Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera
`No limits’ philosophy helps alumna triumph in business.
Bettina Rodriguez Aguilera’s life story reads like a cross between a Spanish-language telenovela and a manual on How to Succeed in Business. On the one hand, she has rebounded from personal hardships that include her father’s political imprisonment in Cuba and childhood poverty in a New York tenement. On the other, she has started her own companies, established a non-profit organization to assist aspiring businesswomen, worked in developing countries at the request of the U.S. government and received numerous awards for her efforts.
Despite having to overcome great odds, the 1979 FIU alumna relies on the most down-to-earth of philosophies to explain her triumph. “I’m a very positive person,” she says. “The bad things I go through I use as learning experiences.”The “bad things” began with Fidel Castro’s rise to power in Cuba. Little Bettina, her mother and her older brother moved into the family’s apartment in New York City in the late 1950s while her father tried to sell their businesses back home. Attempting to leave the country for the last time, he was arrested and sentenced to prison.
“For 14 years my mother dressed in black and waited for my father,” remembers Aguilera, who didn’t see her father again until the age of 17. In the intervening years, Aguilera and her family went from well-off to “dirt poor.” They moved out of their own place into a run-down section of New York, scraped by on public assistance and, when gangs started causing problems for her brother, relocated to Miami. The hardships only made her stronger.
“I’ve always felt that there are no limits,” says Aguilera, 42, who began working at age 13. Four years later, in need of money to attend FIU, she devised a clever business idea and began selling picture frames door-to-door. She eventually expanded the operation, hiring six employees. After graduating from FIU with a bachelor’s degree in social work- a field she entered due to the poor treatment she endured during childhood visits to the welfare office – Aguilera, now married and a mother, began a career with Miami-Dade County. She started working with clients at the Caleb Center, the district courthouse in the Liberty City neighborhood. For the next 17 years she served as a government spokesperson and trained county employees in the areas of customer service, marketing and crisis management.
Managing a personal crisis of her own, however, would have the greatest effect on Aguilera’s professional life. Following a medical leave without pay and going through a divorce, she set up shop as a professional troubleshooter. “I can solve anything,” she told doctors, lawyers, and business owners who paid her to secure loans, write business plans and do their leg work. She contacted accountants and other professionals for guidance when necessary, but primarily relied on “common sense.”
Aguilera has conducted training sessions on team building, conflict resolution and effective communications for executives at companies such as Lucent Technologies and Hewlett-Packard. She also leads grassroots advocacy programs, which teach people how to organize and effect change, in countries including Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Lithuania and trains entrepreneurship and economic principals.
Requests from women who looked to Aguilera for inspiration and advice prompted her in 1993 to found the New Women Entrepreneur Center, which offers courses and one-on-one counseling in both English and Spanish and produces a bilingual television program.
She has been selected, featured in Vanidades magazine in “ Han Triunfado”, Mujer magazine as “Mujer Fenomenal, had the Flag flown over the Capital recognizing her efforts in assisting other women as the Founder of the New Women Entrepreneur Center, “All my life I wanted to do exactly what I’m doing now,” says Aguilera, who in 1994 was honored as one of the nation’s top 22 Hispanic leaders by the National Hispana Leadership Institute. “I’m living my dream.” Alexandra Pecharich