Breaking New Ground. There are some individuals who have big ideas, always dreaming of what could be. One day, they realize the majority of their lives were spent dreaming, and their legacy to greatness exists only in their minds. Then there are the more courageous individuals. These are the few who dare to dream big dreams, and who dare to act upon them. For them, no challenge is too great, and no obstacle too daunting. As a young girl growing up in Albuquerque, N.M., Linda Alvarado was constantly reminded of the importance of family, work and education. Perhaps it was the message of these three ideals that shaped her future; perhaps it was her inner strength that gave her courage to live her dream. Regardless, today she is regarded as one of the most successful Hispanic businesswomen in the nation. Alvarado heads Alvarado Construction, continually ranked as one of the country’s fastest-growing commercial general contracting firms. Clients are numerous and impressive; her firm has taken a huge role in massive projects such as Denver International Airport, Invesco Field and the Colorado Convention Center.
In addition to her success in a profession that counts in its ranks few women and even fewer women executives, Alvarado opened new doors in 1991 by becoming the first entrepreneurial woman, and first Hispanic, to assume ownership in a major-league baseball franchise, the Colorado Rockies. She has sat on several Fortune 500 boards, including Pepsi Bottling Group, 3M Pitney Bowes, US West Communications and Norwest Banks. In 1996, she was named Revlon Business Woman of the Year, designated one of the 100 Most Influential Hispanics in America by HISPANIC BUSINESS magazine, and honored as the 1996 U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Business Woman of the Year. She’s received the Sara Lee Corporation Frontrunner Award, the 2001 Horatio Alger Award, and in 2002, was inducted into the Colorado Women’s Hall of Fame. She was named to the White House Commission for Hispanic Excellence in Education, named Woman of the Year by the Mexican American Foundation and given the National Women’s Economic Alliance Director’s Choice Award. But what makes Alvarado so remarkable — and indeed so approachable — is her complete lack of guile. Her candor and intelligence shine through, and her seemingly endless energy has helped her earn the profound respect of women, business owners, government officials and more.
Our meeting took place in a conference room in what will one day be the site of Alvarado’s new offices in the original Denver County Courthouse, a wonderful building in downtown Denver. Alvarado is in the process of refurbishing the building, which once housed the city courts and jail complex. Today, the building serves as home to various local nonprofits. Much has been written about Linda Alvarado, the businesswoman, but just who is Linda Alvarado, the person? How has this devoted wife and mother managed to defy all the odds and become so successful in a male-dominated industry? As the only daughter raised in a family of six kids, Alvarado admittedly grew up in an environment that was both competitive and challenging on all levels. “For starters, it was a very athletic environment because six kids meant a team. There was always a lot of baseball, football, soccer, anything with a ball. My parents allowed and encouraged me to participate in all these activities because they understood that playing competitive sports was not just about winning or losing, it was about teamwork, which can be applied to so many other aspects of life,” she recalls.
Both of Alvarado’s grandfathers were ministers, which meant that her adolescent world centered entirely on school, church and sports. There was no time for dancing, drinking or dating, and when she finally left home to attend Pomona College in California, a new world opened up to her. “It was very radical for a Hispanic girl to go away to school, and culturally it was just not the norm,” she says. “My parents were so positive and forward-thinking in this way, and were aware that we would always face obstacles that would try to prevent us from pursuing our goals.” Linda AlvaradoWhile all of Alvarado’s brothers attended the University of New Mexico on wrestling scholarships, she was offered a softball scholarship by the University of Illinois, one of the first universities in the nation to offer athletic scholarships to women. However, she opted for an academic scholarship to Pomona College, a move that changed her life. ”The vast majority of girls I grew up with were raised with the expectation they would attend high school, then marry someone from the community. My parents did whatever it took to ensure each of us would have the opportunity to go further,” she says. In fact, while her father worked hard to support his family through his job with the United States Atomic Energy Commission, her mother supplemented the family income by taking in ironing. The family lived in a modest three-bedroom adobe home built by Alvarado’s father. The home had no heat or indoor plumbing, and mundane chores such as laundry were done with water carried in from a nearby drainage ditch.
What Alvarado took away from her humble childhood was the importance of education, values and a commitment to accomplishing her goals. During this period, she held fast to a belief that guided her — “I always reminded myself, ‘You know who you are, and you need to be focused on where you’re going. But never forget where you came from, and never forget to give back.’” Alvarado credits her mother with the passion and unwavering determination that has brought her to where she stands today: “My mom was probably born a generation too soon. She was encouraging and always found the best in anyone, regardless of where they had come from or what they had done. There are so many gifts we can give our children, beginning with the gift of self-esteem. It’s all about enabling and empowerment and helping people believe they can succeed in any endeavor. If you have a dream and you believe in yourself, that’s the most important.” Alvarado’s start in the construction industry is a remarkable story unto itself. It was a time when the world was beginning to accept that women could make a difference, and Alvarado was at the cusp of this change. “Pomona was a great liberal arts college, and I was unsure which path I wanted to pursue. I did not want to be an architect or engineer, but I did know I needed a job to be able to pay my expenses while at school,” she says.
