In Latin America, family businesses are the predominant economic players. Their sustainability is crucial to national ecosystems, as each family brings unique cultural and economic contributions. However, like any regional cluster, these Latin American business families are subject to prejudice, myths and stereotypes that can limit their potential for growth.

Elaine King
Image courtesy of Elaine King

Financial expert Elaine King, CFP® , founder and president of the Family and Money Matters Institute, is no stranger to these myths. As a Latin American woman in a male-dominated industry, she has had to break through many stereotypes to be treated equally as her male counterparts.

Despite the steady progress in creating a more gender-inclusive environment, many women in Latin American family businesses still experience stigmas and expectations that hinder families from tapping into the full pool of diverse talent potential. Redefining the structure of family businesses as a whole and encouraging evolution will help create a lasting legacy for the next generation of entrepreneurs.

In this episode of WiFB Conversations, Elaine King and Ramia Marielle El Agamy discuss the myths surrounding Latin American family businesses, women’s role in those businesses and how that role is evolving.

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R: Welcome everyone to another conversation on women in family business. Today, we are joined by Elaine King, and we’re talking about family businesses in Latin America, the role of women in those family businesses and how that role is evolving.

Elaine, we started this conversation a few months ago after you’d given a presentation on myths, prejudices and stereotypes around family businesses in Latin America.

Can you tell us a little more about the beliefs people have about family businesses in Latin America? Are these beliefs well-founded?

E: There are three myths that we came across.

One of them is that Latin American families are a homogeneous group. However, that’s not quite correct. Latin families are not all the same. It depends on the maturity level of the family as a unit, not necessarily their country of origin.

For example, my family comes from England, China, Spain and Peru. I work with families from many different countries, and no two families are the same. It all depends on where they come from and their level of maturity. What I mean by that is how they work together and whether they talk about the future of the company, the future of the family and their values and mission.

The myth is that they’re all the same, but they’re not. In the whole industry of family business, there is not a cookie-cutter model because each family is so unique.

Yes, we have Latin blood, and we like to be a little more emotional. That’s not a myth; that’s a reality. I experienced that when I lived in Japan, where silence is wisdom. Latin people love to hug and talk. I told my Japanese friends, “I must be the most unwise person because I enjoy a good conversation.”

It depends on the culture, but each family is unique. That also applies to Latin America.

R: Are there any other prejudices you have come across when it comes to Latin American family businesses?

E: The role of women.

I live in the U.S., but my family comes from Latin America, where women’s rights were a little more delayed.

My great-grandmothers both lost their husbands at the beginning of the 1900s. At that time, women could not inherit land or assets. Their husbands had to leave them to a friend, neighbour, cousin or uncle.

Looking back at that story, I understand the role of women today and how men can be so protective of women, especially when it comes to estate planning and family governance. They don’t always leave the entire business to the women. They may only leave them the interest or the right to participate.

Culturally, it just wasn’t done that way, and not much time has passed since then. My great-grandmother lost all of her properties because she lost her husband, and it was just not the law to leave her those assets.

I have worked with over one hundred families, and they usually don’t leave all of the assets to the women. Instead, they focus on the kids. The spouse doesn’t inherit the land, but the kids do. The women simply have the right to the “rental” of trust. Most of this is due for estate planning purposes.

R: The first myth was homogeneity, and the second myth was the role of women. What’s the third myth?

E: The third myth is the fact that the children need to be protected, as well.

Latin American family businesses tend to give the parts of the business that are not considered important to the kids as a try-out, especially the daughters. They let the daughters take care of the social aspect because they assume they will be busy raising kids.

This happened with a couple of families I know. They were given the assets of the business that weren’t as important as other assets.

Fortunately, in the last five years, the industry has changed a lot. The role of women has accelerated in terms of leadership. There is a lot of hard data that shows that women in leadership positions can positively impact a business.

There is also a stronger voice. Family businesses are not only focusing on leadership for women anymore. In recent family businesses, I’ve seen that the best person qualified is going to be the leader, regardless of their gender. Whether it’s a woman or a man, the successor of the business has to be qualified.

Today, progressively more women are qualified because of everything that is happening in the industry.

R: Women have always been qualified. We simply didn’t have access to the same education as men because society rules were not in our favour.

That change makes a big difference to women today, not only in Latin America but throughout the world. Being able to inherit the business makes all the difference, and it greatly shifts the power balance.

