the statistics: From 2007 to 2011, Hispanic-owned businesses in North Carolina grew from 9,000 to 21,301, according to the census and the Latino chamber.
Lucia Zapata Griffith, an architect who came to Charlotte from Peru, said foreigners are drawn to the city in part because of its international airport and welcoming efforts by city leaders.
“That mentality that an entrepreneur has is welcome in Charlotte,” said Griffith, a panelist at Saturday’s conference.
“It’s creating an identity that embraces all of us here – Germans, Latinas, Asians. All of us here that are actually working are considered an asset.”
The rapid growth has created a need in the city for “just us Latinas” to get together to share stories, opportunities and resources, Gurdian said. The conference was created with that purpose in mind.
“The growth of the Latino community, especially the women, who are starting their own small businesses – that number is growing very fast,” she said. “We wanted to be there to help them in that journey.”
Drawn toward small business
As they enter the states, the increasingly professionalized Hispanic population is looking to enter the workforce.
And instead of turning toward the corporate world, Latinos are more often choosing to start their own businesses, Chirinos said.
“If they’ve already become well-educated and adjusted, even with basic skills, they prefer that,” she said. “It’s a much easier way to contribute right away, both to the workplace and for your family.”
Chirinos said for women in particular, the allure of entrepreneurship is strong. They’re more willing to engage and take risks using their new language than Latino men are, but they’re also saddled with family responsibilities. So they create their own jobs.
The appeal is clear: the freedom to set your own schedule, the independence to choose the nature of the work, the absence of pressure to lose your accent or forget your roots.
Sarah Batista spent 10 years in the corporate world, the latter part as a journalist with WBTV. She loved her field, but she left in August to start doing the work on her own terms.
The stakes were high, Batista said. She was stepping out for the first time, unsure where exactly she was headed. She was a single mom, hesitant to take the risk because of her family. “The unknown is always very scary,” she said.
Batista, another panelist at the conference, founded Stories to Inspire, where she makes documentaries. “Now it’s fun to be in the driver’s seat,” she said.
Batista said she’s sharing her story at the conference because she wants other Latinas and aspiring entrepreneurs to hear what obstacles she faced and how she got through them.
“Anyone who has been successful has not gotten there alone,” she said. “We (Latinas) are underrepresented in the big corporate world, in the entrepreneurial world, so it’s important to hear from others that can tell us it can be done.”
‘If she can … I can’
The challenges Latina entrepreneurs face when they’re starting out are threefold, said Gurdian, the La Noticia publisher.
These women have little access to capital, are unfamiliar with the American culture and way of doing business, and usually don’t have an established network of friends and colleagues, she said.
Saturday’s conference will aim to help in each area.
“We came to realize our American dream, but then we come here and we face so many challenges,” Gurdian said.
She said the most important resource the conference can provide is the opportunity to meet other women just like themselves.
“It gives them great hope, because if she can do it, I can do it, too,” Gurdian said. “Why not?”
Staff writer Gavin Off contributed.