The Defining Generation
Defining the Role of the Sexes
Linda G. Alvarado
pero piensa muy grande."
THIS was the philosophy by which Lilly Martinez and her husband Luther raised their family of six children in a small but comfortable Albuquerque, New Mexico home. That mantra, which translates "start small but think big", would ultimately be validated by the one child in the family which society might have deemed the least likely of the sextet to build and head a multi-million dollar construction company and even purchase a professional sports team.
"Small" certainly echoed the simple pleasures the Martinez family enjoyed. Their adobe home, built by Luther's own hand, didn't even feature running water and in the winter a wood stove provided the only heat. In addition to the domestic demands of six children, Lilly took in loads of laundry from others in the neighborhood to supplement the modest income of Luther's job with the Atomic Energy Commission. Though the absence of indoor plumbing forced her to haul buckets of water from a nearby drainage ditch, Lilly Martinez never complained. "My mother had a great attitude about work," recalls her only daughter Linda. "She had a strong work ethic." It was an observation not lost on any of the Martinez children, but which became especially meaningful to Linda.
By contemporary standards
the Martinez family was pretty much like the vast majority of traditional
American families of the 1950s. Dad was the breadwinner, mom was the
domestic partner who cared for the home and supplemented the family budget
with a modest income from washing and ironing for others. Linda recalls
that "Mom worked so we wouldn't have to." The primary
responsibility of the five adolescent boys and their single sister was to
attend school and get good grades. Towards that end they were expected to
echo the same work ethic they saw in their parents. "There were high
expectations in school that not only would you bring home an
"A", but you would tell (mom and dad) what you had
learned," Linda remembers.
Along with the work expected of each family member: dad's income-producing job, mom's domestic duties, and the kids' attention to study, the Martinez family still made time for recreational diversions. Conspicuous among these was the family's love of baseball. On the professional level baseball had yielded unprecedented opportunities for Hispanic athletes to complete, succeed, and become role models. On a more simple level, Luther played for a local team and while the children were younger, a typical family outing was an afternoon at the ball field to cheer for dad. As the children grew older they too began playing baseball. Luther and Lilly found through sports activities the means of teaching their children the value of competition. Decades later while recalling her success in the business world Linda remember, "The competitive environment with my brothers taught me about teamwork and the importance of taking risks. You can never get to second base if you keep your foot safely on first. I also realized that even if you strike out, you still get another turn at bat."[i]
Despite a simple lifestyle, the Martinez boys and sole daughter were all encouraged to dream BIG. In contrast to a 1950s societal attitude that a girl was to find fulfillment in life in the domestic roles of wife and mother, a gender prejudice that was perhaps even more acute in the Hispanic culture that praised machismo, Luther and Lilly refused to narrow the focus of their daughter's dreams for the future. She was expected to achieve no less than her brothers. She played ball with the boys, and her father even allowed her to sate her mechanical interests by tinkering with the family automobile.
In High School Linda ran track, played soccer, became captain of her soft ball team, and lettered in the latter as well as in volleyball and basketball. It was quite an achievement, especially in basketball. Linda stood only 5'5" tall. More importantly however, she applied the work ethic she had learned from her mother to her academic studies and graduated from Sandia High School with an academic scholarship.
After graduation, Linda Martinez enrolled at Pomona College in Claremont, California, to pursue a degree in economics. Though that choice of study was not uncommon among many of the young girls of her generation entering college in the 1960s, the work-study position for which she subsequently applied certainly was NOT a traditional role for a woman, especially for a diminutive one like Linda Martinez. For the young girl from New Mexico who had grown up in a house full of boys it was not the act of a feminist activist, or even a rebellion against traditional stereotypes. Rather, Linda's decision was based quite simply on her desire to work at a job she enjoyed, rather than being forced into a position that held no personal appeal for her.
At that time there were two job offerings posted on the college bulletin board, one for kitchen service and the other to work as a landscape assistant at the new botanical gardens. "I knew I didn't want to do food service and I thought, 'Well you know, working outside might be a good thing,' because my little brother and I had this lawn mowing service growing up--which we were very bad at probably--but the neighbors were very kind to us and paid us anyway. So I went to apply for the job and they said, 'What are you doing here?' and I said 'Well, I came to apply for the job.' They said, 'No, you don't understand. Girls work food service. Boys do landscaping.'
