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How to Make It as a Latina Entrepreneur: Lessons from an Armadillo (w/ Sami Haiman-Marrero, CEO - Urbander)

Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:00]:

One of the great things about entrepreneurship is that we tend to excel when we follow our own rules. When we look back at the most successful entrepreneurs, every piece of themselves that they brought to the table helped them to build something that only they could have made. Sami Haiman-Marrero is the CEO of Urbander, an award winning communications agency that specializes in building relationships with diverse stakeholders. Her latina heritage and bilingual background formed the bedrock of her identity. She also describes herself as an armadillo. She's got thick skin, she's scrappy, and she has a keen sense of smell.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:00:36]:

Which really has helped me because I can smell bullshit a mile away.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:00:41]:

Nice. Born in the Bronx, Sammy and her family moved to Puerto Rico when she was eight. Once she was armed with a master's degree in communications, she headed back to New York to dive headfirst into the media and publishing industry. Sami was convinced that she would find success. But like many of the founders we've talked to, she soon found herself grappling with some harsh realities, dealing with cultural and social environments that were completely different from the ones she grew up with. To kick off the new year, I sat down with Sami to hear her story. You're about to hear her best advice on self advocacy, why communication is the most useful skill for any entrepreneur, and how her business thrived during two major economic downturns. I'm Katherine Vasilopoulos, and this is


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:01:27]:

And So, She Left, the podcast about incredible women entrepreneurs and the wisdom they gained beyond the corporate world. Sami Haiman-Marrero spent almost her entire life in Puerto Rico. But you can tell right away that she has roots in the Bronx. She's direct, vocal, funny, and doesn't pull any punches. So, naturally, when she first landed in New York to start her life working In media and publishing...


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:02:09]:

I honestly thought I was hot shit, right? I was young, I was cute, I was educated, I was bilingual. And I said, forget about it. I have all of the assets and all of the skills that I need to really make it. It was, to me, a big, big shock to walk into the publishing and media industry in New York City and realized that my persona as a Latina was really not what I thought it was going to be and that it was an industry really run by white males. And to navigate that was not going to be easy. And so it was really interesting, because those first few years, it was a lot of figuring out where do I fit in and how do I go from being invisible to being seen and then also becoming an armadillo?


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:03:10]:

What do you mean by that?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:03:11]:

What does that mean? I always say that as small as I was oftentimes feeling, my experience in the corporate segment afforded me the opportunity to observe the behaviors of my male counterparts and also, unbeknownst to me, find a mentor in a white jewish female that took me under her wing. And she was amazing because she taught me the language of numbers and of the corporate segment, which is really about revenues. Right. And about the bottom line. And she would always tell me, Sami, you need to make sure that you attach your performance to either savings or revenue. Right? Either you save them money or you make them money, and that's how you're basically establishing your worth here. And I'm like, okay, lady, I got you. Right? And so it was very interesting.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:04:17]:

And in that process, as I was bulldozing my way into these spaces, I became an armadillo because I developed a thick skin. Right. Everything from pushing back on who do you think you are? And not feeling offended by that and to forget it. I mean, I don't want to start dropping F bombs here, but I've been called everything in the book, and at this point, it just doesn't faze me. But then there's other characteristics that the armadillo has that I feel I was also able to develop in my corporate life prior to becoming an entrepreneur that then equipped me. Aside from a thick skin, they have long claws. Right?


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:05:02]:



Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:05:03]:

Yeah. And so I learned how to pull out my claws and push back. Right. And so I learned how to have really quick rebounds. Right. And participate in banter that often happens in these male dominated circles. And I was marveled at, my goodness, how do these guys talk to each other like this? And then they move it along and they move on. They're not offended.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:05:26]:

They're not. Right. And so I learned those were the claws of my armadillo Persona. Right.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:05:33]:

What kind of situations did you walk into where people weren't expecting you, or what did you hear in terms of that first experience? Tell me more about that.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:05:41]:

I'll give you an example. So I started this job, right? And it was a publishing job at a big, big company. I was one of the few women on the sales and advertising team. One day, within the first week that I was there, the two big bosses were on opposite sides of the floor, their offices. Right. They were on opposite sides of the floor with these glass doors. So they could see the team. Yes.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:06:14]:

