By Joe DeSantis and Michael Burns
Deeply embedded in the mythology of our culture are the immigrant stories. They are the stories of economic and political refugees who arrived in this country jobless and penniless, and made good—either in their own lifetimes or those of their progeny a generation or two later. The stories are part of our mythology because they embody what we believe about ourselves, but also because they are quite true. The ugly, forced immigration of Africans into American slavery in the 17th to 19th centuries is also quite true; it is the dark underside of our immigration myth. But while that story sobers the myth it does not cancel it. Immigration made good remains the basic narrative of who we are.
Those of us who are second- and third-generation natural-born U.S. citizens tend to forget that the story of the immigrant who makes good is as real today as it was 100 or 200 years ago. To begin with, the U.S. continues to be a nation of immigrants. As late as four years ago we took in more than twice as many legal immigrants as the next nine countries combined. And with all those immigrants come too many stories to count of immigrants making good.
The Eagle Eye recently sat down with Hortensia and Lisette to hear Hortensia’s story and to learn more about Global LT.
Hortensia: Well, I come from Cuba, I was born in Havana. In 1961, 1½ years after Castro came in, right after the Bay of Pigs invasion that failed, my father gathered us all, he said this is not good, this system is going to stay, and I don’t want my kids growing up in a land that has no freedom.
At that time Pan American Airways had free flights out of Cuba, one in the morning and one in the afternoon every day, to bring Cubans to the United States. So we took one of those flights to Miami. We stayed in Miami for several months, five of us living in a two-bedroom apartment.
My father had been a successful businessman in Cuba. He owned a factory that made paper products. He had been educated in the States and spoke perfect English. So did my mother. We got out of Cuba with basically nothing except what we could carry. My dad was a very proud man who accepted U.S. government food for the family at first, but he soon went to work at a Royal Castle, which is like a White Castle, cleaning floors, taking garbage out, doing things that were difficult for a man of his ability who had been very well off. But he did not want to live off the government, and that was a very valuable lesson he taught us.
After a few months we moved to New York City, because there were no jobs in Miami. My father got a job with a brokerage firm, but my older sister and I (I was 15 at the time) still had to get jobs to help the family. I had an uncle who worked for American Express in New York, and he told me to apply there. So I put my hair up in a bun, put on a lot of makeup, put on high heels, went down there and told them I was 18 years old. In those days they didn’t check up on those things like they do now, so I got hired and worked in a clerical job for a couple of years.
I didn’t go to high school, I worked full time, took the subway to work every morning and back home in the afternoon. I remember my paycheck was $46 per week, and I felt very proud of it.
Hortensia eventually married, had a daughter, and followed her husband out to Michigan. But she soon decided she could not stay homebound, and she jumped at an opportunity that came her way to leverage her language skills.
Hortensia: I married my first husband, also a Cuban, a very bright guy. He got a scholarship to do a Ph.D. at Columbia, so I went to work to support him. In the meantime I had a baby—Lisette—and I took care of his great aunt as well and got paid out of his scholarship money to do that. After he got the Ph.D. we lived for a while in Washington D.C. He worked for Massachusetts Institute of Technology Research and Development, and while he did that he commuted back to New York twice a week to do an MBA. Once he finished that he applied for a job with Ford Motor Company, which he got, and that is why I am here in Michigan. I was a stay-athome Mom both in D.C. and after we moved out here.
The Director there was very nice and he seemed more interested in my own language skills than the paperwork. He asked me if I could speak Spanish, and if I could read and write it, and of course I said “Oh, yes.” He offered me the chance to teach for them. I had never taught before and I told him that, but he assured me they would train me, so I said I would love to do it.
So I started working at Berlitz and after 1½ years they made me head of the Spanish Department, which is a position they really never had before.
Several times throughout our conversation Hortensia made it clear that her first loves were teaching and selling. Her enthusiasm for both was obvious as she described how she trained her students and how she built the business.
Hortensia: One of the other teachers at Berlitz, a lady from Argentina, came to me one day and said, “Berlitz has no competitors, how would you like to compete with them?” I said sure, I am always up for it, let’s try it. So I left Berlitz. I had one student who was going to be the Plant Manager for the Chihuahua Plant in Mexico that Ford was opening. I gave him a little note saying I would like to talk to him about getting an opportunity at Ford. He told me he loved the way I taught, my enthusiasm, that I had done so much for him and for his wife. He promised to get me a meeting at Ford, although he told me he could only sell me halfway, I would have to sell the other half, and I said no problem. So I went to that meeting, and Ford gave me a group of seven executives that were going to the Chihuahua Plant and I trained them, three times a week, two hours each time.
We used the U.S. government’s Department of State method. Many students did not like it because it was boring, but I made it fun. That is the key to learning. . .
I developed what I called Survival Spanish, which I would start after three or four classes, once they had a little of the language. When we would get to the last 15 minutes of the class, I would tell them, “We are not going to speak any English now. There are not going to be any questions in English, I do not speak English, I don’t understand English, and I am going to put you in a situation that you are going to use what you have to communicate with me. You can use your hands or whatever other method to communicate with me.” And then I would say, “OK, I am going to be the receptionist at a hotel and you have to rent the room . . . go.” And, of course, it was a lot of fun because you could see how they were trying. I would write down their mistakes, and then at the end of the 15 minutes I would tell them they didn’t rent a room, they rented a closet, and so on. So it was very enjoyable and they couldn’t wait to get to the last 15 minutes of the class.
After about 1½ years, my partner and I went our separate ways, because it just wasn’t working. She kept all the equipment that we had, but the clients came to me. So then they started asking me if I could teach other languages, I said of course, and I would recruit teachers for other languages. I would bring them to my house and train them the way I would teach the Spanish. Bendix Corporation actually wanted five different languages, so I recruited teachers for each one of those languages.