"So they sent me back for counseling. But I came back the next day and I said, 'I really would like to apply for the job,' and they said, 'What are you doing here?' Well, this guy finally told me, 'Okay, come back tomorrow.' And I think two things: he thought either I would quit because I wouldn't be able to do the job, or perhaps he thought he could make me quit." [ii]
Whatever the motivation of the man who interviewed Linda Martinez for her first job outside home, he was wrong on both counts. Linda loved working out doors and felt quite at home in a male-dominated environment that mirrored her youth. Hard work didn't concern her; rather it fed the ethic she had learned from her parents. When she graduated from Pomona she knew she was happiest when she could dress in jeans, work outside in the sunshine, and enjoy the accomplishment of a physically demanding job.
Returning to New Mexico however, Linda soon learned that in the early 1970s there were few such positions for a woman. She got as close as she could by taking various jobs in the construction industry. Most of her duties were on-site support roles, somewhat more suitable for a lady, but vastly removed from where Linda wanted to be. From behind the glass windows of the site offices she could only watch ground being turned, girders being raised majestically and eventually, where there had once been nothing she saw the emergence of a magnificent building. "When a super structure went up, it was to me a great sense of the creative process, that ended up with this structure of great permanence and beauty," she told American Dreams in 2003.[iii]
In the mid '70s the world of construction remained one of the great bastions of male dominance in industry, but Linda's hard work provided expanded areas of responsibility as she transitioned from calculator to hard hat. Her's was not always a welcome advancement; many of the men who spent their days in the truly-masculine realm of building imposing structures resented the intrusion into their world of the petite woman with a ready smile and a "CAN DO!" attitude towards life in general and construction in particular. Occasionally some of the men gave vent to their dissatisfaction with the lady in a hard hat, in actions that now might quickly bring a company a law suit, but that back then were considered the "occupational hazards" of a woman trying to enter a man's world. "The restrooms were quite an experience," she recalled for the Albuquerque Tribune. "I'd find drawings there of myself, in various situations of undress…But always wearing my hard hat."[iv]
During those early years of Linda's work in the construction industry she observed and learned most aspects of the business, advancing to the title "Project Engineer". While she loved the work outside the office, she never forgot the importance of the work behind a construction project and began taking additional classes. She now credits her immediate interest in computers as a business tool, and subsequent classes on how to make them work for her, as being a major part of her subsequent business success. By 1967 she felt she was ready to establish her own construction business.
"When I entered the (construction) business, I didn't start out to prove a point," she said in a 2007 interview. "I just became enamored with constructing buildings."[v] The fact that she had also seen from the inside the markups that resulted in substantial profits for a business owner as opposed to the daily salary of an employee also motivated her to seek her own niche. She drafted a business plan and set out to build her own construction company. It was not be an easy transition.
"Although Hispanics have always been on construction sites, we were viewed as laborers and craftsmen, not as company owners. And if women were on construction sites at all, it was as secretaries in the job-site trailers," Linda says. She found herself confronted both by the "brick wall" that had long excluded ethnic minorities from meaningful roles in business, and the "glass ceiling" that prevented women from advancement. Refusing to be limited by stereotypes or traditional barriers she pressed forward with the philosophy "It’s important not how other people see us, but how we perceive ourselves in achieving our goals.”
Her positive attitude and outlook aside, even starting small was a difficult task for a young woman who was thinking big. "I had this great little business plan, and had this blue suit, and went to several banks and was rejected by all of them…six banks," she told American Dreams.[vi] In the end Luther and Lilly mortgaged their house for $2,500 to help their daughter launch her business, and Alvarado Construction was incorporated in 1976. Their actions, while appreciated, placed upon Linda a new sense of responsibility to succeed. Hanging in the balance was not only her own dreams, but the very security of her parents. Linda's work ethic did not need the extra incentive; her drive to not only succeed but to be a leader had been ingrained in her personality as a young girl.
