By any standard, Maria Elena Toraño is considered a significant force in the business community. On Friday, she received the 2013 Latina Pioneer of the Year Award from the Hispanic Women of Distinction Charity at Signature Grand in Davie. In her bold style, Toraño told The Miami Herald that she deserves the award and appreciates the recognition.
Toraño, born in Havana, has long been an advocate for Latinas. At 75, she is a Renaissance woman who is still going strong, paving the way for other women.
When Toraño started out in the business world, she recalls having few female role models, particularly Latinas. Yet, she realized early the advantage of being bilingual and of advocating for herself and her beliefs. Over the years, she has served as the founding chair of the National Hispana Leadership, an organization created to train Hispanic women for national leadership roles. It has graduated more than 10,000 Latina leaders.
In the early ’70s, Toraño served as Program Manager, Latin American Affairs for Eastern Airlines, a position she held from its inception. In 1980, Toraño founded her own consulting/public relations company, META, which represented large clients including The Rouse Cos. In 1987, she opened a Washington office to do work with federally owned companies, including the Resolution Trust Corp. “This company did very well but I got ‘bored’ and wanted to start something new,” Toraño says.
She went on to serve as founding president of the National Association of Spanish Broadcasters, which advocated for the first commissioner of Hispanic origin at the FCC.
Toraño’s achievements have spanned the public sector, too. She was appointed by President Bill Clinton to the U.S. Advisory Commission on Public Diplomacy, by President George H. Bush to the Oversight Commission to the U.S. Small Business Administration and by President Jimmy Carter as the Assistant Director of Public Affairs for the Office of Economic Opportunity/Community Services Administration.
More recently, preparing for retirement, she increased her involvement with the Council of Foreign Relations and became a founding member of Frito Lay Hispanic Advisory Board, offering insight on how to become a partner of choice among Hispanics. Toraño has been married three times and says she now enjoys living alone and practicing Buddhism. However, she most enjoys being in the company of her sons and grandsons. Although she calls Miami home, Toraño maintains an apartment in New York.
Toraño considers herself content with her accomplishments and motivated to continuing to make contributions in the community.
Q. As a Latina pioneer, what do you now look forward to accomplishing in the next decade of your life?
I would like to build “A Woman Leadership Legacy.” This is a personal project which I hope to accomplish one day. It is part of my on-going self-imposed responsibility to continue sharing my story of challenges, difficulties, determination, success and hope with new generations of women, in order to help them realize their own dreams.
I want to pass on my wisdom and passion to others through this project. Basic professional skills, a solid education and experience are important, but what I believe will always be the most valuable asset a person can have in life is to feel passion in their quests. Those who can’t turn the ‘off’ switch in their brains about what they do will be winners in most anything they do. That passion is what’s always driven me to succeed in all my ventures. I want to pass that passion on and bring it out in others.
Q. Do you believe young Latinas face different obstacles than you did in their efforts to reach the highest levels in their organizations, in government positions and on corporate boards?
The differences come from the commitment each woman makes to achieve her own success. Yes, women today are better educated and there is more structure in the selection process. But that woman has to be just as determined and passionate, as other successful women have always been.
When I was young, and even today, you hear of technology industry leaders such as Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos. But you can’t help but notice that there are no women among these pioneers, Latina or otherwise. Why? These men knew exactly what they wanted, had the skills, training and education, and got the expected results. I had limited skills, no formal education, but got addicted to the challenges and opportunities which were coming my way. I never gave up. I was passionate and committed to achieve and succeed. If I did it, other Latinas can do the same. They need to reach for the stars and attain their dreams and not be restrained by any so-called obstacles they encounter. Anything is possible. I’m a living example of that.
Q. Describe the moment when you realized you were recognized as a viable force as a Hispanic businesswoman and as a leader?
There are many words associated with leadership. I however, have three: passion, excellence and execution. Those three words are what came to mind when I learned of my recognition as the 2013 Latina Pioneer Award recipient. I was thrilled... and felt great accomplishment, not only for me, but on behalf of all Hispanic women.
Q. What do you know now that you wish you knew decades earlier?
The absence of information, resources, mentoring and limited education were real impediments in the ’70 and ’80s when many Latinas, including myself, began our search for meaningful jobs. I wish I knew then how the selection process for certain positions worked. I was never taught.
Today, Latinas have become more strategic in pursuing their goals. That’s why, since 1986 when we founded the Executive Leadership Program of the National Hispana Leadership Institute, a national program to train Latinas as national leaders, we always include a week of training at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, and at the Center for Creative Leadership. These trainings provide critical information on executive search and other needed skills to find the right job. I wish I had this resource back when I first began my career. However, I am thrilled to be able to provide it to thousands of women now through NHLI, www.nhli.org
Q. Because of globalization, are there more opportunities for Latinas and do you feel that the U.S. government and corporations are identifying those opportunities? What unique contributions do Latinas bring?
Yes, there are more opportunities now for Latinas. As more and more corporations become global players, Latinas have more and more prospects for work. A wealth of job opportunities lies within the 40,000 Non-Governmental Organizations operating throughout the world. These NGOs have a budget of $20.6 billion.
The U.S. government made a proactive move in 2011 when it created Business USA, an umbrella entity which combines the assets and resources of 14 federal agencies including The White House. The goal is to assist businesses lacking the resources to pursue opportunities abroad. This provides greater opportunities for Latinas.
Today, more than years ago, the need to be global and exposed to other cultures and languages is becoming more essential in succeeding in business. Many Latinas understand their own cultural heritage ... and that can be an asset to a global corporation.
Q. Describe your perfect day.
I could consider planning a trip to my 110th world destination, finding the right man on Match.com, buying designer clothes galore or undergoing plastic surgery to look younger. But no, I wouldn’t do that. I could consider a day of nirvana in the California mountains. That’s an option.
Today has been one of those lazy Sundays I love, almost a perfect day. I stayed up last night finishing Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn. I was already doing some meditation by 8 a.m. followed by a cortadito with Sunday papers in tow. I turned on the morning news programs ... and even gave the Fox people a chance, and the morning was gone.
After a light lunch, I headed to theaters and watched two movies. Then, I headed back home, to my pajamas and my pinot to observe the many moods of Biscayne Bay. At last, it was time to jump back in bed and forecast the coming week.