Laura Cantero Of Grupo Guayacán On The Benefits Of Running A Purpose-Driven Business

An Interview With Chad Silverstein

Change is a natural process. It is embedded in our daily life. Creating and leading a purpose-driven organization is no exception. In fact, very often, you will find yourself in a situation where change will work for the better of your plans or the organization. My advice: do not fight change… embrace it! I know it’s hard but trust me. Turn your ability to adapt and embrace change into an asset and learn to grow from it. It will hurt sometimes, but in the end, it will be worth it.

In today’s competitive business landscape, the race for profits often takes center stage. However, there are some leaders who also prioritize a mission-driven purpose. They use their business to make a positive social impact and recognize that success isn’t only about making money. In this interview series, we are talking with some of these distinct leaders, and I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Cantero.

Laura Cantero is the Executive Director of Grupo Guayacán, Inc., a nonprofit organization that is committed to nurturing the growth of entrepreneursPrior to joining Guayacán, Laura was Program Director at the Foundation for Puerto Rico and worked as Manager at the Latin America Financial Services (LAFSA) practice for Ernst & Young in Panama. She has over fifteen years of experience in the financial services industry (banking and insurance), specifically in the implementation and delivery of organizational effectiveness and corporate change initiatives focused on improving company performance.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us your “Origin Story”? Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?

I am Laura Cantero, Executive Director of Grupo Guayacán, a nonprofit organization in Puerto Rico that combines private equity investment with several programs aimed at developing, strengthening, and advancing Puerto Rico’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. I was born and raised in San Juan, our archipelago’s capital city. My dad, Ramón, was an Investment Banker, and my mother, Diana, was a homemaker. I am three years older than my only sister, Adriana. I attended an all-girls high school in Puerto Rico, where I made lifelong friends, and pursued an undergraduate business degree at The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania. After college, I returned to Puerto Rico to begin my career in Retail and Commercial Banking at Santander. It was in that job that I first discovered my passion for helping people and businesses grow. Santander led me to consulting in Argentina, Chile, and Colombia, which in turn led me to pursue an MBA at IE Business School in Madrid, Spain. After business school, I joined the Latin America Financial Services practice at Ernst & Young in Panama and returned to Puerto Rico after a two-year stint. I was lucky enough to find Grupo Guayacán and our entrepreneurs upon my return.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

So many interesting things have happened in the last 10 years, and it’s really hard to pick just one! I would have to say that a pivotal moment for the organization was the launch of the Guayacán Endowment Fund in 2016, which coincidentally was also the year my son Joaquín was born. We decided to raise the Endowment as a tool to provide long-term support to our programs, in our attempt to diversify the organization’s revenue sources at a time when our entrepreneurs needed us the most. So, two girls with very little fundraising experience (myself and my colleague Gabriela Álvarez, who now works for Accenture in Chicago) set out to create an endowment fund from the ground up in a place that doesn’t have a strong philanthropic culture. What a feat that was! Little did we know that Hurricane María would hit Puerto Rico a year later in September 2017, our country would be shaken to its core, and Guayacán would have to step up to support our entrepreneurs like never before.

We often learn the most from our mistakes. Can you share one that you made that turned out to be one of the most valuable lessons you’ve learned?

When I joined Guayacán, it was already a 17-year-old legacy nonprofit in Puerto Rico. I think my first mistake was to assume that the organization’s history and successes would carry us forward. I quickly learned that change was needed if we wanted to stay relevant to Puerto Rico and our entrepreneurs. The most important lesson was to embrace change and not fear failure, lessons that will also ring true to any entrepreneur. For a perfectionist like me, this was really, really hard. I like to control my environment, and I was learning to operate something new (a nonprofit after 10+ years in the corporate world) in an uncertain environment with an ever-changing context (ie. Puerto Rico declared bankruptcy in 2016, a year before Hurricane María hit). The way we had run our programs and our organization thus far was not going to work going forward because the needs of our entrepreneurs were changing on a daily basis. They didn’t even know or understand what they needed to survive, let alone grow and thrive… and, frankly, we didn’t know either! We learned to be bold, to try new things, to take calculated risks, and to ask difficult questions… and we continue to do that today.

As a successful leader, it’s clear that you uphold strong core values. I’m curious what are the most important principles you firmly stand by and refuse to compromise on. Can you share a few of them and explain why they hold such significance for you in your work and life?