With a practical wisdom she started small: simple paving jobs, erecting bus stops, curbs and gutters, while at night she dreamed of building high-rises. Her dreams were in sharp contrast to reality; there remained few women in the field of construction (only 1% of the employees in that field were women) and NO women were employed even at the mid-levels of the business, much less as the owner. As a practical matter she began signing her initials, rather than her name, on job proposals because she did not want them to be ignored because of her gender. "Because there can be so much harassment in this business, I had to hold on to a mental state," she told Hispanic Trends in a 2003 cover story. "I had to strongly believe that because something had not been done before, it was no reason that it couldn't be done at all. In life you'll meet people who embrace your dreams, and those who will try to stop you. You have to let the discouraging things roll off and stay focused."[vii]
"Being an optimist by nature, this gave me some sense of personal mission to show that women could succeed in this field. You have to smile, because what people are looking for when (a contractor walks) in the room is somebody six-foot-five and burley. And in reality, I'm five foot five."[viii]
While Linda focused on her job and built her dreams, others were focusing on her. In 1978 she was asked to sit on the Board of Norwest Bank. Here, it was more her youth than either her ethnicity or her gender that made the offer surprising. At the time she was only 27 years old.
Alvarado Construction prospered and grew under its owner and in the early 1980s Linda, her husband, and the couple's three children moved to Denver. It was in Denver that at last her dreams of major construction projects was realized, perhaps far beyond what she or her parents could have ever imagined. Today, Alvarado Construction has hundreds of employees and fulfills construction contracts worth millions of dollars each year. Among the brick and mortar tributes to Linda's dreams are the Denver International Airport, the Colorado Convention Center, and even Invesco Field at Mile High Stadium where the Denver Broncos play their home games. In a most appropriate irony, whereas her own participation in sports taught Linda Alvarado to "step up to the plate" and be a competitor in the business world, realizing her dreams returned her to the world of sports.
If the story of Linda Alvarado ended on that note it would still be an inspiring story and a text book example for other women, for Hispanics, and in fact for ALL Americans regardless of race or gender to wish to emulate. With Linda Alvarado however, the dream does not end there.
While expanding Alvarado Construction in Denver Linda was building a strip mall when she approached Taco Bell Restaurants about becoming an anchor tenant. When the construction was finished she sold the shopping center but retained ownership of the restaurant noting later, "I learned a valuable lesson: She who controls the land controls the deal."
With that small start in the fast-food industry, Linda launched a second company, Palo Alto, Inc. which now numbers more than 150 Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Kentucky Fried Chicken franchises. Linda serves as president of the company while her husband Robert serves as CEO and chairman of the highly successful Palo Alto endeavor.
As was the case fifteen years earlier in New Mexico when Norwest bank saw in Linda an entrepreneur and savvy bossiness mind, in the early 1990s her success was being quietly observed by Denver business leaders. In 1991 major league baseball began an expansion and initiated a proposal for interested cities to bid for one of two new teams. It was an opportunity the city of Denver was eager to engage; for decades local sports fans had proven uncommonly loyal to their Denver Broncos, even during loosing years. So too, the city and in fact entire state of Colorado, was proud and supportive of its professional basket ball team, the Nuggets. Prospects of at last bringing professional baseball to Denver attracted serious interest from the Governor's office to the penthouses of the city's most successful entrepreneurs.
Progress in the effort was monitored by people across the state from boardrooms to barrios, with the intense hope that professional baseball might soon come to the Rocky Mountains. Six of the city's most successful businessmen united to prepare an impressive proposal for the $95 million franchise, while further bolstering that effort with an unprecedented move. Those highly-placed enterprendures eagerly sought to recruit Denver's most successful businesswoman, Linda Alvarado.
It was an opportunity she could not resist, partially because of her childhood interest in baseball. "I was attracted to baseball ownership because it is a sport that I enjoy," she says. "It is also significant to mention that I was also drawn to this sport because of the great number of outstanding Latino players. Baseball is truly a sport in which Hispanics excel."
In her successful efforts to bring Professional Baseball to Denver, Linda Alvarado became the first Hispanic, male or female, to become OWNER of a professional sports franchise. She was NOT the first woman to be so involved; other women had held the title co-owner of a professional team as the result of their marriage or familial relationship to a male owner. But when Linda Alvarado invested her own money to purchase the Colorado Rockies she did become the first women to ever claim an ownership stake in a professional team by virtue of the money she had earned herself.
