Rags To Riches
This month, we’re celebrating women, but I didn’t want to write about just any women. I wanted to share real-life Cinderella stories of women who’ve had it hard from the get-go, who’ve had the cards stacked against them simply because of their roots. Yet, instead of succumbing to their challenges, they rose above and came out on top. These women went from rags to riches because they didn’t give up.
We’ve all heard of the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world who were born into comfortable, well-educated families. We can recite their life stories in our sleep. But instead of repeating the successes born out of Harvard dorm rooms and parents’ garages, I thought I’d give readers a glimpse into some real, hard-won battles by two inspiring women who migrated to the United States as children, learned English, overcame poverty, became single mothers, and transformed themselves into successful business women despite all odds. These are the inspiring stories of Silvia Norman and Lucy Santos.
The Early Years
Silvia Norman is an executive at Wells Fargo Bank with nearly forty years’ experience in banking. It is a career she truly started to build the week her husband left her for another woman. But her uphill battle didn’t start there.
Born in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1954, Ms. Norman was the oldest of eight children. A complicated labor and delivery left her with serious birth injuries that damaged the vision and hearing on her right side. She could have let these disabilities beat her down and keep her living a mediocre life, but she chose to rise above and set the bar higher for herself.
To this day, she still has difficulty seeing in her right eye and it took forty years and four eye surgeries before she could finally get the one thing she wanted her whole life: a driver license. But even before she could drive, she didn’t let her disabilities stop her from working, going to college, and being a dedicated mother.
“Ladies look at me and think, ‘Oh, she’s successful. She was lucky.’ No, I used to watch TV sitting in front. My brothers and sisters would get mad that I was hogging the TV, but I couldn’t hear it,” she says. Ms. Norman says her parents still treated her just like their other seven kids. “I couldn’t get a license and I couldn’t hear a lot of things, but I didn’t know I was missing a lot.”
Ms. Norman said she wanted her daughter to have everything, so she she worked hard to make that happen. Sometimes, it was difficult. She didn’t want to have to take the bus and sometimes she had to walk alone at night. “It was scary, but I survived it. If you put your mind to it, you can do it.”
A lot of people don’t know that she doesn’t see and hear well, even after her eye surgeries. But she doesn’t let that stop her. Just like she didn’t let not knowing a word of English stop her from realizing her true potential.
Immigrating to the United States
Ms. Norman arrived in the United States at the age of twelve. Her parents uprooted their family of ten from their native Argentina so their children could have the chance to go to school, have a better life, and avoid dealing with the same struggles they did. They also wanted to escape all the political unrest back home. Coming to America was no piece of cake. Ms. Norman describes her first year in the United States as “horrible” because she didn’t speak English and she didn’t know a soul.
They had left all of their friends and family behind in Argentina, now the kids were acclimating to a foreign country, trying desperately to earn extra money to help support the struggling family, and learn the language so they could eventually go to school with kids their age.
“We didn’t go to school the first year. My dad would go to work and we would get up super early to deliver newspapers to earn extra money.” In the evenings, her father would tear a page out of the paper and have the kids translate it to Spanish. “We’d write a little story in English, what the article was about. He had this big blackboard and that’s how we learned.”
Each night, the children would spend an hour reading, then they’d watch TV for two hours in English. The schools wanted to put the kids behind, but their dad didn’t want that. So, the children learned English in one short year.
Ms. Norman’s father was very strict and allowed little Spanish in the home. “My dad said, “If you don’t learn English, you can’t go to school and you can’t be successful.” At the age of twenty-one, she officially became a US citizen because she wanted the ability to vote and she wanted to have a voice, which she made sure was heard loud and clear during her days as the chair of the Utah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Lucy Santos, also immigrated to the United States. Born in El Salvador, today she owns Elegant Universal Stone Inc. with her husband, a custom granite, quartz, and marble countertops fabricator and installer, but her childhood was a struggle from day one.
As a little girl growing up in El Salvador, her mother would sell food items to help make ends meet, “A market kind of thing,” says Ms. Santos. Meanwhile, her father was in construction but work was sporadic. Growing up, it was a daily battle for her folks to put food on the table, clothes on the kids’ backs, and a roof over their heads.
Even after packing up the family when Ms. Santos was four-years-old and moving to Los Angeles for a better life, the family continued to live in poverty throughout her childhood. “I only had two outfits,” she recalls.
Growing Up in Gang Territory
All her parents could afford for the family of five was a tiny studio apartment in the heart of Los Angeles and it was located deep in the middle of gang territory. She lived in one of those neighborhoods where you don’t walk around at night. As a girl, Ms. Santos would walk home from school wondering if she’d make it home alive. “The gangs bothered me every day,” she says.
When other young Latinas her age were happily celebrating their Quinceañeras―the celebration of a girl’s 15th birthday and her passage to womanhood―Ms. Santos was shipped off to live with her aunt in Utah so she wouldn’t run around with a gang member who had set his sights on her.
