"Cada loca con su tema [each crazy person with their topic]," she says. "I thought he was going to die."
There were a couple times when her co-workers would not include her in activities, such as a "guys dinner" where they would discuss important issues, but Ms. Lagomasino said she never let that get in her way. Prudential's Mr. Ryan regrets such incidents. "It was not fair, but it was the nature of the business," he says.
ONE OF THE GANG
But Ms. Lagomasino did find an ally in Chase's then-chairman and CEO, David Rockefeller. She remembers one ground-breaking incident, a Chase trip to Monterrey, Mexico. She was traveling with Mr. Rockefeller and various Chase co-workers to attend a dinner featuring the top 15 business people in that city. Her colleagues didn't know how to include Ms. Lagomasino in the gathering, since she would be the only woman. "The guys in the bank were really uncomfortable," she recalls. But Mr. Rockefeller took charge and phoned the wife of the man hosting the dinner, asking, "Would you co-host the dinner with your husband tonight?" She did and the dinner turned out to be a success.
Ms. Lagomasino's colleagues never failed to include her again. "But it took Mr. Rockefeller to figure out a way to get this dinner to work," she says now.
"She is a fine person and excellent banker. She just happens to be a woman," adds Alice Victor, David Rockefeller's chief of staff.
While Ms. Lagomasino is a role model for Hispanic women, Mr. Ryan credits her with breaking down barriers for all women. When she became head of JPMorgan's combined private banking operations, Ms. Lagomasino had to grow in her new position. She needed to pick subordinates who could manage their work without constant supervision, while expanding her knowledge to include technology and finance. She also had to form a game plan to motivate the organization.
Not every person can accomplish such a transition, Mr. Ryan says. "You might be the best accountant but that doesn't mean you can translate these skills to being a corporate executive who runs thousands of people."
Ms. Lagomasino did, and with her typical zeal. "She worked very hard to become a broader executive and be successful at it," he says.
The future CEO learned the value of hard work, and the delayed gratification that comes from sacrifice, at a very young age.
Both sides of Ms. Lagomasino's family fled Cuba, the land of her birth, when she was 11. She and her father, a civil engineer, were the first to leave. In Miami, they were joined later by her mother and three brothers (two more siblings were born in the United States). The family eventually resettled in West Hartford, Connecticut.
"Talk about culture shock," she says. "No one in West Hartford had ever known anyone from Cuba ... I could never get over the cold."
The Lagomasino family had been middle class in Cuba but suffered a major economic decline with the move. While they weren't poor – her father, Hector, was employed by Dunham-Bush Inc., which produced air conditioner and refrigerator parts – they had little money, she says. The servants they enjoyed in Cuba were now just a memory. It fell to her mother, with Ms. Lagomasino's help, to cook, care for the children, and run the household.
In West Hartford the little girl began grasping the societal differences of her peers. In Cuba, all of her school friends were middle class and Catholic. But her West Hartford classmates were a mix of upper-crust and blue-collar kids. Different religions, like Jewish and Protestant, were also the norm.
She learned to accept being viewed as unique. For many in Connecticut, Ms. Lagomasino was their first Cuban acquaintance. Friends and neighbors would ask her if they had refrigerators in Cuba or even elevators. But Ms. Lagomasino wasn't ostracized. "The kids went out of their way to adopt us, to teach us expression ... The people of West Hartford were really unbelievable," she says.
Among her role models, Ms. Lagomasino credits her mother, also named Maria Elena, with giving her the drive to succeed. Her mom fought her husband's and family's opposition to her working and became chief operating officer of the family company in Cuba. Once in the United States, the elder Maria Elena raised six children and worked as a high school Spanish teacher to help make ends meet. She also gave speeches about the plight of Cubans, worked as a social worker for the Cuban Refugee Assistance Program, and, at one point, hosted a radio show. Now 83, the elder Maria Elena finally canceled her real estate license although she is still president of her condo association in Miami.
"My mother was my inspiration. She had a good business head and was a great mom. She was super woman," Ms. Lagomasino says.
With all this success, she advises other Hispanic women to take a page from her book and not blend in. She remembers the uniform she adopted at Citi during the 1980s – a neutral navy suit matched with a simple blouse and bow around the neck – that was meant to help her be taken seriously. A petite woman – she stands 5 feet, 4 inches tall – Ms. Lagomasino chucked the bland "power suit" as women became more common on Wall Street. Now, she thinks it's good to flaunt a feminine side, in a respectful way.
Don't be invisible, she says. "If people think about me, they think of me in a bright color. I wear red and yellow and orange."
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