As a true entrepreneur however, Linda's decision to invest her hard-earned money to bring professional baseball to Colorado was also a shrewd business decision. "As a business owner, there is also great value in business development opportunities and marketing initiatives through ties with professional sports. For example, current and prospective clients have the opportunity to sit on the front row of the dugout or take batting practice with the team. It is priceless and unparalleled experience, and one that my competitors cannot replicate. Baseball tickets and sports memorabilia are also used as incentives for my employees and their families."[ix]
Linda has received numerous awards and accolades for her personal achievement. She is recipient of the 2001 Horatio Alger Award, she was twice named "National Business Woman of the Year" by the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and has been identified as one of the 10 Most Influential Women in Denver and one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics (of either gender) in America. She sits on the Boards of several Fortune 500 companies.
Of her success in shattering the "glass ceiling" in the sports world, she says, "I had not anticipated the national and international news this 'first' would generate. It was viewed as a significant breakthrough and created great feelings of pride for women and Hispanics in this non-traditional role."
Her achievements are indeed amazing, perhaps more so because her status as the woman who broke down barriers and paved the way for future generations was NOT a role she had dreamed or attempted to cast for herself. Linda became a leader and successful business woman simply by her desire and efforts follow her own dreams, unencumbered by stereotype or traditions that had limited young women and Hispanics for generations. She admits today that because her mother did the traditional housework in order to free up her children to concentrate on an education, this is one area in which she has not achieved. To Robert Alvarado has fallen the equally non-traditional role (for men) of supervising that area of responsibility.
Indeed, her non-traditional achievements aside, in the things that matter most Linda Alvarado remains very much a traditionalist. She is a dedicated wife, the mother of three, and gives prominence to her spiritual side, ascribing much of her success to her faith and principles. When asked her definition of the American Dream by the publication of the same title, she responded, "I think the American Dream is a genderless and raceless dream. It is a changing vision and a changing dream as well. It is looking forward. It is saying, at least in my own case, that there will be a balance between the spiritual side as well as the business and intellectual side."[x]
She is also a woman who
looks beyond her own success or her responsibilities today as a role model
for others. The Colorado Women's Hall of Fame into which she has been
inducted notes that when Linda was designated as a Sara Lee Front
Runner, she donated her $25,000 honorarium to the International
Women's Forum for scholarships for women. In that single act she returned
ten-fold the "bridge money" from her parents that launched her
own career more than a decade earlier.
Linda also enjoys sharing her success with the young. At a Rockies home opener she treated nearly 150 inner-city kids do a day at the ball park, as well as a guided tour of the stadium by one of the team's owners. That practice continues, both at Coors Field and on Alvarado Construction work sites. "I want them (children) to see themselves maybe being owner of a major league team one day," she says. "Unless you try, you never know how much you can achieve. I hope other Hispanics look at me and think 'If this little skinny Hispanic girls was able to do it, then so can I.'"
All of the many such inspirational field trips Linda provides to interested young boys and girls each year inevitably conclude in her office. There she points to her own executive chair with both a challenge and the beginning words for a new dream, "Some day YOU'LL sit there!"
[i] "Ahead of Her Time," www.workingwomen.com, March 2007
[ii] "Linda Alvarado," http://latino.si.edu/virtualgallery/OJOS/bios/PDF_bios/Linda%20Alvarado%20Quotes.pdf
[iii] "Linda Alvarado," American Dreams, www.usdreams.com/Alvarado6869.html (March 24, 2003)
[iv] Albuquerque Tribune, September 30, 2002, p. 5
[v] "Ahead of Her Time," www.workingwomen.com, March 2007
[vi] "Linda Alvarado," American Dreams, www.usdreams.com/Alvarado6869.html (March 24, 2003)
[vii] "Leading Ladies," Hispanic Trends, Spring 2003
[viii] "Linda Alvarado," American Dreams, www.usdreams.com/Alvarado6869.html (March 24, 2003)
[x] "Linda Alvarado," American Dreams, www.usdreams.com/Alvarado6869.html (March 24, 2003)
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