When Elizabeth Lisboa-Farrow arrived in Washington in 1979 to set up her own public relations firm, there weren't red carpets rolled out for a 32-year-old daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants from the South Bronx with no business connections outside of New York.
"I went to seven banks [in the District] before I got the first $10,000 to buy some office furniture" and get started, she recalls. She says it not in anger, but with a smile of satisfaction.
Twenty years later, Lisboa Inc. has 26 employees, a downtown office suite and $13 million in current contract revenue. And Lisboa-Farrow is about to become perhaps the most visible advocate for the District's businesses, small and large, as the incoming president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce.
The elevation of a Latina to the D.C. Chamber post turns another page for the 62-year-old business organization, begun to help small African American business owners and operators deal with the Jim Crow segregation of society and business in the prewar nation's capital. For years it remained a largely black organization, playing a minor role in the city's political and economic life in the shadow of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, whose members were the city's business power structure.
But over the past decade, the D.C. Chamber has quadrupled in size, becoming a diverse organization whose 1,200 members include white, Latino and Asian American business owners, and firms that range from neighborhood businesses to Bell Atlantic-Washington and major K Street consulting firms. Its lobbying targets have grown to cover the District's most important fiscal and bureaucratic issues, including pitches for targeted business tax reduction along Georgia Avenue, in Anacostia, and south of New York Avenue NE.
The chamber's expansion opened its doors to Lisboa-Farrow. "When I first came to Washington, I joined the D.C. Chamber. Quite honestly, I didn't feel welcome."
Instead, she channeled her support to the region's major Latino organization, the Greater Washington Ibero-American Chamber, where her energy and enthusiasm propelled her into leadership positions, associates say.
The rapid growth of the District's Hispanic community in the past decade swelled the influence of its leaders and their role in the D.C. Chamber.
The chamber "wanted to be the organization in the District that represents all groups," Lisboa-Farrow said. "I'm a very inclusive person. I liked what I saw it becoming."
Lisboa-Farrow's selection "demonstrates the chamber's commitment to diversity, racial and ethnic," said A. Scott Bolden, an attorney with the D.C. office of Reed, Smith, Shaw and McClay, who headed the chamber in 1998.
Lisboa-Farrow's goals for the D.C. Chamber are the same as those of her business, she said: "I want to work on the things that I am passionate about--the empowerment of underserved people, on education and on opportunity for small businesses.
"We want to attract and retain businesses in the District, and there's a lot of homework still to be done," Lisboa-Farrow said. Businesses needing city permits "still have a lot of hoops to go through. Yes, it's getting better, but not fast enough."
This is the agenda of a woman who grew up in an impoverished Latino neighborhood in New York, whose father was a hospital dietician, and mother a homemaker caring for four children. Beginning at age 12, she had after-school jobs. "I was rich in cultural pride. My family really stressed that."
In the mid-1970s, she formed a public relations firm, where her contracts included community relations work for the movie company producing the Paul Newman film "Fort Apache, the Bronx."
In 1979, she met Jeffrey Farrow, then an official in the Carter administration, who persuaded her to come to Washington as his wife, she said. Farrow now co-chairs the Clinton administration's working group on Puerto Rico.
In Washington, Lisboa-Farrow shifted her aim to government agencies, qualifying in 1990 for the Small Business Administration's Section 8(a) program that earmarks federal contracts for minority- and women-owned firms. After winning a variety of public relations and media contracts for government agencies, Lisboa Inc. outgrew the program's eligibility limits in 1998.
The company's services today include Internet and multimedia projects for a range of corporate, nonprofit and government clients, including the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, the National Science Foundation, the Hispanic Radio Network and General Motors Corp.
Lisboa-Farrow also chairs the board of trustees at Southeastern University, where she led the selection of D.C. Council member Charlene Drew Jarvis (D-Ward 4) as its president.
"She does a million things and does them well," Bolden said.
Age: 52; born in the South Bronx
Education: Attended private schools in New York City
Work highlights: In 1979, founded Lisboa, a D.C. public relations and consulting firm; in 1994, established Lisboa Productions, an entertainment and production company. Has directed public education and outreach for many government agencies, including the departments of Agriculture, Labor and Energy and the Peace Corps. Becomes president of the D.C. Chamber of Commerce next year.
Other: Chair of the board of trustees, Southeastern University in Washington; awarded the 1999 Presidential Medal from the Universidad Metropolitana in San Juan
Personal: Married to Jeffrey Lloyd Farrow; two children
SOURCES: Lisboa, Who's Who in America 2000