Anyway. And so all of a sudden, everything's quiet. We're all working in our cubicles, and they both come out of their respective offices and start yelling at each other like, no, F you. And F you. And I'm like, oh, my God. What the hell is going on here? And then they go back into their offices. So I remember this woman that was sitting behind me, Doreen. She starts laughing, and she says, honey, I'm going to tell you right now, you better smarten up and not let them walk all over you, because then it's over.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:06:48]:

Meaning you better develop a thick skin. So later that week, I was part of the executive team and the only woman at the time. And so I was called in for their weekly meeting, and I had already planned this entire trip with my immediate boss, right? And when we're in the meeting, I noticed that everybody was reporting on what they were doing. And so when it was my turn, I'm like, okay, cool, let me show off, right, that I've already gotten some stuff lined up. And so I mentioned we had already set up a meeting to meet with Bacardi. Bacardi, the brand down in Miami. And so as I'm explaining this, I say Bacardi because it's a Spanish brand, right? And the guy next to me, I won't say his last name. His name was Kenny.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:07:38]:

He goes and says, what did she just say? What did she. Oh, come on. Can we speak English here? And he started dropping bombs, right? Like, what the F is going on here? Right? What is she saying? And so then immediately, I turned to him, and I said, oh, I'm sorry, Kenny, right? And he says, yes. And I said, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that you were linguistically challenged. Let me help you out here, Bacardi. But you see, in Spanish, it's Bacardi.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:08:09]:

And then I turned over to my boss, and I looked at it, and everyone was, you know, and then that was it, right? So I gained their respect, and I was able to push back and set some healthy boundaries of engagement so that way they wouldn't mess around with me. And then the third characteristic that really distinguishes or is very prominent with the armadillo is that it has a very keen sense of smell, which really has helped me because I can smell bullshit a mile away.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:08:38]:

Nice. But were you always like this, or did you ever have moments where you were shy or felt invisible and then you had to really come out of that shell and to get to that place of invincibility?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:08:54]:

Well, you know what? It's interesting, because growing up in Puerto Rico and then with my parents, I mean, they dragged me to marches in Puerto Rico for either political causes or environmental causes or social justice causes. Right. I grew up in a family that was very vocal and very much about voicing our opinions. And so when I first moved to the US mainland, one of the first few jobs that I got, I got fired because I opened my mouth. And so then I did have to kind of reel it back in and learn how to navigate this new culture because it was very different from what I grew up with. And then the University of Puerto Rico is very well known also for being about advocacy. Right. And about La Lucha, the fight.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:09:48]:

Right. And human rights and all of that kinds of stuff. And so it was a big disconnect for me to come into such a structured and again male dominated and also non latino work environment where you had to kind of follow certain rules and align yourself with certain protocols to make sure that you were able to just survive.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:10:17]:

Yes. Because corporate life is completely different. Absolutely. You walk into a corporation, you have to adopt their values. They always have a motto or they have some kind of mission statement, and you have to adapt to that. And if it means, oh, I have to keep my mouth shut on my opinions because if I'm heard saying certain things, then maybe they'll fire me or they're going to cast me in a different category. And being bilingual also is helping you because you're able to navigate and be on either side of that cultural fence. Tell me more about that.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:10:45]:

The bilingualism.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:10:46]:

Yes. I think that that's been the big advantage that I've had in terms of my career, because all of the job opportunities that I was able to have before becoming an entrepreneur were highly anchored in my bicultural, bilingual expertise or skill sets. Right. And so it's been kind of like my...Like a compass. Yes. My north star. Right.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:11:21]:

It's about really highlighting the value of multiculturalism and bilingualism. And that's been at the forefront of everything I've done in my career and also from an entrepreneurship standpoint. But it's also been the challenge because I think that people then pigeonhole you into just this category. Right. And don't see you beyond the whole Latino bilingual bicultural bit. And so one of the big things that I've pushed throughout my career is how most Latinos that are bilingual and bicultural have a foot in both cultures and that they can easily navigate.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:12:11]:

