One of my greatest sources of pride is the kind of friends I have acquired through the years. At first, I believed I nurtured relationships with kind, intelligent, driven and dynamic persons because of what influence they could have on me. Now, as a mother, I realize that even better than having great friends around me is that my son will be surrounded by marvelous people who will guide him and encourage him to constantly strive for excellence.
Successful people under the age of 30 start to be appreciated through Forbes lists, featured interviews and awards. There is, however, a larger number of young professionals who are too busy to enlist themselves to even be considered for these types of recognition. These are individuals who are just as committed, as ambitious and as industrious as those who are publicly acknowledged. For this reason, I considered shining a spotlight on one of them whom I had the great honor to meet, learn from and think with.
Carmen Zaragoza is a 29-year old professional in the microfinance sector. She is a silent but strong source of ideas, hard work and fierce determination.
She left her native Puerto Rico because of her aspiration to earn a Master’s Degree in Spain. After considering that she finished her major in her home country, worked in Argentina and did an internship in Brazil, it was time for a change of continent. So, armed with her hard-earned savings and thirst for learning, she boarded a flight to Madrid in 2010.
The main reason she chose the capital city was because the degree that interested her offered a program that suited what she was looking for (Máster en Microfinanzas para el Desarrollo, Universidad Autónoma de Madrid). Contrary to what people may first think, she doesn’t have any relatives in Spain and her support system consists of her long-time partner, Iván (with whom she came to Madrid and with whom she’s living since then), and in the distance, she counts on her family specially her mother and her aunt.
You may notice that we’re in the year 2016- that is to say, 6 years since Carmen arrived and started her Master’s Degree. She stayed. She stayed because of the opportunities available and the quality of life. She says, “Madrid is safe, I can walk at night, and public transportation is reliable…”
So many things have happened since she graduated. One of them is the fact that she’s on her way to obtaining Spanish citizenship. But for me, the most significant moment during the past years was the day I interviewed her for an internship position at the BBVA Microfinance Foundation (FMBBVA). Then and there, she displayed wit and showed her resolve to work in the microfinance sector. Had I not seen her résumé, I would have thought she was just one of those “fresh graduates” who’s scouting for a first job. Little did I know she already had a lot of knowledge and insight on microcredits- and from work experience, too!
Carmen has been generous enough to share some of her experiences and thoughts with Colorfulifesite, so perhaps it’ll be better if I give her the floor in this post.
On her studies and chosen profession…
K: What made you study your major?
C: My father’s family is full of accountants so it has become some sort of a “family” thing and I’ve always known I would study Accounting.
But I wasn’t happy about accounting, so I started to study another major, in Economics, because it gave me perspective and a broader view and understanding of what was happening in my country. But of course, I couldn’t leave it unfinished so I completed both majors, and I don’t regret it.
K: What made you want to work in microfinance? What was your first experience in the field?
C: My mom is a lawyer and a finance professor. She also has done research papers and works with micro-entrepreneurship and cooperatives in the field of economic development. That’s how I was introduced to microfinance. (I took Yunus’ book from her library.) Through her I learned that microfinance is a “leg” of a different way of economy, the social economy.
I started to search for jobs related to economic development; I even took the Yellow Pages and searched for a job in that field. In my last year of University I was hired as a loan officer in a Corporation in PR that gives credit to small businesses.
K: And what exactly do you do now? Can you briefly walk us through your current project?
C: Now I am the project leader of Distribution Channels at the Commercial Development and Innovation Department of the BBVA Microfinance Foundation.
The project is focused on how to bring the products and services of the Foundation’s entities to clients in an efficient, sustainable and innovative way; with the objective to reduce transactional costs for both the entities and the vulnerable entrepreneurs*. This is where mobile banking would come in, for example.
K: Sounds fun!
C: Hehehe! It is really interesting!
K: Can you describe your day-to-day routine at the office? What kind of tasks keep you busy?
C: I can divide my day perfectly between morning and afternoon. In the morning, I take my time to organize my tasks and duties, to do research and analysis, brainstorm, to prepare meetings, and exchange information and plans with other areas.
I dedicate time to learn about each country’s best practices and figuring out how we could adapt it to other countries (the FMBBVA is present in Latin America).
I also do a lot of market research, I perform a lot of economic and viability analysis and we give feedback as requested by our colleagues (in the Americas). We try to find innovative ways of doing things that can contribute to achieve our Mission. A lot has already been invented; it’s just a matter of picking what’s best for your need and adapting it for your own use.
In the afternoon, I go to a lot of meetings and videoconferences so it’s good that we can concentrate most of them after lunch.
On her ambitions: the ones fulfilled, as well as those still in the making…
K: The way I see it, you are now in a place where not many people your age would even imagine exploring (After all, you hold a double major, you’re a Magna Cum Laude with a stable job as Project Leader and you’re almost a European citizen…). Let’s refer to it as a “peak”. But, do you feel you’ve reached a peak or two at this moment of your life? If so, what other peaks have you to conquer?
C: This was a tough question for me. I really found it hard to answer. I think I’ve done some things in my life but I still have a lot to do. I’m just building the ground to continue conquering peaks. It’s the process that makes this adventure interesting…
K: I’ve had the pleasure of knowing you for 6 years, and I don’t recall hearing you say “I would like to be ‘boss’ in 10 years’ time”, or anything similar.
C: I mean, I can work for that but it’s not my ultimate objective. If that happens, it’s because I believe I can use that position to contribute to something, to make a change.