Family businesses tend to cast women in certain roles based on their gender rather than thinking about how to accommodate a mixed-gender workforce.

Elaine, you are an expert in financial literacy. How does it make you feel when you are relegated to dealing with emotions simply because you are a woman?

E: I manage money and balance sheets. Sometimes, the answers are not necessarily in the numbers but in how people treat them.

In my case, I would question not only the numbers but also how they were done and the holistic aspect of it. Most of the time, the answer was there.

One of the families that I work with always questions people about a return. They would justify that number with a number. However, it was ultimately about the family and the planning. The hard data planning was important, but it wasn’t just about that return per se.

The best combination of leadership requires a mix of genders, and the qualifications should be based on the experience that people have.

When I was working on Wall Street, I was the only woman in my department. I had to have some reservations in order to be treated equally. Not only am I a woman, but I am also Hispanic, so I had to work a little extra to be treated equally because of the culture around the work.

Culturally, we have evolved very quickly in what society wants us to do. I agree with you that we are as qualified as men in the role of the family business. However, there are more opportunities now, and I’m happy to be living in this era rather than my great-grandmother’s.

R: This discussion is not about being against men but rather not being against women.

Being discriminated against based on your gender is an experience that is difficult to share with men. Men can be discriminated against for different reasons, but it’s very rarely because they are men.

Regions that historically have very strong patriarchal structures are now being called into question, and women are immersing themselves in the running of these legacies.

What reactions have you seen in Latin American family businesses to women taking on more prominent roles in the family legacy?

E: Some countries in Latin America are early adapters. Unfortunately, Peru is not one of those countries.

Accepting women as leaders comes through the generations. In the family businesses with which I work, it mostly depends on the founder.

I don’t know of a multi-generational family business in Latin America whose founder was a woman. In most of the families with which I work, the men are the founders because that’s just how it was. Therefore, the board is mostly made of men, and it’s harder for the second or third generation of women to take an active role in the operational aspect of the business.

I have a lot of clients who are in that boat. They want to know how they can make their voices heard when talking in front of only men.

We just need to listen to and help each other. We need more role models so that women see it can be done and feel inspired to take on leadership roles.

R: Representation is important. That is what this conversation on women in family business is all about. It’s not a glass ceiling discussion nor a feminist discussion.

This is a necessary conversation because there isn’t enough contribution from the female perspective when it comes to the family business field. We’re falling behind because our voices have only just started being recorded.

For the next generation of women in Latin America, there is more freedom and a greater assumption that they will join the family business. However, is the family business an attractive employment opportunity for female family business members? Does the family businesses have to improve their own employer brand equity to attract female talent?

E: I work with families to redefine the family business as a whole – from improving operations to creating a holding system in which women and men can develop their own passions and turn them into a business. In doing so, all family members are equal.

Most of the governance strategies that I recommend include developing an entrepreneur policy. All next-generation members should compete, propose their business plans and participate in the governance.

I once worked with a family with two brothers and two sisters. They were all married with children, but the men wanted to start a food business. However, they needed the family money to start the business.

They asked my advice, and I told them to present the business to their sisters for a 100 per cent vote.

Three months later, they told me that their sisters had become shareholders. The women loved the business so much that they contributed their own money instead of giving them the family money.

Today, it’s truly a business among four siblings.

I would love to see more siblings participate equally in building the capital of a family. This is not just about eating the branches of the tree of the family business; it’s also about creating your own fruits and trees to build a forest for the next generation.

R: I love the idea of adding diversity to accommodate more types of talent while still keeping it in the family.

There seems to be a trade-off for women in Latin America that they can’t be a good mother or spouse if they are career-focused. Is that a prevalent myth in Latin American society?

E: I haven’t seen a big shift in that myth. There is still a strong culture of women having an expected number of kids at an expected age.

People think that you cannot be a good mother and a good leader. However, the CEO of Yahoo, for example, was hired when she was six months pregnant. That should happen more often.

Women are the ones who have to break that expectation, not men.

In Latin America, I haven’t seen much of this change in older generations. However, I have seen a shift among younger generations. There are also many statistics that illustrate that people are not getting married anymore, which may lead to increased entrepreneurship.

R: We almost have to over-correct in order to be allowed to question these age-old institutions.

This is not just a challenge in Latin America. In many parts of the world, there is still a stigma against mothers who work in leadership positions. This is largely perpetuated mostly amongst women and can spread insecurity and the feeling of being judged.