You're not just an armadillo, you're also chameleon, I think.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:12:14]:

Exactly. That's true. Right. It's been a really interesting thing to see and to experience coming again from an island where know, is part of the culture. And then also meeting so many other cultures over here and being able to find your tribe, not only within your own community.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:12:39]:

Yes. Because you're in the Bronx and in New York especially, there's just every culture must be in there at some point. You're meeting so many people, especially in communications and media. So what was that experience like for you to be in that very multicultural environment?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:12:54]:

It was very interesting, but again, very challenging because we were like a niche offering. Right. And so I recall traveling across the nation to meet with a lot of latino agencies, mainstream agencies, and also just client direct. And the pushback that I received, sometimes very offensive, too, right. Was like, wow, I can't believe people are just so into their lanes, right. That they can't see above and beyond what's right in front of them. And what a missed opportunity not to consider that there are other cultures and other perspectives to factor in, and it's really going to hinder the growth of your company. I would smile and say, wow, if you don't get on this bus soon, I won't see you in another ten years.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:13:56]:



Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:13:57]:

I think there's a thing where there's, like, navel gazing. That's what I call it, where people are just looking at themselves and they're just looking at what's happening to them, and they're not actually looking up and seeing, well, there's diversity around us, and let's try to maximize what we can learn from everybody else's experience. The richness that comes from those experiences can then help you grow into something else. Those are all very important storytelling moments, and I'd love to hear more about for you, like, where has that taken you today? Because you have this incredible strength. When I hear you speaking, it's coming out of all of your pores. There's an incredible power there, and I want to hear more about that. How did you develop all this?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:14:34]:

I grew up in a household that was very. A lot of animosity. Let's just call it that, right. My dad had a very big personality, and my mom had one to match, and so highly intelligent people, but, oh, my goodness, it was a lot. Right. So I think that growing up in a household where you were faced with a lot of open discussions and arguments and just a lot of friction, you learned how to work around that and be okay with being uncomfortable. Right.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:15:14]:

And hearing somebody else's opinion, that's different than yours, right?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:15:17]:

Oh, my goodness, yes. Right. And then see how you just squash it. So I feel that that in a way conditioned me to then see this environment, say, okay, what is familiar? The whole male dominated thing. I grew up in Puerto Rico. It's a very machista society, right? So then I'm like, oh, okay, so that's similar, right? It's not quite the same, but it's a little bit familiar to me. And so then I know how to deal with this, right? And so how did I deal with trying to compete toe to toe with my male counterparts or with walking into a know with the name Sami Haiman not coming know, dispelling this idea that they're going to meet with a Jewish man. Right.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:16:00]:

Sami Haiman. And so then I intentionally learned how to minimize my femininity. Like, I would wear my hair pulled back, I tried to use demure jewelry, always wore pantsuits, dark colors, high heels, so I could make myself taller, right. Because I'm five three on a good day. So it was very strategic in many ways. I learned also not to. I never dated anyone in the industry. Some of my friends did that.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:16:35]:

I'm like, no, don't do that, right? And so then I just took note or just observed and said, oh, hell, no, I'll never do that. Just having this conversation makes me just reminisce on all the good things, on all the not so good things, but most importantly, on all the relationships, right. That I developed and that have stuck.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:17:05]:

What did you learn from those relationships? What were they about for you?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:17:10]:

That it's really about building trust and the sense of solidarity. Solidarity was a really big thing when I was in publishing and really finding those people that mean what they say and say what they mean today. I still maintain relationships with people that I met in my publishing years, and they're dear, dear friends. And we intentionally look for projects to work on together because we have so much fun. We can just be ourselves. And so that is, I think, the big reward at the end of the journey and what I still have to look forward to, right, establishing new relationships and just, I think that that's the big takeaway, is that whoever's part of your tribe is going to be with you, and those are the people that you're going to lean on, right? Lean in on when you celebrate and when you're in a pickle. I'm so thankful for my friends, because when the moment came for me to decide what do I do next? It was my friends that carried me through and made me believe that this was possible.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:18:40]:

You haven't told us a lot about your business. Can you take a brief moment to just describe it, of course.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:18:46]:

