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‘Feeling left out’ drives business leader’s passion

(Published August 28, 2000)


Staff Writer

Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow, president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce, announces a partnership between the chamber and Forbes magazine at a July 12 event at the Kennedy Center.

As a young secretary at a Wall Street bank, Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow was overlooked for three promotions because, she was told, as a Latina she was more mommy than management.

She walked out of the bank that day and onto a life where she is today the president of a $13 million public relations firm in the District, a much-praised entrepreneur and the first Latina to head the District of Columbia Chamber of Commerce.

She said she uses the fire stoked by that early discrimination to energize her promotion of small and minority-owned business.

"I know about tough. I know about lack of empowerment," Lisboa-Farrow said. "I understand people feeling left out of the issues and it has made me passionate…about getting equal access and opportunity to those who otherwise aren’t heard."

To provide those opportunities for small business, Lisboa-Farrow, 52, sees her main leadership role as a mediator between the 1,200 disparate businesses, small and large, represented by the D.C. Chamber.

Originally created as the Washington Chamber of Commerce in 1938, the chamber was formed to serve and protect the interests of African-American small businesses and expanded to work for all business within the District in 1957.

Since assuming the presidency in January, Lisboa-Farrow has focused on bridging the offerings of small D.C. companies with the needs of large corporations.

"We have small, medium and large businesses as our constituents, and we can serve all of them by facilitating the cross-pollination of each other’s capabilities," Lisboa-Farrow said. "When issues arise (between small business and large corporations), the chamber might not be able to support or endorse one side…but we can broker a dialogue so there’s an understanding – and maybe facilitate a different solution."

D.C. Chamber board members said Lisboa-Farrow is particularly qualified to build that bridge because of her experience as an entrepreneur and small-business owner.

"She understands the issues of small businesses…and she’s a ‘can-doer’," said Linda Lee, chamber treasurer and owner of Hunan Chinatown. "Most importantly, she has a supportive board that is working as a team because of her consensus-building type of personality."

Albert "Butch" Hopkins, president and chief executive officer of the Anacostia Economic Development Corp. and a board member for many of his 20 years with the chamber, said Lisboa-Farrow always has the best interests of small business in mind even when she’s working on behalf of large corporations.

"She realizes that small businesses sometimes have to go to work to help large corporations because…large employers in a neighborhood have more people who demand more services and more gets done," Hopkins said. "It is a different tactic but the same goal" of economic development.

Many longtime members applaud the alliance between small business and large corporations, said Malcolm Beech, a 30-year chamber member and publisher of the Eagle News newspaper, because it opens the door for greater opportunity and influence.

Lisboa-Farrow’s vision for the chamber includes an innovative project with Forbes magazine to highlight the District’s business opportunities and expanding neighborhood revitalization efforts such as the planned renewal of the Georgia Avenue corridor as an economic gateway from Maryland.

Lisboa-Farrow grew up the child of Puerto Rican immigrants in New York City with her twin sister and two older brothers, in a family that she said was impoverished but "rich in spirit and pride for our culture and family."

She was a child who wore a beehive hairdo and started working at age 12, said her sister, Evelyn Oliver-Ortiz. And even at a young age, she had the drive and focus that are the keys to her current success.

"She had it together. She had a maturity that made her different from the other kids at school," she said. "And she always had her own dreams."

Those dreams included getting out of the tough South Bronx neighborhood in which her family lived and taking control of her "own destiny."

Controlling her destiny is precisely what she aimed to do when she walked out of that bank and soon started her own public relations firm, promoting movies and celebrities in New York City.

In 1982, she moved to the District with her husband, Jeffrey Farrow (currently a White House liaison to the Caribbean community), their first son and Lisboa Inc. in tow.

Since that move, Lisboa Inc. has grown into a full-service multimedia marketing company, producing public relations campaigns for government, nonprofits and private interests. Today, Lisboa-Farrow oversees 35 full-time employees, including her sister, who serves as the vice president of human resources, and her eldest son.

That marketing experience has come in handy, said chamber member Beech, in promoting the chamber’s programs and its members.

"The chamber has its highest profile ever. When people in the business community are saying good things about the chamber…then she has done a very good job," Beech said.

Lisboa-Farrow first joined the D.C. Chamber shortly after arriving in the District but said the environment was inhospitable for a woman and a Latina in the primarily African-American organization. She promptly left to join the Greater Washington Ibero-American Chamber of Commerce, which she helped to develop into a more effective force for Hispanic business needs, board members said.

Fellow Ibero-American Chamber board member J. Fernando Barrueta said Lisboa-Farrow emerged as a leader in a time when the organization was foundering and made the hard decisions to turn it toward solvency.

In addition, when she joined the Ibero-American Chamber Board of Directors in 1989, she was the first woman to serve on the board. Today there are 10.

Lisboa-Farrow also serves as vice chairman of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, chairman of the Board of Trustees at Southeastern University and a board member of the Hispanic College Fund.

"She has a heart of gold. She really gives a damn, and not just about business and business success," Barrueta said.

In the coming months, Lisboa-Farrow will be very busy as she plays a major role in several high-profile events related to Hispanic Heritage Month in October and moves the chamber from its temporary headquarters in the Verizon building on H Street NW to a storefront on K Street.

As for her future beyond her current D.C. Chamber term, her colleagues see the potential for many new feats of leadership.

Barrueta anticipates that Lisboa-Farrow will be the first woman president of the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Her sister believes she is headed for an ambassadorship in Latin America.

"She’s a mover and a shaker…(who) will continue to get more involved in politics," Oliver-Ortiz said. "She keeps growing and changing, which never ceases to amaze me."

Copyright © 2001 The Common Denominator