Becoming A Teen Mom
After her parents sent her away, she felt so alone without her family, though she still had her aunt. She managed to settle into her new life and while attending high school in Utah, met a boy and became pregnant. But instead of dropping out of school like so many teen moms do, she enrolled in adult school, and dead set on graduating, she brought her infant son with her.
“Because it was an adult school, they’d give you packets to finish. I’d have breaks at work around 7 PM and that’s how I’d do my packet. I didn’t have a car, so I’d have to ride the bus. I’d do my homework on the bus at 11 PM. It’s hard but when you’re in that spot, you just do it,” she says. At her graduation ceremony, Ms. Santos had to have somebody hold her baby so she could accept her certificate. Her parents didn’t attend her graduation. At that time, she says she was in her “own little world.”
When Ms. Santos was twenty-one, she developed a kidney infection and ended up in a coma for two weeks. “One of my kidneys was trying to fail.” When she was released from the hospital, the single mom was all by herself. She didn’t even have a ride home―no friends or family to pick her up.
Climbing the Corporate Ladder
For both of these women, getting started in the working world was a challenge.
As a Latina in the banking industry in the 1970s and 1980s, it was very difficult for Ms. Norman to climb the corporate ladder, especially during an era when the workforce was very male dominated. “Entering management, it was difficult being a woman. You have to work harder. You have to prove yourself so the men will accept you. Now, it’s more of a woman’s world than it was when I started thirty years ago.”
Ms. Norman never thought that she’d be where she is today. She credits her mentors for helping her make it, the very first being her high school Spanish teacher, Ms. Elder. She’d say, “Silvia, you’re playing around too much. Have you thought about what you’re going to do?” Ms. Elder told her she was not going to achieve her dreams if she didn’t get better grades and that stuck with her.
The day her life turned around was the day her alcoholic husband left her and her young daughter so he could chase after younger women. “I was working part-time. I was crying. My manager said to me, ‘I’m going to help you.’ He told me to take the week off, but when I came back on Monday, I was to start full-time and he was going to train me to be a manager. He taught me so much about time, managing people, how to listen, how to stay in control, and how not to get upset.”
From that day forward, Ms. Norman’s career at Wells Fargo has blossomed. She’s since won numerous awards and been named as one of the “30 Women to Watch” and “The United States Hispanic Chamber Business Advocate of the Year.”
Ms. Norman’s advice to immigrant women is to learn English, and for all women, to find a mentor and always be patient. She advises against jumping from one job to another and to instead asking how you can improve your career path to get to the next level. “Don’t be afraid to ask someone in a higher position to be your mentor, don’t be afraid to ask how they can help you.”
Ms. Norman also believes in giving back to help your employees and your community. “Ladies can be so catty with each other. Sometimes, we need to stop and listen. If somebody’s struggling, help that person. Give back what others have given you.”
Realizing the American Dream
Similarly, Ms. Santos had to come up with a way to overcome her circumstances. When her son was almost two-years old and she was working full-time, she met the love of her life. Ms. Santos was working in sales and accounting for a company at the time, two skills that would come in handy when she later took the leap to entrepreneurship. During this period, her husband was working for a contractor who never paid him, she says. So, she convinced her husband to quit and suggested they be adventurous and start their own company.
During the startup phase, Ms. Santos would work right next to her husband. “Believe it or not, I would carry big pieces of rocks so I could learn the job, understand what I was selling, what he was communicating, and what the job required. I would install with him, and polish the pieces of granite to accomplish what was needed.”
When the couple first got together, they bought a small house but later sold it to help fund their business. They used the proceeds from the sale to buy equipment to get their business off the ground. “We bought a forklift and the tools my husband needed, and we kept a little so we had cash flow.” In the early days, her husband would work in a 700-square foot warehouse while Ms. Santos would be home on the phone, cold calling and selling contractors.
Today, the company Ms. Santos and her husband built, Elegant Universal Stone, works with apartment complexes, maintenance companies, contractors, and big contractors. Right now, they’re working on a museum. “We grew little by little in the last twelve years, but we still know where we come from.”
Ms. Santos says that we all have dreams but if we don’t allow ourselves to work hard at them, they’ll never get accomplished. “When I was younger, this was always in my mind: I’m going through this struggle right now, but if I don’t do anything about it, it’s not going to change. I knew I was struggling as a single mom, but I thought of how I could change it. For me, it was all about doing. I’d have this goal, how was I going to achieve it?”
She tells her kids not to just have dreams, but to ask themselves what steps are they going to take to make them happen. She has them write their goals on paper. “The action…. it’s the hard thing to do because it requires physical and emotional everything. When I started the business, I knew I wanted a better life. Since I was sixteen, I knew I wanted to finish school even though I had a baby, but I still needed to be my own person.”
After the recession when their business was doing much better, she wanted to buy a building, but she wondered what she’d have to do to get a building. She did the research and learned she needed money for a down payment. She didn’t hesitate. With her eyes on the prize, she worked on it until she got it done. And in November 2017, they got their building.
“Ever since I was younger, if I didn’t do it by myself, nobody would do it for me. When you’re struggling, you have to get out of it, or you will still struggle because you don’t change those things that bother you.”