Thursday evening, Felicia Knaul led the University of Miami’s first Women Leaders of the Americas forum in the Maurice Gusman Concert Hall featuring Cuban-born singer, songwriter, actress, entrepreneur and UM alumna Gloria Estefan. This discussion launched the Women Leaders of the Americas series into motion, sponsored by The University of Miami Office of the President, Institute for Advanced Study of the Americas and Frost School of Music.
“What drove me to create this series on women leaders of the Americas is really because I know that our community is facing huge challenges,” said Knaul. “The enormous challenges that we face can be healed by the creativity of women.” Knaul hopes that this series will inspire women to overcome the adversities that still exist for women today.
Estefan has made waves in the music industry for over three decades, having won numerous awards throughout her career as an artist. She has been awarded with three Grammy Awards, the Kennedy Center Honors in 2017 for her contributions to the music industry一 the first Cuban-American to do so一 and sold over 115 million records around the globe, among other significant achievements.
Now, along with her husband Emilio Estefan, who sat among the audience members, she has begun the next phase of her life as a successful businesswoman, opening local Miami restaurants such as Estefan Kitchen, Larios on the Beach and Bongos Cuban Café.
“I told myself back then I would work hard now so I wouldn’t have to work hard later, but now I’m the busiest I’ve ever been,” said Estefan.
Graduating from the class of 1978 with a dual bachelor’s degree in communication and psychology and a minor in French, Estefan reflected on her time at UM.
“It really goes to show you how much I planned on going into the music business,” said Estefan sarcastically. “But I would not change a thing. It was an amazing experience, and I still use everything that I learned every day of my life.”
The main focus of the night revolved around Estefan’s personal views and experiences in her rise to fame. She shared with the audience empowering stories of the inspiration she has drawn from powerful women that have surrounded and supported her throughout her life.
She spoke about a commune her mother created for wives whose husbands were political prisoners in Cuba, an experience Estefan and her mother shared as well. “My first experience of womanhood was watching women around me doing it all,” said Estefan. “I learned from example.”
Her grandmother was another source of inspiration in her life, Estefan said, starting a business on her own that brought in over $5,000 a week in the 1930s. Now, Estefan serves as an example for her daughter, Emily, who is finding her footing in the music industry as well.
Estefan also spoke about the power she witnessed first-hand from the effects music has on others. “Being a songwriter is an opportunity to inspire, to speak words for people that they perhaps can’t,” said Estefan. “I have had the beautiful opportunity to make music for people all over, and to me, it is a very big privilege and responsibility to put things out there to make the world either a more beautiful or thoughtful place,” she said.
“Music crosses cultures and barriers and religions, and it has enriched me in so many ways,” said Estefan.
Many young women in the crowd drew a sense of inspiration themselves from Estefan’s discussion with Knaul.
“She said a lot of things that surprised me,” said freshman Andrea Rivera, a biology major. “The main lesson she was talking about was to stay true to yourself and follow your gut. She saw herself doing different things and put her visions into pursuing all her interests,” she said.
Freshman Maria Pedreira, a neuroscience and public health double major, said she felt similarly after hearing Estefan’s inspirational words.
“As a Latina woman myself trying to make it in a male-dominated profession, it’s amazing to see her talk to young women and empower us with all the knowledge and experience she has,” she said.
Pedreira said she felt that the most empowering part was when Knaul quoted one of Gloria Estefan’s most famous quote: “Don’t make rules, break them.”
“Every woman in every industry in this day-in-age has to break rules, break barriers, break stereotypes,” said Pedreira.
The Women Leaders of the Americas series will continue to present speakers experienced in the government, business, arts and academia of Latin America. Conversations aim to share unique personal encounters and milestones in each speaker’s journey towards leadership as a Latina woman.