Lourdes Miranda: a role model to her countrywomen

She is the daughter of a third-grade dropout and the mother of a teen-ager attending one of the poshest private schools in the Washington area. She belongs to the 3 percent of Puerto Rican women with four years of college, and the select few who own their own businesses. As the newly installed president of the National Association of Women Business Owners, Lourdes Miranda is out to see that other women - Puerto Rican or not - fit the same category.

At a white marble desk in a black-shuttered office on the outskirts of Washington, Ms. Miranda runs her fingers through her tight, dark curls and talks about what's changed for Puerto Rican women since she first wrote of their ''double discrimination'' in 1974: ''Nothing,'' she reports evenly. ''It is a tragedy what is going on in Puerto Rico - an unofficial unemployment rate of 40 percent, half the population on food stamps.''

In 1972, she helped found and preside over the National Conference of Puerto Rican Women, a feminist group dedicated to bettering the life of these women. She also started the nonprofit Association for Cross-Cultural Education and Social Studies (ACCESS) to give leadership training to Hispanics, and worked to bring a Hispanic radio station and Puerto Rican university to the Washington area.

As the owner of L. Miranda Associates, a small consulting firm working mainly on government contracts, Ms. Miranda says that what she would ''really like to do is to make a lot of money and give it to these women so they could get an education.'' Her degree in international relations from the University of California at Los Angeles, paid for by her businessman father, is the key to her success, she believes - that, and her tendency to ''be a fighter.''

''My family supported my education, and were able to pay for it,'' she says, underscoring the difference between her and 97 percent of her female Puerto Rican peers. ''My father's philosophy was, you never know who you may end up with, so better get an education.''

In fact, she describes her former husband as ''very supportive'' of her efforts to get first a master's degree (in Spanish) and a job. ''He is a very traditional man, but he went as far as he could go,'' she says.

Divorce and separation often reinforce the cycle of poverty for Puerto Rican women, she reports, leaving them with small children to raise and virtually no income. But Ms. Miranda, in the middle of the 1975 recession, started a business with her own capital, and made it work.

''Yes, I have faced discrimination,'' she says, recalling that it took her four years to get outside capital. But she has never known if the ''subtle'' discrimination comes because ''I am Puerto Rican or because I am a woman.''

Being both carries with it the stereotype of being a childlike, pampered, and irresponsible female totally dependent on a man, she says - a stereotype she works to overcome by ''living the opposite. I am a role model to many of my countrywomen.''

Through her nonprofit firm, for example, she came in contact with 35 young Hispanic women a few years ago in a three-week career conference. Picked from low-income families around the country, the women met in a suburban college nearby to talk about careers, goal-setting, ''who they were, and what they wanted out of life,'' she says.

Since then, she has heard from many of these women, who she says ''went to Brown, to Harvard, to NYU, or got married.'' One participant, her daughter, attended the conference and ''came face to face with discrimination for the first time in her life,'' her mother says.

Her daughter has been raised with the same key to success she believes lifted her out of the ''tragedy'' of Puerto Rico - ''the best education money can buy.'' She tells the girl to ''be all that you can be,'' adding, ''She says I sound like a commercial.''

Ms. Miranda brings the same message to the National Association of Women Business Owners. As the new head, she hopes to increase the organization's membership from roughly 1,400 to 3,500. The group, which she calls the ''one organization that is devoted only to women business owners, and speaks exclusively to the issues of owning a business,'' is working internally to strengthen the 17 nationwide chapters and form new ones.

Her own firm, meanwhile, is developing a profile of the Hispanic community useful to those who want to market their products in this area - a project Ms. Miranda calls ''dynamite.''

One gets the feeling, though, that Ms. Miranda, who deals with peers, secretaries, and even reporters with the same intense, eyeball-to-eyeball warmth , is not content simply to keep her own daughter out of poverty or be a role model for other upwardly mobile young women.

''What I have, I have to pour back to women,'' she says. ''As I developed as a woman, I became interested in the development of other women. Now, as I'm developing as a businesswoman, I want to pursue the development of other businesswomen. I must do this, because of the excitement of my awareness of these things.''

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