How Latina Psychologist Dr. Angélica Pérez-Litwin Became a Catalyst to Change the Face of American Business
Latinas are one of the most sought-after consumer groups in the U.S. -- and with the demographic trends underway in the U.S., that influence is only going to grow into the future.
So why are Latinas currently less likely to be involved in the modern industries and entrepreneurial engines that are seeking to connect with that rising tide of consumers? What can be done to change that?
Those questions found their way to Dr. Angélica Pérez-Litwin, a New York-based Clinical Psychologist, Columbia University alumnus, and the oldest daughter of Dominican immigrants, who has taken her entrepreneurial bent and psychological training and created a platform to catalyze Latinas who "think big."
Latinas Think Big is the name of Pérez-Litwin's innovative platform and national community aimed at galvanizing professional and entrepreneurial Latinas around the United States. It connects and champions women -- especially Latina leaders -- to bring visions to life in the face of institutional, cultural, and professional barriers.
"While Latinas are one of the fastest growing minority business owners segments, the growth and scale of businesses are challenged by numerous factors, including lack of access to business resources, support, influential networks and investors," explained Dr. Pérez-Litwin in an interview with Latin Post. "We need to demystify the roadmap to successful business ownership, and connect Latinas to the human and financial capital they need to move their business to the highest level."
"This is exactly what Latinas Think Big aims to achieve for both entrepreneurial and professional Latinas," she added.
The Psychology of Empowerment
Her talent for "social entrepreneurism" as Dr. Pérez-Litwin calls it stem back to her upbringing, as well as her first career as a psychologist. When she was eight years old, her parents couldn't afford to rent an apartment big enough for the whole family, so she and her younger sister lived with their grandmother nearby. However, when her abuela later developed Multiple Sclerosis and became wheelchair-bound, Pérez-Litwin learned early what family responsibility meant.
"Taking care of my grandmother made me grow up fast. I was a parentified child who took on adult roles and made decisions at home that were beyond my age. I was responsible for keeping things under control, and taking care of everyone at home," she recounted. "Twenty years later, it was not a surprise to me, that I had become a Clinical Psychologist. Taking care of people's emotional wellbeing and empowering them was easy and natural for me."
You can see Dr. Pérez-Litwin's matriarchal side at Latinas Think Big events, where she is the central hub of a large and growing community of Latina thought leaders, professionals, and entrepreneurs.
Last year's Latinas Think Big Innovation Summit, sponsored in part by Google, showcased what Latinas had to offer as innovators and Latinas in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) careers. The Summit provided networking opportunities as well as discussions of best practices to advance their careers in Silicon Valley.
Perez-Litwin has held summits so far in New York City, LA, and most recently, at the epicenter for tech innovation: Google's own Mountain View campus.
Learning Career Latinas' Challenges, First-hand
If you're wondering why it's important to hold such events for professional Latinas, you're probably not as aware of barriers Latinas face.
"The reason why I personally understand the challenges that career-driven and professional Latinas face, is because of my professional experience as a psychologist, researcher and now social entrepreneur," Pérez-Litwin explained.
After completing her Clinical Psychology PhD, Dr. Pérez-Litwin went on to start a private practice, but also took roles at institutions, where she experienced some of the limitations she now helps other Latinas overcome.
"One very common experience for Latinas, especially bilingual ones, is to be pigeonholed into servicing Latino clients, or being invited to head a committee for Latino students at an academic institution," said Pérez-Litwin, mentioning that those positions are often officially on a volunteer basis or simply not very highly valued. "They are surely not a means to scaling up to a C-suite," she joked.
"And, of course, there is institutional bias around women of color, in terms of how they are perceived and the types of opportunities they are offered at work."
Finally, "being a professional Latina in corporate America, in a large tech company or in academia, is very isolating," said Pérez-Litwin. "There is tremendous lack of role models, mentors and sponsors for us, Latinas.
"I have experienced ALL of these barriers, and have had to make tough career choices to circumvent their detrimental impact on my career," she added
That's when Dr. Pérez-Litwin decided to leave the corporate/academic institutions and establish her private practice full-time, a situation she's found in common with many Latina leaders. "Leaving corporate America or academia for entrepreneurship is a path that many, many Latinas have had to take," she remarked.
From a Blog to a Movement
Having been an entrepreneur as early as 10 years old -- she used to purchase jewelry and other products wholesale and sell them to family and neighborhood women "to make a commission" -- private practice was a good fit. But within a few years, Pérez-Litwin began to hear another entrepreneurial calling.
"It was back in 2008 that I learned about the blogosphere for the very first time. That changed my career forever," she said.
"I saw the blogosphere as this wide-open platform from where to express yourself, voice your opinion, and demonstrate thought leadership. In 2010, I launched NewLatina.net to bring the conversation topics I was having in private practice with ambitious and accomplished Latinas that were coming to see me," she continued. "NewLatina.net was the first digital platform exclusively focused on personal/career development for bicultural Latinas. My goal was to elevate the conversation and content available to Latinas online."
