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The Winner's Circle: Hispanic Business Magazine's Elite Women

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It wasn't that long ago that pioneering Hispanic women were known more for their groundbreaking battles over social reform than their battles in the boardrooms of corporate America.

Today, due to advancements in women's rights and education, more Hispanic women than ever are rising to the top of the corporate, government, and academic hierarchy. Hispanic females are serving on Fortune 500 boards, leading elite universities, and building multimillion dollar companies.

Every April since 2003, Hispanic Business magazine has reported on the notable achievements and in some instances the historic advancements being made by Hispanic women. A highlight of that coverage has been the annual selection of the Woman of the Year, chosen from among elite women identified by HispanTelligence, the research arm of Hispanic Business media. The exemplary career of this year's winner, Dr. Sandra Hernandez, is a tribute to all Hispanic women and an example of how much they are changing our society for the better. (see our profile of Dr. Hernandez here)

This year's Elite Women range from a NASA astronaut to the first female and first Hispanic to be named president of the oldest university in Texas. Th eir careers are as varied as their backgrounds. Marta Brito Perez, vice-president of human resources and global marketing for AstraZeneca and former chief human capital officer for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, fled Cuba as a teenager with her family and migrated to the United States. Alice Rodriguez, a Mexican-American and Texas native, is head of retail banking in Texas for JPMorgan Chase & Co., where she oversees 300 Chase branches across the state.

"After watching my parents and relatives work labor-intensive jobs I knew that I wanted to go to college so that I could achieve a professional position," says Ms. Rodriguez. Education continues to play a significant role in the lives of Hispanic Business magazine's Elite Women. All 20 are college graduates and most have graduate degrees from universities that include such prestigious institutions as Stanford, Harvard, and Yale.

"My mother had a high school education, and she valued education very much," says Dr. Elsa Murano, who was recently named president of Texas A&M University. "Th ere was never any question that I would be going to college. It was a given."

Despite the success of our Elite 20, the number of Hispanic women earning graduate degrees nationwide remains relatively small. In 2006, 2.9 percent of U.S. female Hispanics earned graduate degrees compared to 6.9 percent of non-Hispanic women, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Similarly, while there have been significant breakthroughs by Hispanic women in the worlds of business, education, and politics, lingering discrimination based on gender and ethnicity remain. Th e upside is there are a growing number of diversity programs and women networks designed to help minority women succeed in their respective professions.

To examine these issues, and the unique experiences of Hispanic women in the upper echelons of their professions, Hispantelligence asked the Elite 20 what experiences they have encountered on their way up the corporate ladder. Th e group, most of whom are in their 40s or 50s, are made up of Mexican Americans, Cubans, Puerto Ricans and South Americans. Many are mobile within the job market, only about half have been with their current employer for more than 10 years. Significantly, most are trusted with considerable financial responsibilities as more than half oversee budgets of more than $100 million.

Signifying that we still have some challenges to overcome, more than half of our Elite Women said they had faced some type of discrimination on the job because they were female. When it comes to equal pay and job promotions, nearly a third reported having encountered pay disparities as well as discrimination in hiring and promotion practices.

"Yes, we've made great progress, but it's been painfully slow," says Marisa Rivera Albert, immediate past president of the National Hispana Leadership Institute, an Arlington, Virginia-based nonprofit that provides leadership skills to Hispanic women. "We do have more choices, we do have more freedom, but we are not equal when it comes to that paycheck and promotion."

The good news is that Hispanic women continue to make significant strides in their respective professions and are joining the workforce in greater numbers than other women. Th e U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that the percentage of Hispanic women in the workforce will further increase from 55.3 percent in 2005 to 60.5 percent in 2020. Th at represents the greatest growth among all female ethnic groups. At the same time, the Bureau reports, the numbers of Hispanic men in the workforce is expected to drop from 80.1 percent to 76.9 percent.

"I really think we're in the age of the Latina," says Nancy Marmolejo, president of Viva Visibility, an Anaheim, California-based career consulting firm whose roster of clients are primarily Hispanic women.

"Everyone's courting us, everybody wants to do business with Latinas; We have clout, we have the economic power, and we have the numbers. We can start creating our own deals." It takes a lot of hard work and unwavering commitment to become a president of a major university, a NASA astronaut, or a CEO of a multimillion-dollar company. It is even tougher when there are no female Hispanic role models to emulate. Yet, the women on our list did not let that stop them from achieving their dreams. Many turned to their parents and grandparents for guidance and support.

"My mother was a great mentor and I learned many life lessons from her," recalls Ms. Rodriguez.

"She always had a strong work ethic, commitment, and loyalty to her employers. Although she had a limited education, she had incredible intuition about how to capitalize on opportunities."

"A big mentor for me is my mother who taught me to work really hard at whatever job you have and people will notice," Dr. Murano says. "She also taught me to not be afraid to dream big."

Dr. Murano, 48, made history earlier this year by becoming the first Hispanic and first woman to be named president of Texas A&M, the oldest university in the state.

"I think that's what makes these Latinas so successful - their strong ties to their family," says Ms. Rivera Albert. "Th ere is a serious lack of (female Hispanic) role models, so where do these women get their strong work ethic and the courage to take risks? It goes back to their families."

While family helped build the moral foundation of many of these female pioneers, equal opportunity legislation enshrined in affirmative action legislation and programs provided access to greater opportunity and financial support for reaching their career goals.

The majority of the Elite 20 reported benefiting from several types of affirmative action and diversity programs that included college admissions, support programs, and financial aid.

The vast majority of the 20 Elite Women moved up the upper echelons of their careers by working for existing companies or institutions. Nina Vaca, however, proved Hispanic women can also be entrepreneurial by founding her own company and building it into a $200 million business.

Ms. Vaca, a native of Ecuador, is president and CEO of Pinnacle Technical Resources, one of the fastest growing information technologyfocused staffing companies in the nation.

Between 1997 and 2007, the number of Hispanic women-owned firms increased by 63.9 percent nationwide, according to a study by the Center for Women's Business Research. In fact, more than a third of all Hispanic-owned firms are owned by women.

While each of the 20 Elite Women chose very different careers, most say that following their passion played a significant part in their success.

"Ever since I can remember, working with family has been a dream," says Ms. Vaca, a graduate of Texas State University. "I come from a large family and we had a family-owned travel agency business.

All of us felt a part of that business and worked to make it a success. So, at some level I always wanted to recapture that atmosphere and share my success with my family members. That Pinnacle has allowed me to do that has been one of the most fulfilling aspects of my life."

Related articles:

Woman of the Year, Sandra Hernandez
Elite 20 Spotlight on Diana Bonta
Elite 20 Spotlight on Jennifer Hernandez
Elite 20 Spotlight on Sen. Gloria Romero
Elite 20 Spotlight on Lora Villarreal
Elite 20 Spotlight: Bonus Quotes, Part 1
Elite 20 Spotlight: Bonus Quotes, Part 2

For more of Hispanic Business' signature lists, please see the Ranking Channel

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