Statistically speaking, Cuban Americans are only a small fraction of the Hispanic population in the U.S. By impact, however, Americans of Cuban descent punch way higher than their weight. This is not meant as a boast but as an expression of pride over what our fellow Cuban Americans have accomplished here in our adopted home. America gave us, our parents, and our grandparents the opportunity to live in freedom and we cannot help but to be incredibly proud of how so many of us have realized incredible success.
Today we present Geisha Williams, a Cuban American who arrived in the U.S. from Cuba when she was only five. Her family fled the tyranny and oppression of the communist Castro dictatorship and like so many others, found themselves starting from scratch in a new country with a language they did not know. Nevertheless, through the hard work and sacrifices of her parents — along with her own — Geisha has accomplished an amazing and magnificent feat: She has become the first ever Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company.
CEO Geisha Williams is a classic immigrant success story. Now, as head of California’s largest utility, she’s embracing a business rocked by powerful change.
When the time came and the Jimenez family was finally permitted to leave Cuba after 18 months of trying, the government gave them barely a matter of days to go. Even at age 5, Geisha understood there was little time for questions, and none for packing toys or books. They would leave their government-owned apartment with whatever they could carry, with just enough time for her dad to visit his parents and say goodbye. The family boarded a plane for Miami and then continued on to St. Paul, where their only American relative, an elderly aunt, lived at the time. The day they arrived in America was the first time any of them saw snow.
That was March 1967. Fifty years later, almost to the day, Geisha Jimenez made business history. Now 55 and known by her married name, Williams, she became the first Latina CEO of a Fortune 500 company—in this instance PG&E Corp. (pcg, -1.13%), the $17.7 billion (revenues) parent of the venerable Pacific Gas & Electric Co.
Williams’s parents were political dissidents in Cuba. They initially supported Fidel Castro, but even then there were hints of their affinity for America in the name they gave their daughter. They took it from the title of a John Wayne flick, The Barbarian and the Geisha, which has to be the only movie in which the aging cowboy was seen on-screen wearing a kimono. (“At least they didn’t name you after the barbarian,” goes the family joke.)
Her parents became disillusioned with Castro after he began militarizing and suppressing free speech. They began attending and organizing counterrevolutionary meetings in the early 1960s. One day, when Geisha was 10 months old, her father, Alberto, disappeared. Her mother, Ana, was told he was dead. Ana refused to believe it; people in Cuba disappeared and reappeared constantly. Eventually, she found him at a local prison, where he was held for three years before he was released for lack of evidence.
After Alberto’s stay in prison, the family decided to flee to the U.S., where, thanks to the Cold War, Cubans could gain near-automatic admittance. Castro’s government didn’t make it easy for them, but they finally departed on March 8, 1967.
Like many immigrants before them, Alberto and Ana took menial jobs in their new country. A welder by trade, he worked in factories during the day—including stints making cardboard boxes and vinyl tablecloths—and washed dishes at local eateries at night. She cut embroidery by the piece. Eventually they saved enough to buy a small grocery store they called La Guajira (peasant girl), in Jersey City, N.J., where they moved shortly after their first winter in St. Paul. They sold that grocery to buy another and inched their way up to become part owners of a supermarket in Newark.
Williams spent most of her time outside of school at the family’s groceries. She would do her homework while perched on a stack of 25-pound bags of rice in the stock room, then pitch in as needed. Her favorite role was cashier, she says, because she loved counting and making change. To this day, she credits that experience as her reason for liking math and eventually becoming an engineer—that and the fact that she didn’t speak any English when she first went to school. “I had a comfort in math because I was still learning the language,” Williams says.
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