So I like to say that Urbander is a communications firm that helps transform the way we do business by advancing humanity. And we do that by harnessing the power of storytelling to help companies or government agencies or nonprofits better engage with diverse audiences. And so we do that through multilingual multimedia formats, everything from online to outdoor to broadcast to audio. I mean, it's just a lot of fun, right? Targeting the four primary audiences that we believe any organization has. And that's internally with your employees, right? They're the ones that drive your mission and are ambassadors of your brand, and then externally, your end consumer, the vendor community, which is very important because we don't work in silos, right. And then last but not least, people that are in distressed communities that we want to make sure that we elevate so that way they can become our workforce, our vendors, and our consumers.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:20:00]:

I would love to hear about what happened the moment you decided to leave the corporate world and then move on to entrepreneurship.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:20:09]:

I had already been working for a little over a decade in publishing and media and communications, right? And I got to tell you that in the tail end, it was just getting old. For, like, three years before I started urbander, I was like, oh, man, I don't know if I could do this anymore, right? It was already taxing. I had reached a plateau in my career. It was just repetitive. And I'm like, where do I go from here? But what happened was the recession came. The recession of 2008 happened, and I was doing great, right? But my boss flew in from New York at that point. I was working from Orlando for a New York based publishing company, and I had negotiated that as part of my contract with them. And so this remote thing, I've been doing it for 20 years, right? And so in 2004, I moved to Orlando working for this company.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:21:05]:

After four years, my boss comes down to see me to tell me that I had to move back to New York because this recession was making them have to let go of at least five people. And they were looking at me because I was out of state. He started crying, and I'm like, why are you crying? He's like, because you're doing great, and I'm going to have to let you go. And I'm like, that's fine. Don't worry about know. I'll figure this out. And that's when, after two weeks of looking for work in Orlando and realizing that nothing was biting, I decided, that's it. This is my know I have to start my own business.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:21:45]:

Because it's do or die. I had to put food on the table. My husband had lost his job, too. Like, millions of people, right?


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:21:55]:

Yes. It was difficult.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:21:57]:

It was so bad. Our house was like, we hadn't paid our mortgage in three months. It was not good. And so my dad's like, you're going to start a business? Estas loca? Have you lost your mind? And I said, Papi. I mean, what else am I going to do, right? And so I started urban, or I called all my friends nationwide, and only, like, a few called back and said, hey, we'll be on the lookout. And then what happened was, when I was at my wits end, because nothing wasn't breaking any business, my girlfriend Lara calls me, and she's like, oh, my God, I'm going to African safari for two weeks. And my marketing manager just quit, and I have no one to cover for me, right? And I was thinking of you. Are you still in business? I'm like, oh, hell, yeah.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:22:50]:

And she's like, great. Could you cover for me? I'll pay you, but I need to know now, because I'm leaving in two days. And I said, absolutely, under one condition. And she's like, what? And I tell her, if you give me a three month contract. And she's like, you bitch, I'll call you in ten minutes. And I'm like, okay. So we hang up the phone, and I'm, like, waiting. I felt like that show is a jeopardy that goes right with the music, waiting for her to call me back.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:23:23]:

And she did. And this was around October of 2008. And she tells me, I have $13,500 left for this year. For the love of God, tell me yes, that you'll do it, and then we'll renew your contract in January when I get my new budgets.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:23:46]:

Oh, wow.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:23:47]:

And I said, yes, Lara. And she fedexed me her package, and that's it.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:23:53]:

Those are the best friendships, the ones that you make earlier on in a corporation where there's always this disruption and there's difficult times and everybody goes out for coffee and bitches about stuff. But then those friendships stay for 2025 years. They're amazing.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:24:06]:

Yeah. And she's still my friend. I just went to her married this past fall. I went to her wedding in New York, and it was great, right? Amazing. Yeah. So that's just one of many, then. My best friend since we grew up in Puerto Rico when we were eight years old. She's a lawyer in Texas, and that was our second client.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:24:27]:

