Here's some bragging rights for Broward County: Fort Lauderdale is home to the largest company in the United States owned and led by a Hispanic woman.
Carmen Castillo, an immigrant from Spain, has grown her tech-services company, SDI International, into a global player, handling revenues now topping $1 billion a year.
SDI helps high-tech companies like IBM, Dell and Office Depot find professional IT staff, manage bills and paperwork with suppliers and even purchase some of their supplies. It provides those services at offices across the United States and in Canada, eastern Europe, China, India and Argentina.
Next year, it will open its first office on the African continent -- in South Africa's Johannesburg.
"Africa is the new Asia," said Castillo, 49, from her modest headquarters off Cypress Creek Road. As costs rise in China and India, more back-office companies are setting up in Africa to better compete. They also aim to tap Africa's burgeoning market, fueled by investment in oil and minerals, she said.
The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce lists SDI as its top Latina-owned business for 2012. So does the latest HispanicBusiness500 ranking, based on revenue and compiled by HispanicBusiness magazine.
Just 79 of the latest HispanicBusiness500 companies are led by women, said research director Marc Caplinger. Still, that's a better showing than the 20 led by women on the Fortune500 list of the country's largest businesses overall -- a list featuring far larger companies and fewer owned by families, he said.
Growing up as one of 10 children in a poor family on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Castillo's success was no certainty. She never went to college: "My parents couldn't afford it."
After high school, she took some cooking classes and worked winters at her sister's restaurant and summers as a tour guide, using her gift for languages. But she always dreamed of having a business.
In the late 1980s, she came to United States to visit friends and "fell in love with the country." She happened to meet an entrepreneur in Buffalo, N.Y., who had a firm hiring staff for tech companies. Castillo offered to work with him from Florida, where the warm weather felt more like her Mediterranean island homeland.
"When I came to America, it was the beginning of the Internet," she recalled. "I said to myself: I'm ready. If I make it, OK. If not, I can always go home and become a chef."
Castillo started SDI in 1992 in the living room of a tiny Pompano Beach apartment, cold-calling companies from listings in the Yellow Pages. She quickly became certified as a Hispanic-owned business and found opportunities with government agencies and Fortune500 companies that seek diverse suppliers. IBM was among her early customers and remains her largest client today.
"Minority-business certification opens doors, but you still have to get the job done," said Castillo.
Colleagues say Castillo's business mushroomed, thanks to her strong sales and people skills.
"Carmen is a master at building relationships," said Beatrice Louissant, president of the Southern Florida Minority Supplier Development Council, where Castillo long has been an active member. "She knows a lot about her customers, their needs and wants, and she goes beyond the superficial."
At national supplier diversity conferences, Castillo's the one having breakfast, lunch, dinner, early afternoon coffee and late-afternoon coffee with buyers: "It's all about that one-on-one approach with her customers," said Louissant.
Taking her company global also makes sense in an industry where rivals operate worldwide, including U.S.-based Accenture and India's Genpact, said Phil Peters, chief executive of Zagada Markets of Coral Gables, which researches the business of call centers and back-office solutions.
Even so, few Hispanic women reach similar heights in U.S. business, Castillo blames traditional Latin culture, where men prefer their women at home "having children, cooking and cleaning," she said.
But with two incomes now needed to support families, more Latinas are turning to entrepreneurship. Castillo said technology facilitates startups, but women also are saying to bosses: "Why should I work for you, when I make less money than he gets for the same job? I'm going to start my own business."
2012 HispanicBusiness500 ranking
Company Top executive Based 2011 revenue Brightstar Corp. Marcelo Claure Miami $5.7 billion Mastec Inc. Jorge Mas Coral Gables $3.0 billion The Related Group Jorge Perez Miami $1.3 billion SDI International Carmen Castillo Fort Lauderdale $980 million Greenway Ford Frank Rodriguez Orlando $902 million
Source: HispanicBusiness magazine of Santa Barbara, Calif.
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