  1. Be fearless in the pursuit of what sets your soul on fire: this is my life motto, which ironically, I didn’t fully comprehend until I joined Guayacán. If you are lucky enough to find or create something that feeds your soul, no amount of fear or hesitation will stop you from doing what others dare not.
  2. Do not ask for what you’re not willing to give: my team will probably tell you that I am a demanding boss, but I do not ask my team for anything (time, engagement, quality of the work being done) that I am also not willing to deliver myself. In other words, lead by example.
  3. Teamwork makes the dream work: I believe leaders are those who surround themselves with the best talent and who are humble enough to consider their advice and opinions and count on their support. I could not have achieved a single thing at Guayacán without the people around me. Working with the team at Guayacán, past and present, has been the highest honor.
  4. If you do little things well, you’ll do the big ones better: Every detail counts, and every single deliverable you produce (from a one-liner email to a million-dollar proposal) has the potential to be top-notch. It will all depend on your level of dedication to the task at hand. I believe that no matter the job, we should always put in our best effort. You will reap the benefits of caring about the details long term, and the end result will always be better.
  5. Family is important to your success: the first layer of support for many entrepreneurs often comes from those with whom they share a special bond. Having family and friends supporting your endeavors, ready to lift you up whenever you fall down, will always have great significance. If you’re happy at home, you’ll do better at work, period. My two kids, Joaquín and Elena, seven and two years old, respectively, were born during my time at Guayacán. Without them and my husband José Alfredo, I could not do what I do. Although I spend more time at work than I do at home, they are my WHY.

What inspired you to start a purpose-driven business rather than a traditional for-profit enterprise? Can you share a personal story or experience that led you to prioritize social impact in your business?

I can’t take the credit for founding Grupo Guayacán as it was founded by Enrique “Ricky” Adsuar, who unfortunately passed away in 1996 and thus was not able to see the magic of what he’d built. But I can tell you what was compelling to me about joining Guayacán and leading a purpose-driven business:

  1. The Purpose: Guayacán’s ultimate mission is to generate socioeconomic impact for Puerto Rico. Hence, Puerto Rico and our entrepreneurs are our driving force. They are the reason I get up in the morning! I feel a very personal connection with this mission, particularly because Puerto Rico is the country where I was born and raised, the place where my family lives, and where, hopefully, my children will have a future. I want to make sure that my work contributes to creating a better future for generations to come.
  2. The People: Grupo Guayacán’s organizational values are people-centered: community, empathy, unity, integrity, resiliency, trust, inclusion, passion, and commitment. These values are reflected in all our staffing and hiring decisions. We look for people who can execute according to these values and represent the Guayacán brand, mission, and vision with pride. I’m proud of the team we have built over the years (today, it comprises 12 very special people!) On a more personal level, I will also tell you this: Francisco Uriarte, Guayacán Board Chairman in 2013 and the person who hired me could identify what a great fit I was for Guayacán long before I believed it myself. He is, without a doubt, the best boss and mentor I have ever had, and I am proud to call him my friend. Many others like him have dedicated decades of their lives to Guayacán and are still here, working hard to support our entrepreneurs and Puerto Rico.
  3. The Impact: what we do in Guayacán has the potential to drive sustainable growth for Puerto Rico’s business ecosystem. As one success leads to another, I believe our impact can have a domino effect on the future of our country. I am inspired by the possibility of what we could achieve for Puerto Rico if we could strengthen the organization and increase our impact.

We never hesitate to make difficult decisions that will ultimately have the most impact at the right time. For example, in 2022, Puerto Rico was hit by Hurricane Fiona, which caused widespread damage and flooding in many parts of our country. The landfall and aftermath of the storm took place at the start of our annual fundraising campaign, a month-long effort leading up to the Guayacán Giving Day that we celebrate in October of every year to collect small donations from individuals and businesses. Although the outcome of this initiative is social impact driven (all funds collected are used to support our programs), we felt that in the particular context of the storm’s aftermath, we needed to do more. Given the difficult situation that Puerto Rico was experiencing during that time and considering that many of our program participants had been affected by the storm, we decided to continue with the campaign but use the funds to provide emergency relief grants and help them resume their business operations. The possibility and flexibility of doing this within days of the storm is a privilege and a responsibility I don’t take lightly.

Can you help articulate a few of the benefits of leading a purpose-driven business rather than a standard “plain vanilla” business?

I don’t think purpose-driven businesses are run differently from “plain vanilla” businesses. In fact, any entrepreneur will tell you there is no such thing as “plain vanilla.” There are basic structural principles that all businesses share, what changes is their core purpose.

As with any business, profits are very important for purpose-driven organizations. The only thing that changes is what you do with the money: instead of increasing shareholder value (i.e., someone’s pocket), revenues go into achieving the social impact you want in the community you serve.

There’s an element of enormous satisfaction that comes out of leading a purpose-driven business. This satisfaction turns into clarity on the reason why you get up in the morning (purpose drives your actions!). Also, leading a purpose-driven organization allows one to pool a group of people with different backgrounds, education, and ideologies to fight for a common goal, which is very encouraging in a context like ours. I have said this a few times: if we are able to rally behind Puerto Rico as we rally behind Guayacán, we could be living in a completely different political, social, and economic reality.