That lack of support when facing a critical environment at work can be the breaking point that causes many women to choose one or the other. There’s a trade-off, which is not entirely fair.

Recent years have been turbulent on many levels in Latin America. There’s been civil unrest and economic downturns, and the pandemic has only further exacerbated these issues.

With such high levels of uncertainty, do you feel that it is more or less likely that those archaic systems will be called into question? Will people hold on to the idea of the traditional family business, or are they more likely to change along with the rest of the world?

E: I think this is a generational answer.

The Boomer generation tends to go back to their roots. If they were protective of their traditions, they’re becoming more protective. Meanwhile, the Millennials are already established.

However, the next generation is saying what you just said. The world is not going to change, and there will always be social and political unrest. We don’t need to depend on the government, and this next generation is going to do whatever they want.

Today’s entrepreneurs are coming up with new models, such as Uber or Airbnb, for which they won’t see returns for several years. Money for them is not important as long as there is food in the table.

I did an online course on entrepreneurship, and 12,000 students attended. I’ve seen a lot of business plans, and many are very long-term.

I don’t see that in the older generations. Family business founders have daughters, and they want to protect their children. That’s just instinct.

R: Different generations will change their view of the permeating issues that we’re experiencing, as well as how they’re being handled. A person’s age will dictate their response.

With high levels of uncertainty, many of which come from a force majeure, such as the pandemic, we have to question the whole system.  

What do you think is the advantage of empowering the family business model for Latin America, especially during this period of uncertainty?

E: I’ve seen family members jump into the business that did not jump in before. I’ve also seen them use complimentary services or products to survive and lower costs.

For example, a store could offer sanitary products and services instead of construction. Additionally, siblings could join a committee for areas of the business in which they are not active.

People should redefine the family business as a whole, not just by the unit. By diversifying the business, families can create a holding.

The world is changing, and some family members may want to invest in social responsibility. I advocate for family businesses to become B Corporations or social responsibility businesses.

There’s a space for family members to build a holding. They don’t need to be the richest family business; they can do it in small units.

However, working with your family is tough because of the emotionality and the expectations that come with that role. If you are able to work alongside family members, it will be much easier to redefine the family business.

In Latin America, there’s a huge opportunity to redefine the family business. There are many new models in the U.S., but I haven’t seen too many in Latin America. Many businesses simply hand the business over to the eldest son.

Very few people consider that a family business is not just about the store; it’s the products sold at the store, the technology provided by the store and the land that the store is on.

There are so many opportunities to redefine a family business.

R: You can be a family business and contribute to each other’s wellbeing in many different ways.

Given the industrial revolution that we’re experiencing, it’s going to become more difficult for family businesses to simply hand over the keys to the next generation. We have to step away from the idea that each generation has to run the business in the same way.

Instead, we have to form a legacy that has an entrepreneurial spirit.

This is where there are more opportunities for women. The excuse that often hinders female leadership is that the family works in an industry that is not suitable for women. This happens a lot in businesses that are in construction or other heavy industries.

We need to blow that excuse away. When you’re a family enterprise or even an enterprising family, you’re opening up more opportunities for the entire family talent pool.

E: Sometimes, women may say they can’t participate in the family business because they’re expected to work a lot of hours and can’t take care of their family.

However, we have proven that we can work from home.

We also don’t need to work in a brick and mortar setting. There are many other business models for which you can use different abilities and skills to create capital.

Working in a family business is no longer about the hours you put in the business. It’s about the dedication and passion that you can put towards seeing results.

We’re living in a great time. We’re so lucky.

R: I look forward to having many more discussions with you on this subject. Latin America is a very promising region, particularly as it pertains to the family business community.

Thank you very much, Elaine, for talking to us today about women in Latin American family businesses.

E: It’s my pleasure. I look forward to the continuation of it.


Elaine King, CFP® is founder of Family and Money Matters™, with the mission of empowering the family’s financial and human capital to achieve financial wellbeing. She has served as the Family’s Financial Planner for over 1,200 families and 100 multigenerational family enterprises crafting actionable family financial plans. Elaine is a Financial Education advocate, creator of the first family financial program in LATAM and winner of the Best Latin book award. She was recognized in 2020 in the list of Investopedia’s Top Influential Advisor and in 2017 recognized by People Magazine’s Top 25 Influential Hispanic Women. Elaine has been featured in the WSJ, Forbes, Telemundo, CNN and is a columnist for financial journals in the US and LATAM.