From Chicken Soup for the Latino Soul

The Power to Shine

Anyone who saw me standing at the podium during the awards ceremony that June day would have called me a success. At thirty-five, I was the founder and sole owner of a multimillion-dollar business. I traveled the country speaking to businesspeople. I had three beautiful sons and was prosperous enough not to need to work another day in my life. But I had spent so much of my early life feeling lost and powerless that I wasn’t able to savor my own good fortune.

As a girl, growing up poor in the South Bronx, I wasn’t sure what success looked like, but I was pretty sure it didn’t look like me. There was no chubby, freckled, bespectacled Puerto Rican girl in any movie I’d ever seen or book I’d ever read—nor had I ever heard of a Latina CEO or scholar. And there weren’t too many successes on view outside my window either. The women I saw were worn-out domestics and shop clerks, carrying groceries to their walk-ups, trying to scrape together enough energy to make it through another day. Without realizing what I was doing, I began putting together a model for myself from bits and pieces of those around me—that one’s straight back, and this one’s spirit—a kind of rag doll I kept by my side.

As I grew up and moved out into the world, I worked hard to overcome the impoverishment of my childhood years. But early versions of myself were stacked inside me like Russian dolls: the four-year-old who was beaten up the first day of school because she was mistaken for white; the frightened teenager at a South Bronx high school where police stood in riot gear; the college freshman at Wellesley whose roommate requested to be moved because she didn’t want to room with a kid from the ghetto. I couldn’t get rid of them entirely, nor did I want to. They were part of me, reminders of where I was from, although I made sure to keep them hidden. Then completely by chance, at seventeen, I found a niche for myself in New York after dropping out of Wellesley. I landed a job as a customer-service clerk at a company that made umbrellas and tote bags. Business fascinated me—all the gyrations of people and product, the ups and downs, the whole cycle of making something out of nothing. Eventually, I decided I wanted to move into sales, but the company turned down my request. Not to be deterred, I called in sick one day so that I could call on the Museum of Natural History, a potential customer. I left there with a huge order and a new customer. After I brought the order to the office, I met with the company president and asked, “Are you guys gonna let me sell now or what?”

They did. A few years later, when I was twenty-one, I was promoted to account executive and put in charge of my own category of business. Two years after that, I went to work for a rival firm in California to expand their umbrella business. I was making a lot of money for someone my age, and with a goal in mind, I consciously lived well below my means. After working for that company for a few years, I had enough money to step out on my own. Suddenly, I was an entrepreneur without a salary. Flying by the seat of my pants, I was losing money, but I didn’t let my early mistakes discourage me. I continued to move forward, doing what I felt I had to do, even when I wasn’t sure whether I was right.

By this time, I was married with two young children, and my world was split down the middle. I kept the professional strictly separate from the personal, and never spoke about my background in business circles. It was lonely being a woman CEO, but I was used to that. I was vaguely aware that I was hiding, but I didn’t feel ready to take the risk of revealing myself.

My company, Umbrellas Plus, continued to grow and expand, landing several major retail accounts. Eventually, I relocated to New Jersey to be closer to the industry action. One day as I was flipping through a magazine, I came across an announcement for the Women of Enterprise Awards sponsored by Avon and the SBA. The award was given to women business owners who had overcome significant odds to build a successful enterprise. It sounded right up my alley. As I filled out the essay questions, it occurred to me that this kind of award might bring me smack up against my carefully constructed identity, but I completed the application anyhow. Who said I was going to win? A month later I opened a notice from Avon, read the first word—Congratulations!—and whooped out loud. This Puerto Rican, a one-time public-housing resident, was going to be honored in front of fifteen hundred luminaries during a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria! I’d been awarded a stay in New York, with theater, dinner, media appearances, a cash gift and a makeover. I was on cloud nine.

The day of the awards luncheon, I felt like Cinderella as I walked into the legendary Waldorf-Astoria, surrounded by well-wishers. But once I was seated in the hotel’s grand ballroom, looking around at the crystal chandeliers, the linen tablecloths and the impeccably dressed crowd, I grew increasingly anxious. When it was my turn to speak, my ears roared and my legs shook as I made my way to the podium. Looking out over the glittering crowd, the old voices I had battled all my life came thundering back at me: Who do you think you are? What’s a ghetto girl like you doing here? By this point in my life, I “had it all”—the well-tailored suits, the fine jewelry, the business, the family, the house. What was still missing? I stared out beyond the crowd to an illuminated patch of floor at the back of the ballroom. . . .

And then an amazing thing happened. A vision of an old woman with a bucket and rag flashed before me: a widow who spoke no English, whose only option had been to leave her children and homeland to work as a domestic in the United States. That woman was my great-grandmother, Juanita. You see, my great-grandmother had left Puerto Rico and found a job at a large, fancy hotel in New York—this hotel, the Waldorf-Astoria. She had worked on her knees, in this very building where her great-granddaughter was now standing in a place of honor. As I looked out over the audience, I felt such a connection to Mama Juanita, her spirit of fortitude and resolve, and all the other women who came before me, women who worked hard without knowing how it would affect future generations. If they could push through their fears and achieve so much, then so could I. I would let my real life shine, not only for my great-grandmother, but also so that other women could see it for themselves. With my sons, parents and business associates looking on, I spoke. For the first time publicly, I shared, with pride, my true story, not a sanitized version. As I gave that speech, I came to terms with where I came from and where I was going. In embracing my own history, I was connecting to a story larger than myself.

To this day, whenever I feel discouraged, I stand at the kitchen sink and wash dishes. When I make that circular motion with a brush or cloth, I feel the power of so many women before me, whether they washed dishes at a river or cleaned the floors of a hotel. I think about my children and their children, and their children’s children. I think of my great-grandmother Juanita and how she scrubbed floors on her knees, so that one day, I might shine.

Deborah Rosado Shaw

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