How has your company’s mission or purpose affected its overall success? Can you explain the methods or metrics you use to evaluate the impact of this purpose-driven strategy on your organization?

I don’t think Guayacán’s vision, mission, or purpose have affected our success. In our organization, we envision a Puerto Rico with a sustainable economic model where entrepreneurs can grow businesses, contributing to a thriving and vibrant community. As part of our mission, we offer a portfolio of global programs that provide educational and business resources to help entrepreneurs in different stages of growth build their ventures and generate socioeconomic impact for Puerto Rico. Some metrics we use to measure our success are companies served, program participants, jobs created and retained by participants, revenue and headcount growth of participants, and engagement or “give-back” efforts to Guayacán.

While having a clear purpose has been imperative for us, success really comes as a result of consistent execution. In our 27-year history, we have raised 6 private equity funds ($360+M in AUM through our partner Abbott Capital), and worked with over 2,650 participants and 1,100 companies. We have also awarded over $2.7M in seed capital to early-stage entrepreneurs. If anything, our execution and evolution have informed our vision and mission to make sure we keep ourselves relevant, which in turn impacts not only our success but also the success of our entrepreneurs and, ultimately, Puerto Rico.

Can you share a pivotal moment when you realized that leading your purpose-driven company was actually making a significant impact? Can you share a specific example or story that deeply resonated with you personally?

During my first week at Guayacán in 2013, I was sent to meet Angel Pérez from Rock Solid Technologies. He was an alumni of several of our programs, and I was asked to convince him to support a new initiative. His first words to me were: “I don’t know who you are, but if you’re here to ask me for something on Guayacán’s behalf, it’s a yes… because Guayacán changed my life!” He then went on to explain why, giving me a primer on our programs and their impact. I was speechless, and although I didn’t really comprehend the weight of his words at the time, I left the meeting convinced that it was now my job and an immense privilege to change people’s lives. A few years later, Angel joined our Board of Directors, where he still sits, and he is now retired from Rock Solid, given that he successfully sold his company.

A few years later, I got a letter that reminded me of Angel’s words and marked a pivotal moment in my career. In December 2018, I got an email from Ishmael Lebrón, founder of Zomio, who had won several prizes in our EnterPRize Competition the night before. The letter began: “My life changed on March 24th, the day I met you and joined Guayacán…” Ishmael recounted our first meeting, recalling intricate details of our conversation, my smile, and my handshake; details that I had completely forgotten and that we usually take for granted in our day-to-day interactions. He then went on to share very private details of his childhood and personal life, weaving those stories with how his time at Guayacán had changed the course of his career, his company, and his life. I was sobbing when I finished reading, shaken to my core and humbled by the incredible opportunity to help people like Ishmael grow and thrive, even in the worst circumstances. Because of people like Ishmael and the hundreds of entrepreneurs we have served during my tenure, I am convinced that every single interaction matters and that we have to continue working tirelessly because we might be changing lives… one person at a time!

Have you ever faced a situation where your commitment to your purpose and creating a positive social impact clashed with the profitability of your business? Have you ever been challenged by anyone on your team or had to make a tough decision that had a significant impact on your finances? If so, how did you address and reconcile this conflict?

Our commitment to purpose has often clashed with our financial goals precisely because of our mission to create an enduring impact and reach as many entrepreneurs as possible with very limited resources. In that pursuit, we have had to create or run programs without necessarily having secured all the funding necessary to do so. But we are devoted to our mission, and taking that risk is part of the process.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs who wish to start a purpose-driven business? What are your “5 Things You Need To Know In Order To Create A Highly Successful Purpose-Driven Business.”

1 . Know your purpose and stick to it!

Entrepreneurs who wish to start purpose-driven businesses must first have a clear understanding of what that purpose is and what cause they are advancing through their work. This should be a separate conversation from what drives business profitability but is as important to achieve a sense of purpose. Once achieved, do not deviate from your core. As you begin to have an impact, you will likely discover many other needs in or around the populations you serve. However, an entrepreneur should be able to set boundaries. You cannot be everything for everybody. Stick to what you know and do it well; it is truly the best way to have an impact.

2 . Find people who can connect the organization’s purpose to their personal passion.

The organization’s purpose and your own passion will never be enough to sustain a purpose-driven organization. As a leader, you must be able to recruit, retain, and develop the top talent you need to be successful. In that process, the entrepreneurs have to challenge their teams to connect the organization’s purpose to their own personal passions. If they can do this, they will excel and stay for their own sake, not for you or the organization, and that is exactly what you want.

3 . Build a bulletproof governance structure and find the right people to fill it.

