The statistics are remarkable and defy stereotypical notions about who Latinas are and the role we play in current U.S. society. Regardless of outdated and distorted perceptions about us as a group, the facts are incontrovertible.
788,000 Latinas now run their own businesses, according to the most recent Survey of Business Owners (last conducted in 2007). This represents a 46% increase against a 20% found across all female business owners over a five-year period. Their national background is Mexican (44%), Cuban (9%), and Puerto Rican (8%), also complemented by a myriad of Central and South American nationalities. In addition, the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce points out that:
While these numbers tell part of the story, they do not explain what is behind these phenomenal growth rates. Equally compelling is the fact that Latinas are leaving corporate America in record numbers as well. What are the underlying dynamics that are impacting these patterns that can serve as lessons for organizations and for Latinas ourselves?
In my interviews with hundreds of Latina professionals over the past ten years, their stories begin to shed light on some possible explanations. The top three reasons that drive the growth in Latina businesses are:
When Latinas find themselves caught up in political maneuvering or cut-throat gamesmanship as they move up the corporate ladders, they ask themselves deep and provocative questions. They wonder about the costs and benefits of continuing to play the game. The benefits of the corporate lifestyle, which can involve inhumane working conditions and cost them precious time contributing to their communities and families, are weighed and sometime found lacking. Latinas are driven by their values of generous purpose and relational connection. When they find the gap between their day-to-day existence and their higher purpose, they may be more willing than others to take the leap of faith into the world of entrepreneurial exploration.
Not afraid of working hard and getting their hands dirty, Latinas are flexible in what they are willing to do to get the job done. Often coming from families where the immigrant perspective was a key influence, they learned early on that survival depended on each person contributing fully to the well-being of the collective. In that environment, being out for selfish gain and individual achievement alone was a recipe for disaster. The transition from such a community-oriented environment into the detached, individualistic culture of many organizations is not always motivating or engaging.
The stereotype of the passionate Latina has some basis in truth - we are a people that thrives on energy, excitement and enthusiasm! If we are forced to survive in a stark workplace that has a low tolerance for emotional expression and lacks a strong sense of connection, we tend to become anemic shadows of our true selves. Though willing to tolerate such an atmosphere temporarily, over time many Latinas begin looking elsewhere for ways to productively contribute their considerable creativity and precious life energy.
Latinas are also risk-takers. In this regard, we are willing to take calculated risks to explore possible avenues for greater fulfillment and financial and personal success. Having overcome barriers they faced as women in a patriarchal culture, many have learned how to thrive in foreign environments and make a way for ourselves. With such pioneering spirits, we are often unwilling to settle for good enough when the possibility for greater freedom and creativity is within reach.
Entrepreneurial spirit is in our DNA. Given that we have achieved more than our parents and more than we expected when we started out in our careers, our picture of success is different than for many other groups. Since we have had few role models for what we are doing in our careers, we have learned to make it up as we go along. Our goals are more flexible and broad than those whose pathways were laid out for them in their youth.
Smart organizations that have Latinas in their workforce would do well to heed lessons from the patterns we are describing. Latinas are loyal contributors to organizational success but they are also demanding meaningful work that engages their best talents and allows them to have a real impact consistent with their values. Leaders need to be sure to provide developmental opportunities that keep them engaged and challenged. It's also critical to pay attention to team and workplace culture to insure that there is a supportive and collaborative environment. This benefits all workers and contributes to employee engagement, but for Latinas in particular it makes all the difference between their staying or leaving. If you have an organizational culture that values entrepreneurial thinking and is open to innovation, Latinas are apt to thrive and find a wide range of avenues to add value. If not, more and more Latinas are making the move to starting their own businesses where they can see the results of their efforts and contribute to changing the world for the better!