When you hear the words “Puerto Rico,” a few things might pop into your mind right now, a looming financial crisis, unpayable debt, a fleeing population, and now, a Category 5 hurricane named María & Irma that has destroyed much of this beloved island. The island is still working to recover from the devastation of the hurricanes as many still lack power and water, so when a few say, “Puerto Ricans want everything to be done for them” – we can only prove this to be false. With that said, we’ve rounded up a few Puerto Ricans who have (and continue) to overcome huge obstacles to achieve success, proving that “Puerto Ricans” surely know how to turn lemons into lemonades….
When San Juan native Matilsha Marxuach launched Concalma, a designer line of tote bags 11 years ago, she turned to a local collective of seamstresses in the mountain town of Utuado to manufacture her fashion-forward handbags. The small business owner and artist said her company’s mission is interwoven in the product: to raise awareness of fair trade, to promote local manufacturing and sustainability.
“In 2006 I was concerned with the resources and the production processes in the design industry in Puerto Rico, as a designer, I was looking to raise awareness of fair trade, local design, local production in a place where mass consumption of the fast fashion products is the standard. I was interested in thinking ways that the local/design production could assure cultural diversity and promote the local economy through conscious products and at the same time think about a base for domestic workers to build an economy and have access to jobs,” -Matilsha Marxuach
Matilsha Marxuach. Photo Courtesy of Merodea
The own woman factory in Utuado, Puerto Rico was then the start of what is now an eleven-year non-stop working relation. It was a round-up idea that matches all the essential aspects Matilsha was interested in: opening space for the job, creating a local production that responds to fair trade guidelines, and my desire to design an ethical product.
If you are looking to gain some recognition, then take some advice from someone who makes her living getting brands noticed. Puerto Rican and Bronx native, Madeline Familia, is the CEO and Founder of New York City-based public relations firm, Creative Voices PR. Before launching her business earlier this year, Madeline has worked with L’Oréal and Procter & Gamble brands, in addition to holding positions at a few leading New York City public relations agencies. As an industry expert, Madeline has provided insights on how brands can target millennials. She is one to keep an eye out for as her business focuses on promoting minority and women-owned businesses and start-ups.
“I decided to start creative Voices PR, as a result of my own struggles fitting into “Corporate America.” I noticed that a lot of companies were passing up on real talent, merely because they are not open to diversity and when I say diversity, I don’t mean just race, I mean all walks of life. I was born and raised in an impoverished neighborhood in the Bronx by a Puerto Rican mother who did not speak a lick of English," says Familia. "Working in corporate America after college was honestly a huge culture shock, I felt like everything I was doing was wrong. I noticed I was getting critiqued for how I spoke, dressed and behaved. I was being judged for traits that I've developed because of my background and upbringings, but where not traits that affected my true talents - my ability to creativity spin a story, find unique story angles and fight for the brands I believed in. I was being forced to assimilate, in order to be accepted and succeed within these organizations. Therefore, ultimately, the reason I started my own business is for the reason that, culturally, I felt as if I didn’t fit in anywhere else. Despite my talents, I saw entrepreneurship was my only viable path to prosperity." States the founder of Creative Voices PR.
Flora Montes. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times
Thanks to Flora Montes, The Bronx has its own biannual Fashion Week, which corresponds with New York Fashion Week. Flora Montes, started Bronx Fashion Week three years ago with her last $200 unemployment check and gumption to spare. “I have to believe that somewhere along the line I was meant to be the vessel that brought it to life,” she said. Fashion enthralled this Bronx-born single mother of two from the time she saw her first runway show in Manhattan, in 2014. “That was a Saturday,” she recalled, “and on Sunday I started to get the legal paperwork together and reach out to my small network of supporters. I thought, ‘The other boroughs have their fashion week, and now it’s time for the Bronx to step up.’”
Her first event, overextended three nights in September of that year, and drew close to 1,000 visitors who watched models of diverse backgrounds, races, ages and body types model the work of local designers. Some designers were even unable to pay to debut their collections. “But I don’t turn my back on anyone,” Ms. Montes said. “I don’t have the heart to say, ‘No, you can’t show because you can’t pay a fee.’’ For Ms. Montes, the show’s success seemed surreal. “I had no connection to the industry,” she said. “I’m no fashionista. My daughter used to tease me: ‘Mom, you used to walk around the house in sweats and a ponytail. When did you get into fashion?”’ She said to The New York Times.
