In The Boss, women share how they became successful and the lessons they learned along the way.
My story begins like many Miamians. My family fled Cuba when I was three years old, along with hundreds of thousands of other exiles in hopes of a better life and future. I don’t remember much about my homeland, but I have vivid memories of acclimating to our new lives in America. My family settled in a small apartment, and as a child I would tag along with my mother as she cleaned offices. I remember we only had enough money to take the bus one way from the grocery store and my father would sing the whole way home to keep us entertained. A professional baseball umpire in his former life, he had to start over with nothing.
My parents shared a strong work ethic and positive attitude, believing anything can be achieved through hard work — they did what they had to do. After my parents divorced, my mother experienced great hardship, rebuilding her life in a new country as a single mom. This had a profound effect on me early on. I knew that I never wanted to be dependent on anyone emotionally or financially, and that sentiment became the driving force behind everything I do.
My first job at Burger King was an eye-opener, and early on I realized I needed to study and work hard in order to prosper and succeed. I didn’t find my calling until I majored in business at Florida International University. I applied what I learned in school to encourage my father to start a company that sold aerospace materials to companies including Lockheed Martin and Boeing. Much to my father’s surprise, while still in school, I decided to join him in the family business. It was a total boys club, but I loved it.
I worked my way up to Chief Operating Officer at my father’s company. I was managing all the operations and accounting. We traveled abroad to Europe and South America often to conduct business, which taught me how important it was to have relationships in many places. This experience set the foundation for the discipline of managing a team, strategic planning and people skills.
Family was very important to my father, and he taught me if you have a strong family foundation and support system, it’ll help you succeed in your career. When I raised my son and daughter, I found it difficult to balance motherhood and work. I sat through my share of baseball games and gymnastics meets, but I also joined a women’s investment club, where we studied and traded stocks. I was always looking for a new opportunity and new challenges.
Real estate has been a natural fit. I have always been a people person with a passion for architecture and interior design. I was initially looking for a career that was flexible with my time because I wanted to be able to spend time with my children. I soon learned how demanding real estate could be. So many factors play into achieving success in this business, but it boils down to hard work, tremendous discipline, cultivating a sphere of influence — and vision.
I began my real estate career in the early ’90s as a sales associate at Coldwell Banker, focusing on single family residential sales in the luxury market of Coral Gables in Florida. Soon after, I transitioned into a luxury boutique firm in my neighborhood, known as Stewart De La Vega. I became the number one producer. I was lucky that I had a sphere of influence through my children’s school and traveling internationally for my father’s company, but it wasn’t enough. You must convince clients that you know the market inside and out. Just as I had analyzed my stock portfolio, I studied Miami neighborhoods — what sold, what didn’t, for how much and why. I constantly took classes about everything from negotiation to stock analysis and even started a real estate group with top producers in the city, where we got together and discussed best practices, off-market properties, marketing ideas and market trends.
Throughout the beginning of my career, there were only a few major players and some boutique agencies in South Florida. I could sense the world was changing and that Miami would soon play a much larger role with globalization. The city was always a hot spot for tourism, but was ripe to develop into a real hub for business, art and culture. I knew an international luxury real estate firm was the future.
My big break happened in 2008 when I was awarded the opportunity to purchase the Sotheby’s International Realty franchise for South Florida. We were in the midst of one of the country’s worst economic crashes and everyone was doubtful. I knew failure was not an option. Determined to succeed, I took the opportunity and ran with it, becoming the first Cuban woman to own a Sotheby’s franchise.
A decade after founding ONE Sotheby’s International Realty, I’m still in love with the brand, the people I’ve met along the way and the opportunities it has afforded me. We started with one small office with about 30 agents, and we now have 16 offices spanning from Stuart to South Miami, with about 850 of the best associates in the industry.
Managing so many people can be a challenge. The trick is to surround yourself with a team you can rely on to execute the company’s strategy and vision. I could never do this alone. I am fortunate to have brilliant and dedicated team members on all fronts who truly put passion into what they do. This amazing team helped us become the number one company for all transactions over $1 million in Miami-Dade and Broward counties. We also created our development division, with over $3 billion worth of inventory. This part of the company represents new prestigious developments being built in South Florida including Turnberry Ocean Club and the Fairchild Coconut Grove.
Building the company and growing our ONE family has been a labor of love. Our core values are rooted in establishing an authentic presence in our community and creating the most sophisticated, professional and ethical real estate experience in the region. We are still in growth mode and exploring new territories and opportunities.
I am not one to sit back and that goes for my off-hours too. There’s always a good book to read, a family gathering to attend, a new restaurant to try and a new travel destination to visit. Loving life brings true abundance.