I manage to “just go with the flow”. If I plan too much, things don’t usually happen. We just can’t control everything. It’s different in PR, where I know that if I planned, I could be in a certain position given my age and experience.
Things are more difficult here in Spain (in that sense). I don’t know why. Well, as in Latin America there’s a lot of macho attitude. (In the past) I struggled a lot, “fighting” against the system so now I just decided to do my best and be as perfect as I can, knowing that “getting” to a certain position doesn’t entirely depend on me.
I think I’m going to conquer peaks; one of those would be developing something of my own in PR, But for now, my purpose is to learn, to take lessons for myself, for my curriculum and enjoy every opportunity.
K: What’s your ultimate dream? And what are you currently doing to reach it?
C: Personally I want to travel and continue gaining as much experience as I can. Given the (dream) project that we want to develop, we need to have an open mind. Travelling will give me the tools to have a wider perspective on issues and not be too judgmental. To work in microfinance and towards social and financial inclusion, you really need to have an open mind.
To reach it, I make it a point to not forget that it’s my ultimate dream. Keeping it in mind helps you reach your goals, I think.
K: Is this life what you imagined for yourself 10 or 15 years ago?
C: Never. I never imagined this life. 14 years ago my dad died and a couple of years after his death, I found out that I share the same condition. I’m not going to die just yet (laughs nervously), but my life turned around completely at 15- with the problems that it caused personally and at home. That had a huge impact in my life. I started to have more perspective and knowing that your life was good and suddenly realize “what the hell?” (it) helped me become flexible and more adaptable to changes.
The happiness is in the experiences, I believe. This motivated me to get out of my comfort zone. To not create necessities, enabling me to adapt to life’s situations and take and enjoy every opportunity that life has to offer.
“Past Carmen” would be shocked if I (“Present Carmen”) went back in time and tell her all the things that I’ve done. (Hahaha!)
K: Will you go back to PR? Why?
C: Definitely yes, but I’m not sure when, because I would really like to develop something related to social economy and microfinance in partnership with my mother. In the long-term, I’m also thinking of developing something with my boyfriend. He’s a psychologist specialized in drug addiction so we’re thinking of combining our fields and perhaps build something geared towards rehabilitation and social and economic inclusion.
But that’s still quite far because to do so, we need to gain more experience. We can’t just go back and “try” or “experiment” to see if our ideas would work. We’d have to deal with real lives and real problems
On other thoughts to ponder…
K: Define success
C: For me, success could also be found in the process of achieving your goals. Sometimes you don’t achieve them but you have to take things that you learn along the way. I have the curriculum I possess because I took chances. I was flexible. I’ve always believed that in life, sooner or later things fall into place no matter how chaotic everything might seem.
But what’s really important to me is to take the journey and achieving your goals without taking advantage of anybody- not taking down anyone or pushing people down in the process. I believe in solidarity.
K: Do you consider yourself successful? Why or why not?
C: It depends on the day. Some days I feel good about myself, but other days not that much. The days I feel successful help me to have more confidence in myself, the days I don’t help me to see things I need to improve on and try to work on them.
K: That is the most intelligent answer I have ever heard to that question so far.
C: Really? Why?
K: Feelings are a spectrum and life is dynamic, I believe. A clear description makes us feel secure but feelings? It’s not a static concept, nor can you keep it inside a well-defined box. That just sounded unstable (Hahahaha!) I don’t know…
C: Yes, I know, it might sound psycho to some. But that’s also how I see it.
K: What defining moment made you say to yourself, “I am where I want to be!”?
C: The moment I started working as a loan officer for micro and small businesses, I realized I could combine economics with a more social view. For me it was good to know that I was helping people develop their businesses and that the loans I granted gave them access to financing, and that was directly impacting my country’s economy. It was great! It was then when I decided this is what I want to do.
K: Who is your mentor?
C: My mother, Carmen Correa. I’m very lucky to have her not just as a mother and best friend, but also as my colleague, as we both call each other.
K: What most important lessons did your mentor teach you?
C: To have social awareness and integrity.
Social awareness for me is important because it helps you to always find a meaning of what you’re doing. We’re not thinking only of ourselves and that motivates you to be responsible, because what you do will have an effect on others.
As for integrity, I’d always blame my mom for making me “too honest”. But I’m not really the type of person who would befriend someone just to benefit from that relationship. Nor would I say “yes” to everything a superior would tell me just so I would be considered for a job promotion. It’s not my style. But I go to bed at night with a clear conscience and peace of mind.
K: Would you consider mentoring someone?
C: Yes, why not? If he or she finds me as a role model, that’s good. I laugh at my friends who tell me they follow my footsteps. But if there’s anything I can share with other people who think they can learn something from me, I won’t hesitate. If life would offer me a chance to mentor someone, I would consider it as a way of giving back…
In the Foundation, my first boss was a sort-of mentor to me. He would tirelessly answer each and every question I ask him. Sometimes he answers me with another question…
K: That’s because he wants you to think for yourself.
C: Yes! And I consider myself very fortunate for having had his guidance during my first years in the Foundation.
K: What would be your mentee’s first lesson?
C: Among other things, I would tell him/her to be curious, to ask. You can learn from everyone, from a farmer, or a banker… be open to learn new things. Never assume you know everything.
* Vulnerability refers to the inability to withstand the effects of changes in the environment. Therefore, vulnerable entrepreneurs are the socially and economically “weak” individuals exposed to livelihood stress as a result of different impacts from climate change, economic slowdown or crisis and/or environmental and man-made emergency disasters.