She was working for a big law firm in Dallas, and they were bringing in a marketing firm. And when they did a presentation to the principal, right. At the law firm she was working at, she says, these people don't know what they're talking about. My girlfriend Sami could do a much better job. And he's, you know, the principal. And she's like, yeah, let's fly her in. And I got landed that account, too. So that was my second client, my best friend since we were eight years old.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:24:53]:

Could you imagine? Oh, my God. It was just so awesome to just get the respect and recognition and being able to help them, too, as they were transitioning. Right. I think this experience served us well when the pandemic hit a. We've been working remotely for 15 years, so we already knew what that felt like. Right. The second thing is that we weren't afraid of the economic downturn, because we had launched our business during hard economic times. Right.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:25:29]:

So you knew what that looked like.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:25:31]:

Yeah. And we weren't afraid of it. Right. So I was like, that's not the cuckoo. That's not the boogeyman for us. Right. That's not the monster under the bed. Right.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:25:40]:

For us, the monster was this Covid thing that we had no idea how to deal with that. Right.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:25:46]:

Very scary.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:25:47]:

And so we were able to really collaborate back to the topic of partnerships and relationships and collaboration. So everybody that was within our circle that were also business owners, we were all busy during that time, and we actually did very well.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:26:05]:

There was opportunity. I mean, not in every industry, but some industries really thrived. And if you were lucky enough to be in one of those, then people saw an uptick in their income. Not the opposite.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:26:16]:

Yes. Not only that, the whole pivoting thing. Right, being pivoting. Learning how to be nimble enough, like, structured enough to get things done right and be strategic about it, but nimble enough to be able to adjust to what's going on, all those contextual factors that you have no control over. Right. And so I think that's what helped us and benefited us too. Right. We have that clear advantage of knowing how to work in a remote environment.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:26:49]:

That's how we landed some of the bigger accounts that we have now, because we got calls saying, hey, you've been doing this. How can we do engagement? Normally, they would do outdoor activations. Right? How do we do engagement using technology? And we're like, oh, this is how you do it. Right. And so then we were quickly able to help clients that were not on our roster, but that knew us from our community. Work and our cause based work to help them navigate and pivot and be more nimble. Now, those relationships have been strengthened because we got through it together. And so these clients are now family.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:27:38]:

What kind of advice would you give people who are maybe on the fence about starting their own business or people who have started but are in the beginning phases?


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:27:48]:

I would say that there are many resources available and that the first thing that you should do is just google it. Right? Outline for business plan. That way you can really articulate your value proposition, your strengths, your weaknesses, the opportunities, threats. You really define your audience. The second thing I would say is the best money you can spend. Your first expenditure should be a good accountant or CPA.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:28:21]:



Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:28:21]:

So first, figure out what the hell you're doing right. And structure it right. So that way you're not shooting and you can articulate. I couldn't say what we did at the beginning because I was just like trying to survive. And a lot of entrepreneurs are just on survival mode, so we have to stop doing that. Number two, the CPA. And I would say the third thing is incorporate giving back to the community from the get go. And I got to tell you, that has been really my lifeline, right.


Sami Haiman-Marrero [00:28:53]:

Because when I first started, I realized that it was so difficult to find work during a crisis, right, an economic crisis, right. And I have the advantages that other people that migrated from other countries into the US don't have that meshing and gelling and weaving yourself right as a business owner into your community, to me, is where magic happens.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:29:28]:

Thank you so much to Sami Haiman-Marrero. You can learn more about Urbander through the link in the episode description. If you like the show, please rate, review and subscribe to And So, She Left wherever you listen. Your feedback helps us to continue to make the show you want to hear and to reach new listeners. We also have a new website. Head over to for full episodes, transcripts, an application form to be on the show, a list of upcoming guests, and more. And So, She Left is made by Cansulta and Ethan Lee. Cansulta connects entrepreneurs and leaders with a global roster of over 150 pre vetted consultants and experts like Ethan and I, who can help organizations in any business area, from HR to finance to sales and marketing and communications. We'll be back next Wednesday with a new episode.


Katherin Vasilopoulos [00:30:16]:

Our music is by Correspondence and Chris Zabriskie, edited for your enjoyment. You can find a list of all the songs you heard here in the episode notes. I'm Katherin Vasilopoulos and thanks for listening.

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