Latina & CEO
Every single woman profiled in this article has had a very different experience and journey to the highest office in each of the organizations she leads.
Some of them knew, from a very young age, that their thing was to speak up and make decisions; others had no idea about the title they would end up with. However, when the opportunity to lead came, none of them thought about it twice.
In contrast to their diverse experiences, they also share characteristics that have enabled them to break free of the status quo for Latinas in the United States.
All of them have successfully taken Latino organizations into the 21st century. All work with and for the community, all chose to make their lives and careers in Philadelphia, and all credit much of their success to their Latino heritage.
These are the Latina CEOs and Executive Directors who are leading the way, directing the course and building a legacy for more than one community in Philadelphia.
Executive Director at Taller Puertorriqueño
Her life was always directed towards public service, with a strong calling for medicine. Carmen Febo decided she was going to be a doctor during her childhood in Puerto Rico, and it was the practice of her profession what brought her to Philadelphia in the 1970s.
Febo learned about Taller Puertorriqueño a few years after it was founded, in 1974. Her collaboration as a volunteer turned into 14 years of service as a board member that then led her to become the executive director, although initially was supposed to be a temporary position.
"I took office in 2001 as executive director, during a period of transition, followed by some rather difficult years," Febo said. "There have been serious challenges in bringing the organization forward."
Febo explained that to lead a cultural organization is a constant battle — very few have actual financial reserves, and many disappear or are forced to merge with other organizations.
Taller Puertorriqueño has had its ups and downs, and even, back in the 1980s, was in danger of closing. According to Febo, what has supported a slow but sure growth has been the energy, the commitment and vision of its mission "to not see such as vital community program disappeared."
This vision set in motion the most ambitious project in Taller’s history: the creation of a new building developed specifically for the needs of the organization. "The Heart Cultural Center," with a total cost of $10.7 million, expected to break ground this summer.
"We coined the term corazón cultural because is what it means to be able to identify with your culture, and its art and music. (To be able to identify) with everything that represents us as Latinos. Taller is a place where we can celebrate and recognize who we are culturally and artistically,” Febo said.
Taller Puertorriqueño has been the incubator of educational programs for nearly 28 years. Taller has also been one of the organizers of the traditional Feria del Barrio (Raíces Culturales, HACE and Congreso are the others) which celebrated its 30th anniversary last year. This year another dynamic Latino non-profit will join as an organizer, GALAEI.
Executive Director at Juntos
For Erika Almirón, executive director of Juntos, the greatest lesson has been that there can never be a single leader. "If only one person is leading a movement or organization, it falls apart too easily. When is viewed as just one person then the movement can die when that person is no longer here. "
She’s kept this in mind since she was named director of Juntos in 2011. Her previous experience had always been linked to community service, but the new post offered her the opportunity to be stronger and much more vocal in representing to the community.
"II think at that time our community was not leading the conversation on the subject of immigration. I wanted to find a way to build leaders who are also members of the community,” Almiron said.
By coincidence or force of destiny, Almirón was born in South Philly and was baptized in the same church in which Juntos was founded: St. Thomas Aquinas.
A Paraguayan with a strong connection to her Latin roots, Almirón believes her bicultural upbringing has been a strong influence that has allowed her to develop the perfect skills for the work that needs to be done.
"For me it has always been very important to understand who I am and where I come from. My heritage and understanding the immigrant experience has built much of my personal story," Almirón said.
Currently the organization has three employees and operates on a budget of about $200,000, but has hundreds of members who carry out the mission on a volunteer basis handling around 500 immigration cases a year.
"I think our greatest victory goes back to two years ago when it was rumored that the immigration issue would become the next big issue. We had many conversations about how to impact the national dialogue," Almiron said. "We made a commitment at that time that we would work to ensure that Juntos would be a viable organization at the national level. And in recent years we have done just that. "
Since then Juntos has become one of the leading organizations in the national #Not1more campaign. “We were one of the first organizations that demanded that the President take action. We’re now recognized as a national player and some of the work we've done helped push the President's executive actions on immigration,” she concluded.
CEO of Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM)
After 25 years of professional career, including her stint from 1999 to 2005 as one of the directors at the National Council of La Raza (NCLR), Nilda Ruiz took the reins of the historical organization Asociación de Puertorriqueños en Marcha (APM) at a moment of administrative and financial challenges.