New Latina was well received, and found a readership of Latinas looking for an authentic take on being a bicultural, professional Latina. But she soon realized it wasn't enough.
"After launching NewLatina.net in 2010, I began to receive dozens of emails and messages from Latinas asking me to meet with them for lunch, so they could meet me, connect with me, see me, and share their stories of ambition and their dreams," recounded Dr. Pérez-Litwin. "They also wanted my guidance and mentorship," she said. "The urgency of these many requests for a face-to-face meeting helped me realize that no amount of written content, reports, or advice was sufficient to help empower these women.
"Their pain point was isolation"
Dr. Pérez-Litwin saw Latinas grappling with two kinds of isolation: at work -- often being the only Latina in the department or the entire institution -- and the cultural isolation of being bicultural women. "They often feel they live between two worlds and two cultures, not fully belonging to one or another," she explained.
That need to connect for in-person support and networking has ultimately led to Latinas Think Big, which brings together innovative Latinas at big tech companies and institutions like Google and Columbia University.
Latinas Think Big has attracted crowds of Latinas from different career tracks -- entrepreneurs, academics, technologists, Latinas with doctorates, businesswomen -- all to support each other and collectively announce that the old cultural expectations of "Latinas" are not only wrong, they're actively being demolished.
Along the way, Dr. Pérez-Litwin has become a guru on what social, psychological, and institutional barriers face Latinas, and what needs to be done about it.
Debugging the System for Latinas in Tech
From internalized psychological expectations to the structure of startup accelerators, Dr. Pérez-Litwin's focus is on finding, dissecting, and then fixing any and all antiquated obstacles that remain in the path of Latinas' success.
For example, on startup accelerators: "The percent of women, especially Latinas, that get into these programs in absolutely dismal," said Dr. Pérez-Litwin.
But she has ideas to make them more open to Latinas. "One of the barriers for women, especially Latinas, who place a high value on families, is the expectation of an in-house participation during the accelerator time period," she explained.
"This could mean a three-month relocation to another city, not to mention the costs associated with this temporary relocation." On top of that, for Latinas holding salaried positions at companies while trying to get a startup off the ground, "many just don't have the financial backing to leave," she added.
Hence one of Dr. Pérez-Litwin's many essays on Huffington Post, "Rewriting the Innovation Code for Latinas in Technology," where she suggests several ways to debug the tech startup accelerator model, including:
- Creating an online, asynchronous platform to "bring the incubator/accelerator to her"
- Offering flexible programs that take into account Latinas busy lives instead of hewing only to a "one size fits all" 12-week schedule
- Creating "pre-incubators" that offer early access, mentoring, and even a little seed funding through colleges, for creative people who aren't familiar yet with the technology business ecosystem.
"I am not sure these constraints or problems are constricted only to tech startups," said Dr. Pérez-Litwin. Nor are they only problems in the technology industry as a whole.
Raising the profile of professional Latinas is an incredibly big task to try to tackle. If you've seen the following graph before, displaying the contours of the gap in full-time wage and salary workers in the U.S. (from U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics), you'll know just how big.
That's from 2010. While disparities have lessened in their intensity, if you memorize the progression of salaries from top (Asian American and White men) to bottom (Latinas), you now know how that graph has looked since the government began tracking it decades ago.
Undaunted by the scope of the challenge, Dr. Pérez-Litwin remains fiercely optimistic.
"We can't undo, overnight, the current state of affairs," she said of the lack of diversity in the technology industry, an industry that is expected to continue to explode in terms of the number of jobs and pay into the next decades."We need to be patient, but deliberately focused on making sure that we, as a country, are doing everything we can to prepare Latinos and other people of color to access those 10 million jobs that will become available in technology, by 2020."
Dr. Pérez-Litwin is just getting started playing her part in that, and she gave Latin Post a preview of what's next for Latinas Think Big.
"I am excited to announce that Latinas Think Big is expanding this year," she told Latin Post. "We are launching regional communities around the country for professional and entrepreneurial Latinas, starting with San Francisco and New york City."
"We are growing these regional communities through bimonthly afterwork gatherings, bringing together innovators, entrepreneurs and professionals across all sectors," she detailed. "The aim of these supportive and educational communities is to connect, advance and champion innovative Latinas. At the core of these dynamic regional communities is the belief that we need to leverage an entrepreneurial mindset and innovative approaches to achieve success at work, in business and in life."
Along with new regional communities, Latinas Think Big is also growing its online presence. "Women across the country, and beyond, will be able to watch recordings of all bimonthly events, which include sit-down interviews, expert panels, and the Latinas Think Big Signature lightning talks by trailblazing Latinas," said Dr. Pérez-Litwin "Leveraging technology to achieve national reach is significantly important for advancing the careers and ventures of Latinas."
"Ultimately," said Dr. Pérez-Litwin, "Latinas Think Big is about forging a new economy for Latinas, which will undeniably impact the economic prosperity and wellbeing of this country."