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Latina Leadership: An Interview With Mobvious CEO Isabel Rafferty

Interview by Court Stroud published in Forbes.com 

She must be the secretary — or so some people assume. She’s young, female and a Mexican immigrant.

These people are wrong.

Isabel Rafferty is the Chief Executive Officer of Mobvious America, a mobile marketing solution company focused on the U.S. Hispanic marketplace.

 

“Life and destiny surprise us. We can find our callings later in life,” she says. “As a young girl, I never dreamed of becoming a CEO. But I appreciate where I am and deserve to be here.”

Rafferty shares thoughts on her experience as a Latina business professional and her meteoric ascension to top leadership management.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Your mom was an award-winning entrepreneur when you were growing up, yet you felt sorry for her. Why?

Growing up in a traditional Mexican family, I believed the greatest contribution a woman could make to society was to be a good mother.

My mother was the first female in the family to go into business. She ran a company of more than 100 employees. She traveled often and worked long hours.

When I was little, I didn’t understand why my mother had gone into business. Some people thought my dad couldn’t support us financially. However, my dad was a successful businessman.

My mother told me she enjoyed working — that it made her a better mother, wife and citizen. I thought she was trying to make herself feel better about having to work.

I didn’t appreciate her enough then.

After moving to the United States, you finished high school in 3 years and college at the same rapid pace. Why?

I was afraid I’d get married and not finish my degree. I got engaged at 19, which made me push harder in school. I ended up canceling my engagement but was already on this fast track.

Talk about your first job after college.

I graduated during the recession. Jobs for new grads were scarce, but I knew the editor of the North County Times [now merged with the San Diego Union-Tribune]. I emailed him nine times before he replied. He didn’t have any jobs available but was creating one for me because he’d never met anyone so tenacious.

He assigned me to media sales, but there was no open desk there, so he found me one among the digital team.

That’s how I got into this industry — it chose me.

Entravision San Diego, the market’s Univision affiliate, hired you. Within six months, you were named the Interactive Sales Manager. What’s the secret behind your early success?

The secret was remembering three elements I can control: hard work, attitude, and knowledge.

I was never the obvious choice for my roles. Digital was new. Few people understood it. Even after long days at the office, I read and learned all I could about this exciting new world.

When the management position opened at Entravision, I applied. I wasn’t afraid to ask for what I wanted. My peers laughed, saying managers needed years of experience, while I was a rookie.

I asked my boss for an opportunity to prove I’d succeed, saying he didn’t even need to increase my salary. He agreed.

I was younger than many of the kids of my direct reports but needed them to respect me. I became the best helper for my team — its best resource. Knowledge helped me earn their respect. Kindness earned their commitment.

Although this was my first experience managing people, I guided my department to become the #1 Entravision market in digital revenue.

Then, you’re hired to be the Vice President of Sales at Adsmovil, even though you’re only four years out of college. What challenges did you face?

I was a young woman in a male-dominated company. People wouldn’t give me respect from just meeting me. I had to let my work speak for itself.

I had a rule: I wouldn’t share my age with my team. I detected very early in the interview process whether or not someone would be comfortable working under my direction.

How did you go about putting a team together?

My teams have always been diverse. I’ve often pulled talent from unexpected places. My leadership style attracts self-driven individuals. My department heads tend to be female executives who like working under my leadership because I get them.

Eight years after graduation, you co-found and are named CEO of Mobvious America. How did that happen?

The day before giving birth to my second child, I was approached by Latam Ventures, which asked me to become a partner in launching a new company. I said, “I’m delivering a baby this week, but can meet next week.”

A week later I was ready. It was time to build something for myself, rather than for someone else.

I wondered if the industry would respect a young Latina CEO. Should I call myself VP, rather than CEO, even though I’d be running the company?

I still prefer not to be introduced as the CEO. People are more willing to give their true opinion of the company if they don’t know. So, I learn more. Once my passion and knowledge come through, then I’m comfortable sharing my title.

One of Spain’s biggest media companies, Prisa, bought 60% of the company you lead, while you own 40%. What advice do you have for other startup founders? 

Think strategically. Know what differentiates you in the market. Use it to your advantage.

Surround yourself with people who love what they do, and who feel ownership over their work.

Treat your employees as you would like them to treat you. If you make it easy for them to care for their families, they’ll be happier — and they’ll work harder.

As an immigrant and a woman, have you encountered obstacles in the business world?

At many Latin media companies, the top management tends to be male. Female leaders are uncommon.

Some people find my position exciting and are very supportive. Others find it uncomfortable.

I’ve heard many things that were hard to believe, such as:

  • ‘You and your sales team need free birth control pills, so you stop having babies.’
  • ‘Does your husband let you work?’
  • ‘If we cut personnel, let’s start with the women since they’re not the breadwinners.’

I don’t worry what they think. I don’t have time for politics. If I had stopped to feel sorry for myself, I wouldn’t be here.

I ask people to judge me for my accomplishments, not my gender. Women want our work to be judged for its quality.

If I need to interrupt my workday to breastfeed my baby or take my kid to the doctor, I still get all of my work done — and more.

I’m proud of being a working mom. Female leadership is one of the strengths of my organization.

Interview by Court Stroud published in Forbes.com 

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