Born and raised in Philadelphia, she decided to take the challenge motivated by her sense of community and because she knew of the many existing opportunities that were not being offered.
"The community made me come back, not for the position or the money, but because I wanted to make sure that the agency was here for our people and for the next generation," Ruiz said. "Philadelphia is a tough city for any Latino, whether you are a woman or a man. Everything in this city tends to be Black and White, and we get caught in the middle. There is a lack of unity that is very apparent in the city."
According to the “Phillyrican,” one
of the first changes she discussed with the board was in terms of the mission of the association. The question was whether to only serve the Puerto Rican community or serve a larger group of low-income people.
The verdict was to keep the name and tradition, but to provide services for a wide range of minority communities.
Among Ruiz’s most important achievements was the development of Paseo Verde, a new site developed for mixed-income families and the $48 million site was the first in the country to get LEED Neighborhood Development certification.
Located in North Philly between 9th and Berks streets, Paseo Verde encompasses 260,000 square feet, including 30,000 square feet of retail space and 111 apartment units, nine larger units, a community garden, 68 parking spots and a gym.
"You would think it was some big developer, but it was a little Latino non-profit that got that," Ruiz said.
The term "small" may not be the best to describe APM (“the little engine that could,” as Ruiz says). Currently the non-profit has an annual budget of $32 million and about 300 employees serving approximately 10,000 customers.
"I think I am not too proud to listen, I'm not shy, and I'll talk to whoever is necessary," Ruiz said. "What I have accomplished has never been for me personally, it has been for the community, so it makes it a lot easier to take on those tasks," she said.
CEO of Concilio
Born and raised in Philadelphia in the section of Lawrence Street and Indiana Avenue, Joanna Otero grew up in a very challenging neighborhood with blocks affected by drugs and poverty, the area sadly coined as the “Badlands.”
She explained that the neighborhood where she grew up in, however, was about much more than just problems and need. "I knew that my parents and many other neighbors on the block worked extremely hard, countless hours. So to me there was this sense of pride to be able to say I’ve made it," Otero said.
"For as humble as our home was, both my parents valued education tremendously," Otero said. "My mother is definitely a mentor in my life, she is the model for me in many things. Education and a strong faith were the two things that my mom taught us … ‘faith moves mountains.’"
In 2010, after a lengthy selection process, Otero received a call to let her know she had been chosen to become the CEO of Concilio, a social services organization founded in 1962 and recognized as the oldest Latino organization in the city, and a provider that has served the community’s needs for more than 50 years.
"One of the first things that I am very proud of is that when I started back five years ago Concilio was not in a good financial place, and we quickly turned it around. Within a year we were able to show a significant surplus for a small non profit," Otero said.
She said this achievement completely changed the infrastructure of the organization and would allow the opening of a brand new building, located in Hunting Park, five years later. The investment of $3.9 million provided 10,000 square feet of new space for the organization’s foster care and adoption programs, parent-skill training and housing counseling, among other things.
"Sixty percent of our clients are African American, because we have contracts city-wide," Otero said.
Concilio currently serves about 10,000 individuals, mostly in the North and Northeast of Philadelphia. It has 55 employees, operates with an annual budget of $ 3.4 million.
"I am a strong believer that our clients are part of our family, we shouldn’t want anything but the best for them. When people tell you you can’t do things, we say ‘yes, we can,’" Otero said.
CEO of Congreso
"For a woman leader, period, there is a lot of doubt. And when you are a woman of color, that (doubt) can even be even more intense because you are in rooms where you stand out in a variety of ways," said Cynthia Figueroa. "(It is important) not to doubt yourself and keep confidence, and go to your networks and your mentors for the confidence you need."
"The other thing I say a lot to younger women is: say your goals out loud. Don’t expect people to know what career opportunities you are looking for, what exposure you want to have. You have to tell people about your goals all the time," Figueroa said. "Men do it all the time."
Congreso de Latinos Unidos operates with 300 employees and an annual budget of $24 million, and Figueroa has been at the helm since 2011. The non-profit provides health and community services, especially to Latino and African-American residents of North Philly.
Among the accomplishments Figueroa is most proud of, are being named a Top Place to Work for three consecutive years, and being named the NCLR Affiliate of the year in 2014.