Ford was our first client, but after Ford, I got the Bendix Corporation, which is Allied Signal, then it was Siemens because I was there when Siemens came in and they bought Bendix Electronics. Then it was Federal Mogul, United Technologies, Nissan, which was my first Japanese company, then General Motors. I got all of those on my own. Eventually I brought in helpers to handle the other parts of the business, because what I really loved was teaching and selling, doing sales.
The story of how Hortensia became an entrepreneur is fascinating enough, but we were just as interested in finding out why she became an entrepreneur, which is to say we wanted to know what it was that drove her to start a company and build it to what it has become.
Hortensia: I could not become a language teacher in a public school because I didn’t have the degree or the credentials for it. But even if I did, I don’t know if I would have done that. They say that your genes dominate a lot in your life, and my father, as I said, owned a very successful manufacturing business. My grandfather on my mother’s side was an entrepreneur and so was my grandfather on my father’s side. My maternal grandfather was the exclusive rep for either Frigidaire or General Electric—I don’t quite remember—in Cuba. He had other businesses too. He actually lived half the year in New York and half the year in Havana.
Lisette pointed out that whether or not her mother’s sense of entrepreneurship was genetic, it was highly necessarily—she found herself in circumstances where she had to make a living on her own for herself and her daughter.
Lisette: Well, some of it was just out of necessity. She had just gotten a divorce from my father, so she did what she had to do to put food on the table. I remember the hours that she worked, she was a workhorse. I remember after she got divorced we had one little file cabinet in our little condo in Troy. So I think a lot of it stemmed from that.
Hortensia: Necessity is the mother of invention, right? Isn’t that what they say? . . . But when my partner first approached me, I thought it was a great opportunity. You know, let’s try it. Let’s try it. And then after that, of course, I got the taste of the business. And for some reason I knew the clients liked me and they trusted me that I was going to give them good teaching and good service . . .
When I first came to the United States I was 13 years old, young enough not to understand the consequences, so that helped. But I was a big animal lover (I still am) and I had four dogs that I had to leave behind. And I had a nanny who was from Jamaica and I adored her, and I had to leave her behind, too. So it was a sad time, but when I came to the United States, I was not afraid. I guess I was an entrepreneur right from the beginning. When we moved to Miami from Cuba we had nothing, so I wanted to help my parents in any way I could. So I went around to all the ladies in the neighborhood and offered to comb their hair and cut their hair for 50 cents, even though I was not a beautician. I would clean houses for $1. I took care of a little guy who lived next door to us, his mother was a nurse, and she worked at night, so she had to sleep during the day. I took care of her son, who was a special needs child. I took him with me everywhere and she paid me $1 a day for taking care of him.
Fear? No, I have never been afraid. I am afraid of spiders and frogs, but I have never been afraid of a challenge in life because I believe I am able to turn things around because I look at the bright side of things. I am very optimistic. I went to a conference once where the speaker said, don’t look at the glass as half full or half empty, just fill it up. That is me.
And I have never felt that being a woman has held me back in any way, no. Perhaps because most of the help I always got came from women. They were the ones who hired me, and most of them became my friends. So I never felt really discriminated against because I was a woman. Maybe also it was because of the field I was in, teaching. Maybe if I had wanted to drive a truck, or something like that, I might have felt discriminated against. But because of the field I am in, no, I have never felt discriminated against at all.
The apple does not fall far from the tree. Lisette Poletes is an accomplished professional in her own right, having spent eleven years as a top sales rep with Pfizer Chemical before her mother invited her to join the business.
Lisette: I had been with Pfizer for a long time, but I had a baby and decided I would be a stay-at-home mom, that was going to be my new role. So I left Pfizer. But I found that staying at home was not for me. I felt a lot more fulfilled, I actually felt I was a better mother by getting out of the house and doing some work. My mother was living with me in East Lansing, and I told her I would love the opportunity to come to Troy with her a few days a week and learn the business. This was long before I actually took over my current role last October. And we really did not know that this is where it would lead.
So I started coming to work with mother a few days a week, and kind of learning the ropes, sitting in on meetings with the Directors. I could see she had a fabulous leadership team in place. That team has actually built the business to where it is now, under her guidance. It gave me an opportunity to learn things kind of behind the scenes.
So when the opportunity came for me to become more involved, I thought, I might not have all the experience in the world at this point, but I do have a passion for the business and with the great leadership team we have here,
We asked Lisette how the business was doing, and what keeps her up at night.
We are a little bit down from 2008, but we are optimistic. Obviously we are in a recession and we have taken a hit just like everyone else, but I think we have been lucky, quite frankly, to take as small a hit as we have. We actually do see some things turning around—we are getting some group lessons back that we had stopped getting because companies had scaled back, and we are getting some new contracts as well. We are actually quite optimistic for 2010. We think our growth is going to come in Europe, by the way.
What keeps me up at night? Besides my baby?? (laughter) It’s the amount of responsibility that is on me; it is my mother’s future, it is her retirement that she has put in my hands; but it is also all the people that work here. It is figuring out how to keep a good environment for them and keeping the company growing. I’m very proud of the fact that we did not cut back on benefits or our 401k match last year, and we did not lay anyone off, even with lower revenue. Because of those facts I can say that 2009 was really a big success for us.
I want to make my mother proud. I will not forget the fact that a lot of our current customers are built on my Mom’s relationships, you can trace them back to that. That is a testament to the type of person she is, to her entrepreneurship, and the kind of service the company has been delivering over 30 years under her leadership.