She answered an ad to work on a landscaping crew and was immediately asked by the man in charge, “What are you doing here? Don’t you understand that all the girls work in food service?” “Growing up, I did not cook even for my family, because my mother’s gift to me was to let me study and further myself, so that one day I could have greater opportunities,” she recalls. She returned to the landscaping office, and eventually convinced the man to give her the job. “He probably thought I’d quit when I realized the work was too hard. But I enjoyed it!” she says. After college, she took a job as a contract administrator at a construction site. “At the time, there were no laws requiring separate restrooms on the sites, and I’d go into the san-o-lets and find hand-drawn pictures of myself in various stages of undress. But I always kept my sense of humor, which was critical to gaining the respect of others and not taking things too seriously,” she says. By the 1970’s, the term glass ceiling was being bandied about. “Women could see the ceiling, but could not break through,” she recalls. “In my case, it was more like the concrete ceiling, and I had to try to find ways to move past it.” This was also a time of radical change within the construction industry. “The industry was being introduced to the first generation of computer scheduling, which was changing the way business was being done. It was more than a productivity factor, it was a method of expediting the projects and understanding how to make logical adjustments to the projects. It was truly groundbreaking,” she explains.
Taking this new knowledge, Alvarado developed a “crazy notion that I could build buildings.” The obstacle this time was the proverbial dollar. “I drew up a business plan, which I took to the banks. If I wasn’t well-accepted on a construction site, you can imagine what the banks thought. Here’s a Hispanic, a woman, a vegetarian, who wanted to start a construction company. I was turned away each time,” she says. In the end, her parents were her backers. They mortgaged their modest home for $2,500, which was “a huge demonstration of their faith in me,” according to Alvarado. “I was able to pay them back, but I’ll never be able to repay them.” Eventually, she also secured a loan from the Small Business Administration, and she was in business. She began with small jobs, such as curb, gutter and sidewalk work, and built from there. “I learned early on to sign my proposals with my initials. The name ‘Linda’ was not a good way to be taken seriously,” she says. In short order, her initials began appearing on proposals for small structures, such as bus shelters, including about 300 that she built for the Regional Transportation District. Today, her company has grown to include work on highrises, sport stadiums, aquariums, convention centers, schools, shopping centers, historic renovations, water-treatment facilities and a huge range of other projects. Work takes place in 14 states, and the company is continually recognized as one of the most successful construction contracting firms in the country. Along the way, Alvarado remains dedicated to creating opportunity for women, children and minorities. She was part of the original committee of 200 formed in 1982 that brought together high-powered female executives from around the nation to create a network that would result in more opportunities for women everywhere. The group included the country’s most powerful women, such as Katharine Graham of the Washington Post, Sherry Lansing of 20th Century Fox and Christie Hefner of Playboy Enterprises.
Linda AlvaradoShe brings groups of kids to tour Coors Field, where she offers a real-life look at potential careers.
“They can go into the broadcast booth and discuss careers in journalism; they can meet with the head of ticket sales about marketing, media and promotion. Then I like to meet with the kids as a team owner, to discuss what this involves, and use it as a broader way to open their minds to the limitless possibilities of what they can do,” she says. Another fun thing for the kids is to let them sit in owners’ seats above the dugouts. Such experiences, she believes, inspire and motivate the kids and let them imagine all sorts of possibilities. “Many of our greatest ideas and perspectives occur during our youth, so if we can open kids’ eyes early on to all the possibilities, we can help direct them to a more positive future,” she believes. In a sense, Alvarado’s life and her ensuing success are the direct result of approaching life in a nontraditional way. “Most of the things I have done were not what one would expect,” she says. “I did not marry immediately, I did not have children immediately, and I even lived in a different place initially. I’ve traveled extensively for business, while my husband has stayed home with the kids.” Such choices, she believes, can be boiled down to what she terms ‘opportunity costs.’ “For example, I have to be in San Francisco for a meeting the same night my child is in a school play. Or I was away on business the same day as the mother-daughter Brownie banquet. But my husband filled the role, and these remain for them some of the most memorable, wonderful and unexpected experiences. Had I been there, these would have been opportunities lost,” she says. And then there’s baseball. Alvarado explains, “I was initially contacted to be part of a small group looking at the possibility of acquiring a professional baseball team. The league hadn’t had an expansion since 1976, and Denver was one of the cities being considered. I looked at the large number of Latino players, and I told my husband, ‘I want to do this.’ It was high-risk, and we stood to lose a lot of money that we would not get back if we didn’t get the bid.”
The risk was twofold: First a referendum had to pass to build the stadium; second, the stadium actually had to be built. This was the first time in history that a woman had the opportunity to have some ownership of a major league baseball team as an independent entrepreneur. “Additionally, I was the first Hispanic (male or female) to become owner of a professional sports franchise. It was a great experience to break this barrier, and resulted in a great deal of pride within the Hispanic community, ” she says. Even with all her accomplishments, Alvarado is quick to deflect praise: “I’ve been fortunate to be in a position to be a first in many things. A lot of women have done remarkable things, and it has opened the door for me and many others. I don’t want to be the first and the only woman or Hispanic to achieve a certain goal. That would mean I’m not doing my part to open doors for other women.”
By ELLEN GRAY
Photography KIT WILLIAMS