In terms of skill and qualifications, Elizabeth Oliver-Farrow was similar on paper to anyone else in the communications industry when she started her career. Then she hit a glass ceiling. It quickly became apparent that, for a woman from the South Bronx born to Puerto Rican immigrants, prejudices are not so easily discarded.
“Being from the South Bronx, I experienced prejudices that made me even more determined to achieve my goals,” Oliver-Farrow says. “As a kid, I knew I wanted to be in business, though I wasn’t yet sure what that meant.”
Rather than remain trapped under corporate expectations, Oliver-Farrow decided to strike out independently. She had limited financing options, but a keen insight and sheer determination would propel her to found three companies, including The Oliver Group, Inc., where she currently serves as president and CEO.
The Small Business Administration reported in 2013 that Hispanics were opening businesses at a rate three times higher than the national average. Oliver-Farrow has more than 40 years of experience in public relations, marketing, and production. She has also served on several corporate boards and nonprofits, such as the USHCC, Care First, Inc., and the NEA Foundation. As a recognized leader both in the Hispanic community and in her industry, she believes many Hispanics open their own businesses because, like her, they want to bypass the corporate ladder and achieve their dreams.
“Challenges within the corporate structure may obstruct access to the top [for Hispanics], because they may lack the right credentials or networking opportunities,” Oliver-Farrow explains.
People of color face challenges that are often compounded for minority women like Oliver-Farrow. Women are perceived to focus more on family than on work and have a relatively short history in the American business climate. Oliver-Farrow remembers a meeting she attended at the Pentagon in which her client assumed she was the company secretary.
“To the brigadier general’s surprise, the officers introduced me as their boss. That was a classic moment!” she says. “But this has happened often throughout my career as a business owner.”
Oliver-Farrow advises young entrepreneurs who want to mimic her success to find a field about which they are passionate and ask themselves key questions about who their competitors and customers could be. Another important consideration for prospective business owners to keep in mind is their idea of success. Many millennials value work-life balance more than generations before them, which Oliver-Farrow defines as a healthy goal. Her advice is simply to be aware that their definition and expectation of success may vary from that of their senior coworkers.
Finally, entrepreneurs must build a relationship with the banker helping them secure financing. Oliver-Farrow advises business owners to keep bankers apprised of advances, contract wins, and financial revenue projections based on real data. That back-and-forth proved invaluable for Oliver-Farrow when she financed her first business using credit cards, and it continues to serve her now. “Refine your skills, and continue to learn. I never went to college,” she adds, “but I never stopped learning.”