As executive president of the luxury travel company Metropolitan Touring, and the only female board director of a bank in Ecuador, Paulina Burbano de Lara is one of Latin America’s most influential women. She talks work, wildlife and turning her phone off on Tuesdays
Thirty years ago in my country it wasn’t usual for a woman to work at all. But my professor [of economics] at my university was my mentor. He told me that I had to decide to be a professional and that it would be a path with a lot of sacrifice.
My first job was in a bank. I was 20. A team flew in from Washington and needed people to work with them on a 30-day infrastructure project. I volunteered. I almost didn’t sleep for a month and then I understood what sacrifice meant – I sacrificed parties and boyfriends and sleep!
I decided my life was going to be around my children and my work and for many years I didn’t have any hobbies or friends. I regained my friends six years ago – I hadn’t seen them for 15 years – and then 18 months ago I took up a hobby.
Every Tuesday morning from 9–12 I go to pottery classes. It’s like going back to childhood. It’s very meditative: I don’t look at my emails, I can’t touch the phone – my hands are covered in clay – so my head gets a rest.
The best part of my ceramics class though is my classmates – it’s five older women and listening to them talk about their lives is so instructive.
I embrace my femininity but it hasn’t always been like that. When I got my first managerial role, I thought I needed to look like a man so I cut my hair short and dressed in black suits. As I gained confidence, though, I understood that leadership wasn’t about gender. I decided to be myself again so grew my hair long and started to wear dresses.
I don’t get stressed that easily. I always think there is a solution for everything. I work on the problem and when I am ready to deliver something I will.
Tourism joins people with the community and social issues. It was a natural progression for me, as during the first 15 years of my banking career I worked on infrastructure projects – water supply, roads, markets, developing the community and so on.
The wildlife in the Galápagos draws people. It’s extraordinary: the giant tortoise, marine iguana, the wonderful bird life. But the mountains in Ecuador are also stunning – incredible waterfalls. They are very powerful, beautiful and calming.
I like my own holidays to be simple. I like good food, good wine. I love the Explora travel company. If you want to be around people, you can; if you want to be on your own, that’s fine too.
I have 30 [not real] frogs in my office – they are symbols of prosperity and luck. I also have photos of my children and a beautiful painting by a local artist. My office is glass so everyone can see – and my doors are always open.
Kindness is key to leadership. You have to be nice and you have to care. I understood that about leadership very early on. I want people to be friends at work, I want them to know about each other, in personal matters not just business. If you see someone having a hard time, you need to be there for them.
Being vulnerable is an asset, not a weakness. If there is a clash at work, accepting that we are all vulnerable releases us to sort it out and work together. Mistakes don’t make you a bad person, they’re just part of daily life.
My mantra, translated into English, is ‘just illuminate’. Don’t blind people, like cars with full-beam headlights – just be gentle and illuminate.
Paulina Burbano de Lara: Useful info
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