Bertha Ferrán: Modeling Business and Civic Leadership
“I’ve been involved in community since I got here,” says Bertha Ferrán , a founding director of the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber and a commissioner of the Portland Development Commission.
With a successful real estate career and board memberships at various nonprofit agencies, including the United Way of the Columbia-Willamette, Ferrán is among the most recognized and well-respected Latina businesswomen in town.
She was 13 years old when she first arrived to the United States, as one of more than 14,000 children who were part of Operation Peter Pan (Operación Pedro Pan), an operation coordinated by the United States government, the Roman Catholic Church, and Cuban exiles. From December 1960 to October 1962, children of parents who opposed the Communist government were taken from Cuba to the United States.
“We were helped by Catholic Charities and other organizations. These folks were interested in lending a hand to people coming into this country establish a better life,” she said.
Ferrán remembers those early years in Oregon, and an experience that cemented her belief in the importance of serving others.
“Back then, Catholic Charities also knew that help is needed in migrant camps. During the 1960s, Father Bravo, a priest from Mexico, came to the area to serve migrant farmworkers. Father Park, head of Catholic Charities at the time, asked some of us if we were interested in helping Father Bravo do catechism to the little kids in the migrant camps on the weekends,” she said.
At the time, very few people in Oregon spoke Spanish, and asking the young Cuban émigrés to help out resulted in wonderful learning opportunities for both sides. “It was an interesting experience, because there are differences in Spanish spoken in various Latin American countries. Sometimes one of us would say something during catechism, and the kids would just look at us, not understanding the meaning,”
“The kids would tell us: ‘In Mexico, we would say it this way.’ Pretty soon, we have even broadened our knowledge of Spanish. We learned a lot from the kids we were teaching,” Ferrán said.
Getting the teenagers to mentor younger kids was an excellent way to get young people involved in giving back, Ferran said. “It’s important for folks to get their kids involved in community at a young age. You learn early that helping out is just a way of life,” she said.
In a Q&A with Colors of Influence, Ferran shares her thoughts on success and wealth creation and the importance of philanthropy and community service.
What attracted you to a career in real estate?
Even as a child in Cuba, my family had real estate. I grew up knowing about property ownership. My first job was at a title company, then working as an escrow officer then getting into lending. I’ve always been involved in affordable housing and finding ways to provide opportunities for everyone to buy a home. I truly believe that for families, real estate is a path to wealth creation. Owning your home can help you with a lot of financial goals down the road: putting your children through college or starting a business.
A lot of immigrant families think that homeownership is a dream that is not attainable. They come from countries where homeownership is only possible for a few. Here in the U.S., homeownership is available to all. At the same token, we need to give people the right tools to attain their dream.
As in everything else, education is the key. We need to be more proactive in educating our community. We’ve all heard about what’s happening in the subprime market. Unfortunately, a lot of folks were guided into the type of financing that really would not help them. We’re very lucky in Oregon because we have programs for first-time homebuyers, but not everyone knows how to access the resources or are even aware that these programs exist.
I’m proud of the work of Operation H.O.M.E. If you look at the data and history, there is a much lower percentage of minorities who are homeowners within the city. We’ve gathered a number of folks throughout the industry and community volunteers to look at all different steps of the homeownership process. The task is to find ways to improve on the process and help more first-time homebuyers in minority communities.
What is your primary charge as a commissioner at the Portland Development Commission?
We follow the policies and guidelines set by the city council for the PDC. It’s a collaborative effort. It’s important for people to understand that Urban Renewal Areas only cover 15% of the city. The Portland Development Commission can only use tax increment financing dollars only on that 15% of the city. That’s because of a state law regarding urban renewal dollars. It would behoove the Legislature to allow the state’s urban renewal organizations like PDC to be able to use some dollars outside of urban renewal areas for the benefit of the entire city.
PDC has made processes more open and transparent to the public. PDC folks are going out more into the communities, and more people have a better understanding of what PDC does. In the homeownership arena, we’re being more proactive by figuring out ways to make homeownership affordable for more people.
How does your work in business and civic life affect communities of color?
My hope is that I am contributing to making homeownership opportunities available for people of color. Our communities have challenges and what helps is looking at problems as opportunities so we can all work together. Through my work, I’m fortunate enough to work with a lot of people who think the same way. We work together in creating ways to make the community better.
How has the Hispanic community in Oregon changed since the early years?
People used to think of the Hispanic community as people who only worked with the land. Like with every immigrant group, our communities have moved along with every generation. We have a lot of folks with various educational backgrounds in many professional fields, in all different types of industry.
America is the land of opportunity. As our families and communities are here longer, more opportunities exist. I’m keen on education, and very proud of what we have accomplished in the Hispanic Metropolitan Chamber to provide scholarships for young people who want to go to college. Latino youth now have opportunities to finish their schooling.
What personal accomplishments are you most proud of?
I’m most proud of my family. My daughter is a dean in a Washington D.C. school, and my son is a sportswriter. Along with my two grandkids, they’re my pride and joy.
I’m very fortunate to have the chance to work with other folks in different communities. It’s great to work with people who are always looking for ways to better the city. Because of my relationship with Catholic Charities and other local organizations, I had the opportunity to help the community with issues like housing and education. It’s great to be involved with United Way, because they support many different types of local programs.
What do you enjoy most about the work you do everyday?
Community service is important because I learned about the importance of giving back as a kid. Back in Cuba, I learned at an early age about the importance of philanthropy through my family. My parents were very involved in community and charities. I was the youngest granddaughter, and I always accompanied my grandmother to charity events.
I enjoy helping people move into homes. Whether they are first-time homebuyers or if they’re buying their fifth home. It’s very gratifying to see folks moving into a home that they want to live in. I love working with people. I get to meet a lot of folks, and each day is never the same.
How does your cultural background affect the way you conduct business?
People who have been in this country for a long time still have a different perspective about how they approach certain things. I don’t feel any different than anybody else, but often other folks still have the perception of difference.
Sometimes having the same cultural background with other folks is helpful. I believe that it’s important for people coming to America to learn English, but at the same token, you still appreciate it when someone speaks to you in your native language. I think that people who are new to America find it easy to communicate and relate to me.
That’s what’s great about this country: everyone can keep their individuality and their culture, and still be part of American society. You don’t have to lose your identity to fully embrace what this country is all about.