"Aside from the recognitions, I am most proud of working with my board and team to execute and move forward the goals set forth in the strategic priorities established with the staff and the board," Figueroa said.
These include the opening and expansion of a Federally Qualified Health Center; the expansion of the organization’s physical campus on North American Street, and being recognized nationally for their quality and performance management outcomes.
Figueroa also believes that “Philadelphia has a unique quality because of its Quaker history and its participation in the birth of Democracy — so the social sector has a tremendous say in city government. We do a lot of governmental work on behalf of the city."
Figueroa said her parents were role models, instilling the values of hard work and integrity in her and her sisters.
"Both my parents had difficult childhoods and were raised in challenging circumstances with limited resources,” she said. “Both my mom and dad knew their way to a better life was through education. They both took the initiative to make college a priority.”
What she enjoys the most about the career she has made in Philadelphia is the community and the team of people she gets to work with every day. "Philly is a very real place. It does not hide its challenges. I also love that there are so many amazing leaders and individuals doing great work in this City. Philly has a lot of grit, and and heart, and it is exciting to be part of it."
CEO of Greater Philadelphia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce
According to Varsovia Fernandez, in the Latino community, we are likely to see more women than men emerging as leaders because women represent the majority of professionals and entrepreneurs.
Nevertheless, she said, “I don’t think Philadelphia is an easy city for women leaders, because there is a lot of parochialism. If you look at boards, the city lags behind in representation of women in high level positions.”.
Since becoming the CEO of GPHCC in 2006, her greatest satisfaction has been seeing it grow as a national organization.
Upon Fernandez’s arrival at GPHCC, the Chamber had fewer than 50 members. It now has more than 600. Eight years ago, it represented 5,300 Latino businesses, currently there are more than 18,000 in the region. The organization’s annual budget is just under $1 million.
"I think we're really leading GPHCC towards the 21st century. Some decades ago, Latinos were not recognized in Philadelphia ... if you observe our history, Latinos were not even welcome in the city," Fernandez said.
Fernandez, who is Dominican, and lived in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico and moved to Philadelphia after college, said that GPHCC has managed to support and pamper the diversity of the Latino market in Philadelphia.
"This is a 21st century approach because Philadelphia's business culture is old-fashioned. But those who are creating innovation and development in the economy are our young people," she said.
She added that soon the Latino market will be much more visible, and hopes the Chamber will become the voice of the Latino economy in the Philadelphia region and in the state of Pennsylvania.
"I have made myself a place at the table. I speak up and I am part of the decision making. It is important that women have the opportunity to help from the beginning of the process," Fernandez said. "Latinas have a lot to offer. And in offering they receive and succeed."
Executive Director of Norris Square Community Alliance
Patricia DeCarlo learned from a very young age the importance of questioning and not keeping silent. The Executive Director of Norris Square Community Alliance explained that her father was the one who instilled the notion in her that no matter who the person is, "if you think you are right, you have the right to question.”
"We need to question and we need to do it more. It has always bothered me, the lack of questioning in the Latino community. There are no stupid questions and you always have the right to ask,” DeCarlo said. “Sometimes you even need to throw a few ‘coños’ and three ‘carajos in there.’"
DeCarlo graduated from Penn Law in 1974 and over the following years provided legal services focused on civil rights.
DeCarlo has been director of NSCA for 28 years, increasing the membership from only three activists who started the organization, to 218 and operating with a current annual budget of $13 million.
"When I arrived to Norris Square Park, it was filled with glass, there were mattresses on the ground, and most of the houses around the area were empty and abandoned," DeCarlo said. "It was dangerous. Drug users would go into the empty houses to get high. Other residents would bring their trash bags from home and throw them in the basements, because the windows were broken. It became the dumpster."
"If the government ignores you, either you complain, you organize or you do it yourself," DeCarlo said. "We were not going to wait for the city to come and do it for us. Neighbors decided on solutions that we could implement."
From the beginning DeCarlo’s main focus was economic development and to have the organization be a catalyst for change. Her first project? The creation of construction company that employed members of the community and provided affordable housing for residents of Norris Square. Currently the programing at NSCA has expanded to a bilingual early-learning program, community outreach, real estate development, and youth and family services.
"I love to solve problems and I love to see change. What makes me the most proud is when I see young people who have gone through this process, and they acknowledge it has change their life," DeCarlo said.