This article previously appeared on News@Northeastern. It was written by Khalida Sarwari.
Betty Francisco was only 12 years old when she had her first epiphany.
After tagging along with her Spanish-speaking mother to the welfare office to help translate, she explained to the caseworker that her mother was raising two young children and wasn’t able to work.
“The caseworker had this tone of disdain toward my mom because she was poor and couldn’t work, and she didn’t believe it. She had a ‘you’re making this up to game the system’ attitude,” she recalls. “It made me really skeptical about public benefits. I had this aha moment of ‘I never want to rely on benefits from anyone ever.’”
Francisco, a graduate of the Northeastern School of Law and D’Amore-McKim School of Business, is general counsel at Compass Working Capital and co-founder of Amplify Latinx, an initiative focused on advancing economic and political power for Latinos. She is an entrepreneur, business executive, attorney, and community leader who sits on five boards, including the Boston Foundation and the Nellie Mae Education Foundation.
In 2018, Boston Magazine named her as one of the 100 most influential people in Boston. And this year, the Boston Business Journal named her one of the region’s most influential people—a distinction she shares with her husband, Paul Francisco.
Now, Francisco wants to open doors for others to get into positions of power and influence. She doesn’t go a day without making an introduction—or one where she’s not providing guidance to someone who has reached out to her for help.
Sure, it’s a little time-consuming, and no, she doesn’t get much sleep. But she sees herself as a bridge to lasting change at a pivotal moment.
“We know we all need help and we can’t do it alone,” Francisco says. “And the way to really accelerate that is through connections; it’s through people opening doors and helping build social capital. It’s through champions, someone taking your hand and lifting you up as you climb.”
Born to immigrant parents—her mother is from Puerto Rico and her father is from Taiwan—Francisco was raised primarily by her mother in Añasco, a small coastal town in Puerto Rico, and in New York City. In those early years the family relied on public assistance to get by because her mother suffered from anxiety and depression.
“I grew up basically living through government programs and seeing how they really have such a negative impression of people that can’t sometimes move out of poverty because of circumstances in their life,” she says.
School was Francisco’s saving grace. In education, she saw a path out of poverty. With the help of a nun at her Catholic middle school, Francisco was accepted at the prestigious LaGuardia High School of Music & Performing Arts, a competitive, arts-focused high school in New York City that served as the inspiration for the 1980 film “Fame.”
“There I got a great education,” she says. “It was sort of the first time, too, that I got to see so much diversity of people, of students. There were both really rich kids and really poor kids, because they were there for the arts, and it was one of the better schools in New York City for that.”
She later studied history at Bard College, a small liberal arts school in upstate New York, but her interests began veering toward law. A professor at the University of Texas at Austin, where she was doing a fellowship, encouraged her to pursue a degree in business, contending that she’d make a bigger impact in that sphere, but Francisco says she lacked the confidence to take him up on his advice.
“I was more, I would say, progressive economic policy oriented at the time,” she says, adding, “but it planted a seed.”
After putting in a few years at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, she got into law school at Northeastern on a full scholarship. As it happened, Northeastern offered a joint MBA-JD program. Francisco felt at home.
She graduated in 1998, and went to work for a law firm in Boston, taking on everything from venture capital deals, mergers and acquisitions, to corporate transactions.
In 2006, Francisco took a job as general counsel on the executive team at the health and fitness chain Sports Club LA, which she described as “a dream job” because it allowed her to work in the health and wellness industry. The clubs were later sold to the Equinox Group, a luxury fitness company. Francisco, who was now the mother of two young girls, knew she had to move on, too.
“It was sort of this moment where, while I loved what I was doing as a lawyer and as an executive, I felt like I wanted to finally put that MBA to use and start my own business,” she says.
After 18 years of practicing law, Francisco was ready to try something else. Concerned about the childhood obesity crisis and noticing a trend in obstacle course racing, Francisco started a company called Reimagine Play to offer fitness classes for kids. The idea was to do it in the form of pop-up obstacle courses and parks in different outdoor spaces with the goal of building a gym. She sought advice from the IDEA Lab, Northeastern’s student-run business accelerator, for help developing a business plan.
Around this time, Francisco started to immerse herself in the startup ecosystem, getting into angel investing. She participated in Pipeline Angels, an angel investing boot camp for women who want to create more capital to support other women entrepreneurs.
“Programs like Pipeline Angels actually are credited for starting to diversify the angel investing space in terms of adding more women, but also adding more people of color in angel investing,” she says. “Given that I was an entrepreneur myself, I felt like I wanted to support more women with great ideas trying to start new things but who were limited because they couldn’t find capital.”
Then, in partnership with another lawyer, Francisco co-founded a networking venture in 2012 called Latina Circle, which mushroomed from a membership of 50 to 1,000 women. The organization hosted quarterly breakfasts that brought together Latina professionals with leaders in the community with the goal of mentoring and championing them to advance into decision-making roles.
“With our network, we were able to both help employers and government or other decision-making bodies get access to diverse talent,” she says. “But we’re also making it really clear to our network how important it is to be in leadership positions where you can actually shape policy or shape budgets, because oftentimes in our Latinx community, there are decisions being made for us but not by us.”
Latina Circle launched Amplify Latinx, an initiative intended to encourage more Latino civic leadership across different sectors. The program convenes Latino leaders and advocates for increasing Latino leadership representation and more funding to support small business and entrepreneurship.
This year, Amplify offered webinars on business resiliency amid the pandemic. The group also became involved in a coalition of 40 business service organizations that partnered with banks to provide technical assistance to underserved businesses that were left out of the first round of federal protection program loans. This effort has generated support for more than 660 businesses that were able to access $4.2 million dollars in payroll protection program loans to stay afloat.
“That would’ve not happened but for this coalition coming together and being super intentional about getting support to the most underserved businesses,” Francisco says. “These are the hair salons, the barber shops, the Uber drivers, the bakeries, the bodegas—that didn’t even know what this program was.”
This group of organizations has evolved into a coalition now focused on creating an equitable and inclusive small business ecosystem that will help close the racial wealth gap in Massachusetts.
“People talk about coalitions and working together and partnering—COVID-19 has propelled that and accelerated that to a point where organizations that were competing before for resources or maybe even programs are now actually working together, and sharing resources, and learning from each other,” Francisco says.
Five years ago, as Francisco was looking for ways to help women in low-income communities, she found an opportunity to work at Compass through an encounter with Sherry Riva, who is now the chief executive officer at Compass. Amplify had invited Riva to an event in which the Federal Reserve System presented a report on the racial wealth gap in Boston. Compass was highlighted for its asset building programs that had been successful in addressing disparities in wealth, including one that enables low-income families to save using their rent payments.
“Compass’s family self-sufficiency program is focused on helping families build assets and savings as a pathway out of poverty,” says Francisco. “For someone like me, who grew up in subsidized housing, when I first heard about this program, it was a ‘wow’ moment where I realized how a program like FSS can transform lives.”