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 have come a long way in redefining beauty to be more inclusive of different body types, skin colors and hair styles, but society's beauty standards still remain as high as we have always known them to be. In the workplace, professionalism is directly linked to the appearance of both men and women, but for women, the expectations and requirements needed to fit the part are far stricter. Unlike men, there exists a direct correlation between beauty and respect that women are forced to acknowledge, and in turn comply with, in order to succeed.
Before stepping foot into the workforce, women who choose to opt out of conventional beauty and grooming regiments are immediately at a disadvantage. A recent Forbes article analyzing the attractiveness bias at work cited a comprehensive academic review for its study on the benefits attractive adults receive in the labor market. A summary of the review stated, "'Physically attractive individuals are more likely to be interviewed for jobs and hired, they are more likely to advance rapidly in their careers through frequent promotions, and they earn higher wages than unattractive individuals.'" With attractiveness and success so tightly woven together, women often find themselves adhering to beauty standards they don't agree with in order to secure their careers.
Complying with modern beauty standards may be what gets your foot in the door in the corporate world, but once you're in, you are expected to maintain your appearance or risk being perceived as unprofessional. While it may not seem like a big deal, this double standard has become a hurdle for businesswomen who are forced to fit this mold in order to earn respect that men receive regardless of their grooming habits. Liz Elting, Founder and CEO of the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, is all too familiar with conforming to the beauty culture in order to command respect, and has fought throughout the course of her entrepreneurial journey to override this gender bias.
As an internationally-recognized women's advocate, Elting has made it her mission to help women succeed on their own, but she admits that little progress can be made until women reclaim their power and change the narrative surrounding beauty and success. In 2016, sociologists Jaclyn Wong and Andrew Penner conducted a study on the positive association between physical attractiveness and income. Their results concluded that "attractive individuals earn roughly 20 percent more than people of average attractiveness," not including controlling for grooming. The data also proves that grooming accounts entirely for the attractiveness premium for women as opposed to only half for men. With empirical proof that financial success in directly linked to women's' appearance, Elting's desire to have women regain control and put an end to beauty standards in the workplace is necessary now more than ever.
Although the concepts of beauty and attractiveness are subjective, the consensus as to what is deemed beautiful, for women, is heavily dependent upon how much effort she makes towards looking her best. According to Elting, men do not need to strive to maintain their appearance in order to earn respect like women do, because while we appreciate a sharp-dressed man in an Armani suit who exudes power and influence, that same man can show up to at a casual office in a t-shirt and jeans and still be perceived in the same light, whereas women will not. "Men don't have to demonstrate that they're allowed to be in public the way women do. It's a running joke; show up to work without makeup, and everyone asks if you're sick or have insomnia," says Elting. The pressure to look our best in order to be treated better has also seeped into other areas of women's lives in which we sometimes feel pressured to make ourselves up in situations where it isn't required such as running out to the supermarket.
So, how do women begin the process of overriding this bias? Based on personal experience, Elting believes that women must step up and be forceful. With sexism so rampant in workplace, respect for women is sometimes hard to come across and even harder to earn. "I was frequently assumed to be my co-founder's secretary or assistant instead of the person who owned the other half of the company. And even in business meetings where everyone knew that, I would still be asked to be the one to take notes or get coffee," she recalls. In effort to change this dynamic, Elting was left to claim her authority through self-assertion and powering over her peers when her contributions were being ignored. What she was then faced with was the alternate stereotype of the bitchy executive. She admits that teetering between the caregiver role or the bitch boss on a power trip is frustrating and offensive that these are the two options businesswomen are left with.
Despite the challenges that come with standing your ground, women need to reclaim their power for themselves and each other. "I decided early on that I wanted to focus on being respected rather than being liked. As a boss, as a CEO, and in my personal life, I stuck my feet in the ground, said what I wanted to say, and demanded what I needed – to hell with what people think," said Elting. In order for women to opt out of ridiculous beauty standards, we have to own all the negative responses that come with it and let it make us stronger– and we don't have to do it alone. For men who support our fight, much can be achieved by pushing back and policing themselves and each other when women are being disrespected. It isn't about chivalry, but respecting women's right to advocate for ourselves and take up space.
For Elting, her hope is to see makeup and grooming standards become an optional choice each individual makes rather than a rule imposed on us as a form of control. While she states she would never tell anyone to stop wearing makeup or dressing in a way that makes them feel confident, the slumping shoulders of a woman resigned to being belittled looks far worse than going without under-eye concealer. Her advice to women is, "If you want to navigate beauty culture as an entrepreneur, the best thing you can be is strong in the face of it. It's exactly the thing they don't want you to do. That means not being afraid to be a bossy, bitchy, abrasive, difficult woman – because that's what a leader is."