Esther Novak embodies the definition of a self-starter. She came to the U.S. from Lima, Peru, at nearly 10 years old, not knowing any English. From then on, she never let any stage in life be a deterrent to what she wanted to do.
“I found it important to learn English quickly and lost my accent quickly,” says Novak, who spent the rest of her childhood years in Brooklyn, NY. “What influenced me the most was when a kid asked me, ‘Where in Africa is Peru?’ I was a very nationalistic Peruvian, and I often had to draw a map for people.”
She has come far since elementary school, but she still finds herself being somewhat of an ambassador for Latinos. In 1994, when she was 35, she became the founder and CEO of her own marketing and communications company, VanguardComm, serving Fortune 500 companies and non-profits and supporting Latino access to mainstream brands.
“We were the second largest boutique Latino public relations firm in ‘95 — we grew very rapidly initially,” says Novak who had major clients, including The Gillette Company, Tropicana, Sprint and some non-profits. “I think it was a combination of doing the right things at the right time, and I think we were offering a unique approach which was integrated marketing.”
She says she created a very culturally-specific business model serving the African-American, Asian and Hispanic markets.
“The Latino market has grown so exponentially,” says Novak who today now solely serves the Latino market. “When I first started, it was 50-50, a little Asian, African-American and Hispanic.”
To Novak, being Peruvian is a very important part of her life, and she says it has been a major driver in her business.
“The language, the value system, and the fact that it’s an underserved community and underserved market,” says the CEO who is proud of having opened the door for multiple clients into the Latino sphere.
She says having spent 11 years working at AT&T, the National Endowment for the Arts, and even starting a Hispanic arts program at Rutgers University, really got her tapped into how to serve the Latino market.
“I was able to understand the notion of cultural cues and competency,” says Novak who was has been on a mission to change the negative and stereotypical view of Hispanics all her life. “It’s basically approaching the marketplace with respect and understanding and inviting them as customers.”
The Barnard College and Columbia University graduate who majored in literature says it was pure happenstance she ended up in marketing.
“I graduated from Barnard, moved to New Jersey and got a job as a social case worker — which I only got because I knew Spanish,” says Novak, who had always planned to work in the arts or academia. “Then I got pregnant and ended up having twins, and that was a bigger distraction than I thought it would be.”
She says that turn in her life gave her a desire for independence and to be able to be a more proactive navigator of her career — she began seeing the clear need and importance for starting her own firm.
“I had no idea what I was doing,” says Novak who basically learned on the job. “I had to learn how to be an entrepreneur. Working for the largest corporations, government and state universities are no training at all for being an entrepreneur. It’s a whole different thought process, skill set, and value system.”
But Novak says she was an expert at on-the-job training. She started VanguardComm at home, and then by the time she was finished changing diapers, she moved into an office in New York. As the company grew, she merged it with Ketchum for a time, and then went back to rebuilding it on her own.
“Over the years, I had to restart the firm a few times so it’s been a roller coaster,” says Novak about the three times she’s had to relaunch — once after the merge with Ketchum and then with the economic downturn. “About a year and a half ago, I changed my business model to a virtual model. I have clients in NY, Miami, Cleveland, and parts of Texas — the need for a stationary office is no longer applicable to me.”
She says this has given her even more flexibility and independence.
“The independence to pursue what I think is important…I could be working for a hospital, for non-profits trying to get better healthcare,” says Novak. “The diversity and variety of the work — that’s so attractive to me.”
She says now’s the time for other Latinas to start their own businesses.
“It was a little lonely when I first did it, but there are a lot of support groups now,” says Novak who says to follow your passion and the money will come. “One of them is 100 Hispanic Women — there are also women’s groups and women bloggers.”
Novak looks back at how in her life one thing has led to another.
“I’ve been called a pioneer…and being a leader helps chart the course of things,” she says.