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.
Women of the Middle East have made significant strides in the past decade in a number of sectors, but huge gaps remain within the labor market, especially in leadership roles.
A huge number of institutions have researched and quantified trends of and obstacles to the full utilization of females in the marketplace. Gabriela Ramos, is the Chief-of-Staff to The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an alliance of thirty-six governments seeking to improve economic growth and world trade. The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
To realize the possibilities, attention needs to be directed toward the most significantly underutilized resource: the women of MENA—the Middle East and North African countries. Educating the men of MENA on the importance of women working and holding leadership roles will improve the economies of those nations and lead to both national and global rewards, such as dissolving cultural stereotypes.
The OECD reports that increasing participation in the women's labor force could easily result in a $12 trillion jump in the global GDP by the year 2025.
In order to put this issue in perspective, the MENA region has the second highest unemployment rate in the world. According to the World Bank, more women than men go to universities, but for many in this region the journey ends with a degree. After graduating, women tend to stay at home due to social and cultural pressures. In 2017, the OECD estimated that unemployment among women is costing some $575 billion annually.
Forbes and Arabian Business have each published lists of the 100 most powerful Arab businesswomen, yet most female entrepreneurs in the Middle East run family businesses. When it comes to managerial positions, the MENA region ranks last with only 13 percent women among the total number of CEOs according to the Swiss-based International Labor Organization (ILO.org publication "Women Business Management – Gaining Momentum in the Middle East and Africa.")
The lopsided tendency that keeps women in family business—remaining tethered to the home even if they are prepared and capable of moving "into the world"—is noted in a report prepared by OECD. The survey provides factual support for the intuitive concern of cultural and political imbalance impeding the progression of women into the workplace who are otherwise fully capable. The nations of Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Libya, Jordan and Egypt all prohibit gender discrimination and legislate equal pay for men and women, but the progressive-sounding checklist of their rights fails to impact on "hiring, wages or women's labor force participation." In fact, the report continues, "Women in the six countries receive inferior wages for equal work… and in the private sector women rarely hold management positions or sit on the boards of companies."
This is more than a feminist mantra; MENA's males must learn that they, too, will benefit from accelerating the entry of women into the workforce on all levels. Some projections of value lost because women are unable to work; or conversely the amount of potential revenue are significant.
Elissa Freiha, founder of Womena, the leading empowerment platform in the Middle East, emphasizes the financial benefit of having women in high positions when communicating with men's groups. From a business perspective it has been proven through the market Index provider MSCI.com that companies with more women on their boards deliver 36% better equity than those lacking board diversity.
She challenges companies with the knowledge that, "From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies."
Freiha agrees that educating MENA's men will turn the tide. "It is difficult to argue culturally that a woman can disconnect herself from the household and community." Her own father, a United Arab Emirates native of Lebanese descent, preferred she get a job in the government, but after one month she quit and went on to create Womena. The fact that this win-lose situation was supported by an open-minded father, further propelled Freiha to start her own business.
"From a business level, you can have a potential of 63% by incorporating the female perspective on the executive team and the boards of companies." - Elissa Frei
While not all men share the open-mindedness of Freiha's dad, a striking number of MENA's women have convincingly demonstrated that the talent pool is skilled, capable and all-around impressive. One such woman is the prominent Sheikha Lubna bint Khalid bin Sultan Al-Qasimi, who is currently serving as a cabinet minister in the United Arab Emirates and previously headed a successful IT strategy company.
Al-Qasimi exemplifies the potential for MENA women in leadership, but how can one example become a cultural norm? Marcello Bonatto, who runs Re: Coded, a program that teaches young people in Turkey, Iraq and Yemen to become technology leaders, believes that multigenerational education is the key. He believes in the importance of educating the parent along with their offspring, "particularly when it comes to women." Bonatto notes the number of conflict-affected youth who have succeeded through his program—a boot camp training in technology.
The United Nations Women alongside Promundo—a Brazil-based NGO that promotes gender-equality and non-violence—sponsored a study titled, "International Men and Gender Equality Survey of the Middle East and North Africa in 2017."
This study surveyed ten thousand men and women between the ages of 18 and 59 across both rural and urban areas in Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and the Palestinian Authority. It reports that, "Men expected to control their wives' personal freedoms from what they wear to when the couple has sex." Additionally, a mere one-tenth to one-third of men reported having recently carried out a more conventionally "female task" in their home.
Although the MENA region is steeped in historical tribal culture, the current conflict of gender roles is at a crucial turning point. Masculine power structures still play a huge role in these countries, and despite this obstacle, women are on the rise. But without the support of their nations' men this will continue to be an uphill battle. And if change won't come from the culture, maybe it can come from money. By educating MENA's men about these issues, the estimated $27 trillion that women could bring to their economies might not be a dream. Women have been empowering themselves for years, but it's time for MENA's men to empower its women.