Meet the 3 Puerto Rican Women Redefining Entrepreneurship in San Juan

·6 min read

Puerto Rico, long battered by earthquakes and hurricanes while mired in colonial limbo and blackouts, is in the throes of a once-in-a-generation cultural and political revival of self-determination and independence. That energy is almost always discussed in terms of possible statehood for the U.S. island territory, but three women in the capital city of San Juan are infusing the conversation with provocative feminist questions that root the movement in womanhood. What does self-determination mean not just for an island ` but for a neighbor? How does it affect a business meeting? A date? A budget? A marriage? A résumé? Sex?

Capital Mujer was founded by the trio, which is composed of Mari Laura Teresa Rohena Cruz, its executive director, who has since become a member of San Juan’s city council; Naíma Irizel Rodríguez Rivera, its alliance liaison, who cofounded Teatro Breve, a respected theater company, as well as the gallery Pública; and Raíxa Sánchez, its events producer, who runs El Shop, a fashion and jewelry boutique whose slogan is “We Weird.”

They formed Capital Mujer in 2019 as a response to what they saw as out-of-touch approaches to women’s empowerment. This year, for the first time, they offered seed grant money and were expecting a few dozen applications. Instead, they got 337 applications from all 78 municipalities across the island—all purely by word of mouth, without any advertising.

“I studied business and law, and entrepreneurship was difficult for me. So I feel that I have a responsibility to share that knowledge,” says Rodríguez. “I don’t want to be that kind of ‘empowered’ entrepreneur that copies male executives. That approach doesn’t have a feminist focus. It’s for women but hierarchical. It isn’t honest. It’s distant. We can create something different, something equal, so we thought about this table where we share experiences and feel equal despite our differences. And demystify the entrepreneurial world. If we make it together, with solidarity, that’s the best success. It’s entrepreneurship with humanity, with empathy, not just spreadsheets and mechanistic views.”

Over epic five-course Nuestra Mesa (Our Table) banquets, as many as 64 strangers are paired for each course of the meal and spend the course discussing one of several quasi-taboo topics: family, finance, health care, politics, or sexuality. At the end of each course, the seats are shuffled and new pairings have new conversations. The idea is to share as much life experience and wisdom as possible across demographic barriers like age, income, profession, race, and sexuality. (Events are for anyone who identifies as a woman.) In March, Capital Mujer gave away seed investment money to a grant winner and organized mentorships about local permitting processes for four others.

A Capital Mujer Nuestra Mesa event
A Capital Mujer Nuestra Mesa event
Photo: Courtesy of Capital Mujer

“Self-determination is a right, not a privilege,” says Rohena Cruz. “When we talk about abortion rights, that’s self-determination about our bodies. Planning a family is self-determination. Education is self-determination. Work is self-determination. But every little thing right now we do is imposed. We live under an imposed agenda. It’s violent, unfair, aggressive. Everyone here lives under abuse of the state because we are a colony. Surviving that abuse is self-determination.” Rohena Cruz adds that she was inspired to cofound Capital Mujer after leaving an emotionally abusive relationship.

Events like Capital Mujer’s dinner already exist in San Juan, but at $300 a ticket, they can be prohibitively expensive. So the trio decided to charge $80 and always have 10 free tickets. Rohena Cruz explains their philosophy: “The old way was status; the new way is solidarity. The old way is focused on growth; the new way is focused on closing gaps. The old way was exclusivity; the new way is equality. We are not trying to make some women richer; we’re trying to make all women have a better chance at access, capital, and community.”

The winner of Capital Mujer’s debut grant was Alexa Paola Figueroa, who plans to open a food truck that sells local juices. “It’s important that there are organizations such as Capital Mujer that are clear about the particularities of our population and can carry out successful reaffirmation actions such as self-management and entrepreneurship through their activities,” she says. The money has helped her with equipment and marketing.

From the rooftop of the hostel she co-owns in San Juan’s hip neighborhood of Santurce, Camila Reus Figueroa, who has joined Capital Mujer’s board, similarly feels empowered by the events. “Feminism has been stigmatized for years, but it is correct to acknowledge that we are experiencing a very powerful evolutionary process of social transformation,” she says. “The women of Generation X and the millennial generation—we have the singing voice. We are the force of a movement that educates, activates, and promotes equity. We are the engine of change for society. We are the ones who bring controversial and uncomfortable issues to the table with our families and the people around us. We are the ones who assume the responsibility of building a feminist and anti-patriarchal world.”

Now Capital Mujer is accelerating, collaborating with local organizations including Colmena66, a startup accelerator; Free Puerto Rico, a freelancers’ community; and Hablemos Social Media, a marketing consultancy.

Some of the women have been inspired by a Puerto Rican powerhouse stateside: Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, whose mother is Puerto Rican. “Her vulnerability and realness make her incredibly strong. She is purpose driven,” says Rohena Cruz. “She has a vision for her country that, for some people, might feel impossible or unattainable but for her—and the people that need it the most—is the only way to go on. I am constantly learning from her while raising my own voice.”

On the flip side, Capital Mujer has inspired a local rising star in Puerto Rican politics: Alexandra Lúgaro, who attended Capital Mujer’s dinners while running for governor—not as a keynote speaker or a glad-handing politician but as an everyday woman (albeit one whose husband, Manuel Natal Albelo, was concurrently running for mayor in San Juan).

“People preach self-determination, but when putting that to action, it’s selfish. It’s self-determination for themselves, not for everyone. We have to come to terms with that. Self-determination needs empathy and solidarity,” says Lúgaro. “Women are going through their lives—work, school, all this responsibility on their backs—without much time for catharsis and unwinding and talking to someone about what’s happening. It’s so liberating and such a taboo: women talking freely about how they feel, even about sexuality and what they’d like their partners to do with them.”

Capital Mujer has also inspired women who have not yet attended its events. Sánchez’s eight-year-old daughter, Valentina, has created El Club de Niñas Pequeñas (the Little Girls’ Club) at her school. In it, she and her female classmates draw, sing, talk, and make mud cakes. It’s a place of community and hopefully, eventually, inspiration for entrepreneurship.

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Originally Appeared on Vogue