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An American Dream: A Latina-owned business

(Eileen Escarda)

The owner of the largest Latina-owned business in the country is a Spaniard who visited Florida and sensed a business opportunity.

Carmen Castillo is a triply rare CEO — female, Hispanic and expatriate Spaniard with a business that generates nearly $1 billion in revenue.

The sixth of 10 children born into a poor family on the Spanish island of Mallorca, Castillo came to Florida — to Ocean Ridge, a barrier island community in Palm Beach County — in 1987 as a tourist visiting friends. Smitten with the United States and seeing it as the place to fulfill her ambition of owning a business, she returned the following year on a student visa and went to culinary school in Palm Beach "while I figured out how to start my business."

While helping an ailing friend with a restaurant in upstate New York, she made a connection in the IT field and decided to start a company recruiting IT programmers for large corporations. She launched from her apartment in Pompano Beach. Later, she moved to an office park in suburban Fort Lauderdale and into supply chain management, vendor management, general procurement and finally into business process outsourcing, taking on entire non-core functions for her client companies.

Her company, SDI International — she's majority owner — now numbers nearly 2,000 employees globally, most based at client locations and working on a project basis for the likes of IBM, Dell, Lenovo, Office Depot and Motorola.

Hispanic Business magazine ranks SDI the largest Latina-owned business in the nation. "We are on the right track for sure. I'm not what I would like to be yet. I target high," she says.

She targeted the right industry. Tech research company Gartner forecasts business process outsourcing growth is improving, projecting 6.2% growth globally this year and seeing a 5.3% compound annual growth rate through 2016. Outsourcing is a "viable alternative" for non-core, back-office, high transaction services, Gartner reported in January. Canada, where Castillo says business has been particularly good, is forecast to see 9.4% growth, Gartner says.

Castillo travels as much as 60% of the time, calling on clients, visiting employees, opening offices. She has service centers around the United States and in Argentina, Europe and Asia and is nearly ready to open in Africa. "It takes forever to get going there," she says. "Every time you go to a new country, it's like starting a new business all over again."

Emphatic, always leaning forward as she talks, Castillo says a CEO must be "a total visionary to run a big company. Part of the vision for me is the head of the company has to be the head of sales."

Her visionary role also means thinking "totally totally ahead. What kind of technology is going to come up? And what's next before your competitors are thinking about it?" she says.

Carmen Castillo’s Florida headquarters has just a few employees. "With technology, we don't have to have our people in here. I’m here because I like the warm weather because I grew up on an island," she says. Florida also isn’t a great market. "An entire solution only works for very large corporations, and there are not too many large corporations here," she says.

One thing she sees coming up: More onshoring as costs in offshore countries rise and as domestic companies see a value proposition that includes competitive prices plus innovation and creativity.

"The outsourcing days are starting to tumble a bit," she says. "Countries are not as competitive anymore. With all the hacking, you can't trust them anymore. Their salaries get going. They're not loyal. If someone offers them a dollar more a day, they're going to drop you in a day. They're starting to sue employers more than ever. They are learning the American way. They are learning all the bad things about America in a hurry."

In growth times, her business prospers as companies outsource more. In recessionary times, she prospers as companies cut staff and hire her to save money. "Whether the economy is doing good or bad, we're fine either way," she says. "I never blame the economy for anything. I hate when people blame the economy or blame politicians or this and that. Forget it. Blame yourself. You figure out a way to keep doing right things."

Carmen Castillo

Age: 50

Time Off: Went back to Mallorca for Easter to see her family

Family: Divorced, no children

On Women Business Owners:
She’s much in demand as a speaker at conferences on women in business. “There are incredible women business owners overseas. I remember being at a conference last year in South Africa. It was a conference to promote women in business within the continent of Africa. There was this lady from Nigeria. She makes airplane parts, believe it or not. I said you need to be more visible; this is remarkable. That woman particularly caught my eye because she was raped when she was a baby. Her mother died giving birth to another sibling. Took care of like 10 brothers or sisters. Moved to a different village to go to school. What that woman has accomplished … but they don’t have the visibility and the press. (The press doesn’t) care much about women in those countries. In India, there are lots and lots of women in technology, believe it or not. In China, there are quite a lot of women in business. It’s not even comparable to what the guys are doing, but we’re getting there.”