A strong governance structure is crucial to the success of any business -not only purpose-driven organizations- and I can’t stress this enough. It helps business performance, strengthens confidence in operations, reinforces financial credibility, promotes accountability, and extends the business’s network of contacts. Precisely, Guayacán is now the strongest it’s ever been because we have had a strong Board of Directors who have stuck by us through thick and thin. Boards are not social clubs; they are groups of people with fiduciary duties and common interests who work together toward a common goal. For a Board to be efficient and productive, entrepreneurs must find people who challenge them and make them better. They must be people with diversified credentials and experience to challenge assumptions and advise and guide decision-making.

4 . Change is a constant.

Change is a natural process. It is embedded in our daily life. Creating and leading a purpose-driven organization is no exception. In fact, very often, you will find yourself in a situation where change will work for the better of your plans or the organization. My advice: do not fight change… embrace it! I know it’s hard but trust me. Turn your ability to adapt and embrace change into an asset and learn to grow from it. It will hurt sometimes, but in the end, it will be worth it.

5 . Every interaction matters.

Leaders tend to build structures around them that often limit how others approach them. And while this might be necessary depending on your industry, it can have a negative impact when it comes to purpose-driven organizations. Don’t forget that networking can be a very beneficial tool. It will open doors when you most need it and create paths where you least expect it. Never ever think that someone is “less important” than the last person you met, or the next. You never know who will come into your life and have a significant impact or whose lives you can change, as some of the examples I gave earlier about our program participants.

I’m interested in how you instill a strong sense of connection with your team. How do you nurture a culture where everyone feels connected to your mission? Could you share an example or story that showcases how your purpose has positively influenced or motivated people on your team to contribute?

Guayacán is a mission-driven organization and we have the great benefit of witnessing the impact of our work in real time. I believe this is a strong point of connection to instill in my staff. It is very rewarding to create an environment where like-minded individuals work together towards a common goal. However, I cannot really take credit for this because it doesn’t happen because of something I did… this purpose is just so much bigger than any of us! Every year, as we admit and graduate participants from our programs, we also witness stories of human and personal growth: from people who lost their jobs and decided to start a new path in life to people who are passionate about something and finally take that leap of faith to turn a passion into a business. The personal pride that our work generates is contagious. I’ve had new hires who knew very little about entrepreneurship when they first started working at Guayacán, myself included. But when they see the outcome of our work, it all becomes very clear. Our team is deeply passionate about seeing local entrepreneurs succeed; that passion helps them connect daily tasks to a bigger goal, leading to better outcomes.

Imagine we’re sitting down together two years from now, looking back at your company’s last 24 months. What specific accomplishments would have to happen for you to be happy with your progress?

As we gear up for our 30th Anniversary in 2026, during the next two years, we will focus on achieving financial sustainability for our organization. Although we are currently in a strong financial position, long-term sustainability is always challenging. Our program portfolio has grown at an exponentially higher rate than our revenues at a time when finding continuous funding sources for our work has become increasingly complex. Therefore, two years from now, I would like to have achieved a more diversified and stable revenue base for Guayacán. This would secure our programs long-term and enable a sustained impact on our entrepreneurs and the local economy.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

My dream is to be able to offer the Guayacán programs to every person who feels the calling to be an entrepreneur and start a business in Puerto Rico. The success of future generations in Puerto Rico depends on steady economic growth, and creating small and medium enterprises is crucial to that endeavor. Using our programs and tools to drive this growth would be the ultimate contribution. To achieve that goal, we need a lot more people and funding. So, if conversations like these lead to attracting resources and instructors for our programs, connections to entrepreneurial programs outside of Puerto Rico, donors to our endowment fund, and investment dollars for our companies, we can say our mission has been accomplished.

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This was great. Thanks for taking time for us to learn more about you and your business. We wish you continued success!

About the Interviewer: Chad Silverstein is a successful entrepreneur with more than two decades of experience as a successful founder and CEO. He started his first company, Choice Recovery, Inc. a third-party collection agency, out of his apartment while going to The Ohio State University. He grew the business nationwide and represented more than 10,000 clients before he sold the company on his 25th anniversary. Chad’s second venture [re]start, a career development platform that helps people find new jobs, launched in 2013 as a division inside his agency. [re]start was a catalyst to Chad’s team becoming an industry outlier after connecting thousands of people sent to collections with new career opportunities so they could afford to pay their bills and get out of debt. His team was nationally recognized for their social impact, while twice being ranked the #1 business to work for in Central Ohio. Chad sold [re]start in 2023 and is now a writer and thought leader for Authority Magazine’s Entrepreneur and Sports Editorials. He also offers an exclusive executive leadership program inside his online community at Authentic Authority.