One of my favorite novels that I read as an undergraduate at UCLA was “Oh Pioneer.”
After reading it, I remember doing an interview and I was asked to give a word to describe myself, I said “I’m a pioneer.” But that sentiment had faded. Until today.
In opening my teahouse in Otavalo, Ecuador, I decided it was better that I play the back role and not be the face of my company. Keeping it real is what I do, so I know there are clear limits to my appearance in Latin America. Not many people grow up saying I want to be black with nappy hair; but it is my reality. For one year, I didn’t run from “NegraGringa” identity as I ran my teahouse, Mama California, in Ibarra, Ecuador. But I did feel a disconnect with potential clients. I felt a distance between us. But what really nailed it for me is the poor treatment I regularly receive in Quito at semi-high-end places. I don’t do flashy name brands nor do I do bourgeois behavior in public (well most of the time, lol), so I’m often not viewed a real client. Thus, subpar service is delivered to me. Lately, I’ve been walking out of the stores, without saying a word in my gringo accent.
With this understanding of Ecuador, I decided it was best that I lead from behind. Hire “Ecuadorian-looking” people to sell my tea products and language services. (I’ve been told some of the discrimination that I receive is because I look Colombian and we all know borders create issues.) It was a hard decision to succumb to my racially-charged environment, but I just couldn’t be bothered to deal with this factor as I need to focus on building my tea franchise.
Besides, I figured foreigners would automatically know that this was my teahouse and I was a foreigner. Joke’s on me. After several surprised faces that yes, this fellow expat is running the tea house. I was surprised and confused that the obvious wasn’t been seen by my peers. I was also getting tired of debating my answer each time someone asked me if I was the owner. The self-talk that went on in my head –tiring nonsense of an insecure woman. Was I chasing the dream or was I chasing the money in confining myself to the kitchen? How could I help progress be made if I was hiding?
A tidal wave of frustration arrived this morning as I sent venting messages to my FB support team.
My fellow Afro-Am entrepreneur in Korea told me, “You’re a pioneer.” And I was like, “O Pioneer.”
My other fellow Afro-Am expat in the UK told me not to dim my light and to let it shine, so others can see the result of my faith and hard work.
As I thought about my place in the entrepreneur world, I saw an unprecedented amount of FB photos/videos from people I actually know protesting Trump in the #WomensMarch. The FB bitching had stopped; people were stepping up to do something in the real world.
A white, British male friend asked what this protest was all about. That made me think, what were people doing in those photos/videos. As I started listening to the women speak, I realized it’s the silence that divides us. We silently accept the second-class treatment in public and find ways to deal with it (aka my “leading from behind” strategy). This video about what mothers wanted their daughters to learn from the march, made me think — I’m doing what I want in the style that I want– and that is the wish of many of those moms. So I shouldn’t run from my “owner” title because people just assume I am not the owner and maybe put off my appearance. Nor should I get supper offended bc they assume that I’m working for someone else or I have a partner; why they can’t assume I can be an entrepreneur isn’t my concern. I just need a clever response to the “You aren’t the owner, right?” Maybe it’s as simple as saying “I’m pioneer.”
***My favorite quote from O, Pioneer, which deeply impacted me as a young college student trying to figure out what makes people become cold; what turns hippies into CEOs. — the thoughts of a young woman coming into shape in California in 2000s.***
“I’d rather have had your freedom than my land.”
Carl shook his head mournfully. “Freedom so often means that one isn’t needed anywhere. Here you are an individual, you have a background of your own, you would be missed. But off there in the cities there are thousands of rolling stones like me. We are all alike; we have no ties, we know nobody, we own nothing. When one of us dies, they scarcely know where to bury him. Our landlady and the delicatessen man are our mourners, and we leave nothing behind us but a frock-coat and a fiddle, or an easel, or a typewriter, or whatever tool we got our living by. All we have ever managed to do is pay our rent, the exorbitant rent that one has to pay for a few square feet of space near the heart of things. We have no house, no place, no people of our own. We live in the streets, in the parks, in the theaters. We sit in restaurants and concert halls and look about at the hundreds of our own kind and shudder.”
– Willa Cather, O Pioneers!