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2009 Woman of the Year Frances Garcia: 'Watchdog' Breaks Barriers

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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.

"All the men were able to spend the night, but I had to commute," she said. "So I very discreetly just checked myself into a separate hotel (without anyone being the wiser). I would work late with the team, have dinner with them, and meet them for breakfast. They thought I was a real trouper." While the men submitted their hotel room expenses, she put in for mileage. She never told anyone at the company how she overcame that obstacle.

Creating Her Own Network
Ms. Garcia's involvement with ALPFA came partly out of necessity, in addition to the recognition of the importance of relationships and networking. "Becoming the first Hispanic woman CPA in the state of Texas was an achievement, which created an awareness that I would have to build my own network," she said.

Ms. Garcia's visibility eventually resulted in an appointment by President Carter to a five-year term on the Copyright Royalty Tribunal, where she became the chair. "This window on Washington as I helped legislate the royalty rates for the cable industry, recording industry, noncommercial television industry, and jukeboxes gave me many other opportunities to work in ALPFA," she said.

When her role on the tribunal ended, she became a partner at the Washington, D.C., office of Quezada Navarro & Co., at the time the largest Hispanic accounting firm in the country. After she became the first female national president of ALPFA, "the recognition and the prestige that position carried with it" caused her to be noticed by her current employer, the GAO.

The Government Accountability Office is the audit, evaluation and investigative arm of Congress. It supports Congress in meeting its constitutional responsibilities and helps to improve the performance and accountability of the government for the American people.

Among its duties are to examine the use of public funds; evaluate federal programs and policies; and provide analyses, recommendations, and other assistance to help Congress make informed decisions.

A Deep Concern For People
She keeps Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro, the head of the GAO, informed about fraud or other serious problems in the GAO's programs and operations. For example, she'll conduct a periodic evaluation of the office's implementation of federal computer security requirements and do individual investigations into fraud, waste, and abuse allegations.

"Frances' greatest strength is her concern for people," said Mr. Dodaro, "and in her role at GAO, it is also the depth and breadth of her experiences in the accountability profession and her sound professional judgment. Every government agency needs an eff ective watchdog to ensure operations are functioning in the best interest of the public, and I know Frances always has that public interest in mind. She has been a great asset in helping GAO improve its operations." Mr. Dodaro added, "Frances set her sights on the accounting profession and never looked back. She had the vision of success and was able to break barriers."

One of the biggest congressional issues Ms. Garcia has dealt with is diversity. Last year a congressional subcommittee asked her office to work with four other legislative branch agency Inspectors General to review how the agencies are managing diversity. This request was a first, and Ms. Garcia testified before Congress on the issue. Also of concern to the office is oversight of the stimulus package.

"It's an important time to be part of GAO," Ms. Garcia said. "Th e agency recognizes how critical a role GAO will play to help ensure accountability and transparency in regard to the stimulus. But the agency played a major role in reporting on the TARP program and all of us at GAO are confident we will be able to meet our responsibilities here as well."

Values are important at the Government Accountability Office. "We have tremendous pride in being a model agency and are considered one of the best places to work in the federal government," the inspector general said. "Our core values are accountability, integrity, and reliability." Ms. Garcia herself embodies these values. "My mother held us accountable," she said. "None of this, 'They made me do it.' ... Integrity is foremost. You cannot lead others if they do not believe you will speak the truth."

She believes it's her duty and responsibility to mentor others.

"One lesson I would want to share with women is that you can do it if you apply yourself and work hard. One of the things that has helped me the most is a positive attitude. ... I would also tell women don't be afraid to ask for help, to network with friends and family."

In her free time, Ms. Garcia, who is single, enjoys yoga, hiking, and rock climbing. She even bungee jumped in New Zealand in 2006. "It's the scariest thing I ever did," she admitted. She would one day like to make a tandem parachute jump out of a plane. Yet more proof that whether at work or play, no goal is too high or unattainable for Woman of the Year Frances Garcia.

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