Born in Mexico to a Panamanian mother, Avec Guadalupe O’Brien imagined herself growing up to be a great many things, none of which involved produce. O’Brien is now living in Michigan, where she balances an executive role with Mastronardi Produce/SUNSET, family life, and mentorships.
When growing up in Mexico City, O’Brien wanted to be everything from an astronaut to the lead vocalist in a jazz band.
“These were all girl dreams,” she says. “But as I got closer to an age when I needed to make a career decision, I realized I had strong math skills and that I also liked studying law. I thought it would be great to try and combine both paths.”
Most Mexican women at the time that she was growing up were focused primarily on being good wives and mothers, not professionals. And, O’Brien remarks, “that wasn’t that long ago.” In her home, however, it was a different story.
“My mom was the first person in her family to go to college,” O’Brien says. “She came to Mexico from Panama on a scholarship and understood the value of education. ‘An education is the only inheritance that I can give you,’ she would tell me.”
O’Brien earned a college degree in business administration, with an emphasis in accounting from el Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México. After joining a major global public accounting firm in Mexico City, O’Brien set herself another goal: continue her education in the United States.
“I had a fabulous mentor, Adolfo Medina Haro, who had studied in the United States and encouraged me to follow my dream,” she says. “I applied and was accepted to the University of Michigan School of Business and came with the idea of getting an MBA and returning to Mexico, since there was so much to do in my country.”
When O’Brien arrived in Michigan, she wanted to do more than just study business, she wanted to learn a new culture. Though she found that most of her classmates hung out with people who spoke their own language and had similar interests, she immediately began to mingle with the community at large. She also joined a church choir, which happened to be a turning point in her life: it was where she met Joe O’Brien, who would become her husband. They got married and she decided to stay in the United States.
“You have to be ready to change your plans,” she says. “You need to have a dream, a goal, because that gives you the strength to persevere when things aren’t going as planned, but you have to be flexible. Your dream becomes your compass and it will help you chart your own path, even when your journey takes you to different places.”
Now, the couple has two sons and O’Brien feels that she has found her place in the world.
After graduation, in 2002, she became a manager in the assurance and enterprise risk services practice of Deloitte & Touche and would later become a certified public accountant.
In 2007, she first heard about the Association of Latino Professionals for America (ALPFA) and, along with some of her colleagues, decided to open a local chapter in Michigan. O’Brien was elected the first chapter president in 2008. She is currently on ALPFA’s National Board of Directors.
Through her ALPFA connections, she later became the CFO of the Detroit Science Center, a nonprofit organization, where she worked until 2011. “My work with them provided me with a great opportunity to learn and grow, but after it closed I realized I needed to reinvent myself,” she says. “I understood that I could work in a for-profit company and then help nonprofits from a board. That’s when I took a job a Mastronardi.”
A Pioneer of Sustainability
Mastronardi Produce is a Canadian-based company, considered the pioneer of the North American greenhouse industry. Established over sixty years ago, the family-owned business has become a world leader in greenhouse produce, specializing in tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, and strawberries, with distribution across North America and as far as Asia. Over the years, Mastronardi’s brand SUNSET has become a household name for its produce, and can be found in grocery stores across North America. The company has also won a number of sustainability and greenhouse competition awards.
“The company is passionate about innovation, holds itself to the highest quality standards, and gives back to the community in so many ways. I couldn’t think of any other place that could so closely align to my own personal values.”
As the company’s US and Mexico controller, O’Brien is responsible for the financial affairs of the organization and focuses on a broad range of financial, operational, strategic, and executive leadership issues impacting the organization in the United States and Mexico. She also works closely with the CFO in Canada.
“The company is passionate about innovation, holds itself to the highest quality standards, and gives back to the community in so many ways,” she says. “I couldn’t think of any other place that could so closely align to my own personal values.”
Throughout the years, O’Brien has discovered that she has a passion to inspire other people, particularly Latinas. She says she makes it a point to make herself available as a mentor.
“I don’t want people to say, ‘You changed my life,’ but instead say, ‘Your story made me realize that I can change my own life!’” O’Brien says. “I want others to know that it is possible to dream and make your dreams come true, even if you have no other tools than your passion, your commitment, and your determination to succeed, because it doesn’t matter where you begin, what matters is where you end.”