Frances Garcia broke some bones on her way to breaking the glass ceiling.
This first-generation Mexican-American picked cotton and sugar beets; waited tables at a diner; and worked side by side with the white men as the first woman and Hispanic at accounting firm Arthur Andersen in Dallas. She also survived a serious car accident -- one that left her with broken bones and other major injuries.
Years of hard work and personal sacrifices ultimately led her to the nation's capital, where she has been Inspector General of the U.S. Government Accountability Office since 1996.
In the coming months and years, as the federal government looks to pull the country out of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, Ms. Garcia's role will take on even greater importance. Ms. Garcia oversees audits and investigations of the GAO, a powerful agency that monitors how Congress spends the public's money.
"GAO is the watchdog for Congress, and I am the watchdog for the watchdog," said Ms. Garcia, the first person to hold the position of Inspector General. Ms. Garcia's leadership, achievements and pioneering spirit captured the attention of HispanicBusiness Magazine, which has named her its 2009 Woman of the Year.
Through it all, her vision -- something she learned from her mother -- was clear: Education, a can-do attitude and "connecting to others" would be the keys to her success.
"Frances is and has been a mentor to many Latinas over the course of her life and is a great role model," said Manuel Espinoza, chief executive officer of the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA), a national organization that Ms. Garcia helped co-found in 1972. "She enthusiastically shares her passion for the development of Latinas."
Ms. Garcia had humble beginnings in Wichita Falls, Texas. Her parents worked, in her words, "common jobs," including cook (her dad) and dishwasher (her mom) to support the family of 10 children. Ms. Garcia herself worked from the time she was 14 years old, "because I wanted to make a financial contribution to my family and to assure myself I wouldn't quit school to help support the family." She toiled in the fields of Colorado and dashed off to the drugstore after school to don a waitress' apron.
"My mother was the first role model I had," said the 67-year-old Ms. Garcia. "She truly believed and instilled in me that women could succeed in the business world." So Ms. Garcia, believing the only way she was going to advance was to leave north Texas, struck out after graduating from high school, where she was one of only seven Mexican-Americans in a class of 485 -- and the first in her family to earn a high school diploma.
With a round-trip bus ticket and $30 in her pocket, she traveled to Los Angeles, where an uncle lived. Ms. Garcia didn't use the return ticket. She decided to stay, attending Los Angeles City College at night and getting a job as a bookkeeper at manufacturing company Borg-Warner Acceptance Corp. Ms. Garcia eventually ended up working for the Chicago-based company in New Jersey. It was there, in 1964, that she was in a car accident that nearly took her life. She suffered broken bones, facial, lung, and other injuries. She was hospitalized for 68 days before returning home to Texas.
First Woman, Hispanic At Firm
She enrolled at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls and spent her first semester on crutches, carrying her schoolbooks in the pockets of a special apron her mother made for her. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Business Administration with a major in accounting and a minor in economics. After college, Ms. Garcia joined Arthur Andersen in Dallas, the first woman and Hispanic audit manager hired by the office. She tells the story about the time she was assigned to a job that was 75 miles outside of Dallas. At the time, the company did not allow women to stay overnight on out-of- town jobs.
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