When I decided to pursue a career in whiskey, I knew it might be an uphill battle. The spirits industry has a competitive edge and being a female in a male dominated space, I knew I needed to be ready to take on the competition. I never set out to be the first female ambassador for The Macallan Single Malt Scotch, but as I pursued my career with unrelenting passion and knowledge, I was able to land my dream job in 2016.
Today, one of the biggest challenges I face in my role is changing the fundamental stereotypes in society that have developed overtime and are now ingrained in our culture. For many years, whiskey advertising was solely targeted towards a male audience and it was widely assumed that men were at the forefront of whiskey drinkers. However, throughout my career this has steadily changed as more women have expressed their curiosity and interest in whiskey.
Not only are more women entering the spirits industry professionally, but there is also a rise in female whiskey drinkers. This is supported by female led groups like 'Women Who Whisky' and 'Women of the Vine' that break down barriers within the male dominated alcohol industry.
As the number of female led whiskey brands grow, it gives women the chance to learn and develop their passion within a like-minded community which then paves the way for women to pursue a career within this category.
My own journey started in 2006, when I moved from London, England to Louisville, KY. As the birthplace of bourbon, it was hard not to embrace the Kentucky's indigenous brown spirit and the culture established around it. I learned to drink and appreciate whiskey in a society where it was almost rude not to. Thanks, Kentucky.
As my passion grew, I became fascinated with the history, heritage and tradition and was eager to learn more. Originally born in Scotland, my family has a deep-rooted love for Scotch so it wasn't long before I discovered and fell in love with the amber nectar of my homeland.
When entering the industry I was inspired to see so many strong, intelligent women leading the way. Today, I am proud to say I am part of this movement to revolutionize the industry, by making whiskey more accessible to women and by empowering them with the knowledge and confidence to push back on antiquated stereotypes. It's exciting to see the culture of whiskey changing before my eyes. Throughout my time in this business, I have continued to see more women who have never tried whisky before attending events as they are eager to learn more and experience whiskey in a new way.
The stereotype that women are less informed about whiskey than men is, surprisingly, still an obstacle that I continue to battle. When I first began working in the whiskey world, it was immediately apparent that I had to work harder to prove myself. I wanted to be an expert, which meant dedicating myself to absorbing every bit of information I could. I started with learning how to differentiate one whiskey expression from another using the color, tasting notes and smell. I researched what made each whiskey truly unique - where they matured their whiskey? How they matured it? What was the process? What was the difference between a whiskey that matured in sherry casks versus American bourbon casks? The more I learned, the more my confidence grew. The stories behind the whiskey and process of how the spirit is made is truly magical, but it wasn't until I started working in the industry that I could really see the craft, dedication and relentless obsession to quality that goes into creating the most admired Single Malt Scotch Whisky in the world.
Through my role I'm able to share a depth of knowledge that will help educate both men & women while dispelling the notion of whisky being 'a man's drink' and that is something I really enjoy.
Recruiting new consumers into the whiskey category, particularly women, comes with its own challenges, not because they're intimidated by whisky, but because they're also intimidated by men who tell them they don't know what they're doing.
One strategy I love that makes whiskey more approachable is to pair it with something familiar. Most people don't know this, but whiskey actually pairs better with cheese than wine does. This takes a well-known occasion - wine and cheese - and puts a whiskey spin on it.
Whiskey and cheese works so well because whiskey has a higher alcohol content than wine, which allows for the rich characteristics of the spirit to bring out the bold flavors of the cheese. Flavor profiles that often get overlooked when pairing with wine or beer, shine through when paired with whiskey. And it's simple! Anyone could set this up at home for a gathering. It's also subjective, so you don't have to be an expert to pick your favorite pairs.
Finding new avenues and experiences to introduce whiskey to any consumer that's standoffish is a struggle. But empowering people, especially women, to feel comfortable going up to a bar and ordering a whiskey is truly what makes me love the work I do. My job affords me the opportunity to share knowledge, despite being a female in a male-dominated space, and allows for me to champion other women, both in the industry and outside the industry looking to break in.
We need to be the change we want to see. We are continuing to see more and more women establish themselves as leaders within the category and if the advice I can share about my journey and the obstacles I've faced can help encourage other women to join in, than that's all I can ask for. I am truly proud of how far I've been able to come in the industry and will continue to push not only my fellow females to think bigger but will challenge society to as well.