Friends of Puerto Rico CEO Angelique Sina: ‘Success takes dedication’

Angelique Sina (second from left) joined colleagues on a medical mission to a hospital in Lares, Puerto Rico. The Friends of Puerto Rico brought Insulin for patients in rural areas.

According to a recent study, there are some 1.5 million non-profits registered in the United States. Nearly 450 of the more recognizable names are headquartered in Washington, D.C. How does a modern non-profit – competing for charitable dollars – stand out against such a backdrop – particularly when trying to raise humanitarian funds for a hurricane-racked region? To answer that question, we spoke with Angelique Sina, CEO of the Friends of Puerto Rico.

Sina is the co-founder of two national nonprofit organizations: The Latina Impact Fund and Friends of Puerto Rico. Born in Puerto Rico, Angelique has worked predominantly in the government relations and financial development sector. Selected as a “Changemaker” at the White House United State of Women, Sina was a 2017 “30 under 30″ Forbes nominee.

In 2016, Sina was appointed by the Mayor of Washington, D.C. to serve as Commissioner for the Latino Community. She has been awarded the Young Leadership Award at The Washington Center and the Redefining Leadership Award from the Hispanic Alliance for Career Enhancement.

We spoke with Sina last December about the ongoing needs in Puerto Rico, and her view of what it takes to be a successful CEO.

BPE: Thank you for taking time from your busy schedule to speak with us today. How long have you been involved with the Friends of Puerto Rico (FoPR)?

Angelique Sina CEO of the Friends of Puerto Rico. (credit Vithaya Phongsavan)
Angelique Sina (credit Vithaya Phongsavan)

Sina: Since 2015.

BPE: What drew you to the non-profit arena?

Sina: I want to say it started when I first moved to Washington. While working as an intern, I saw that D.C. was very active when it came to fund-raising and social causes. There are numerous organizations. A friend invited me to do an event called Fashion for Autism. I was on the host committee and secured sponsors and volunteers and models. It was a fashion show that took place in City Tavern Club. That was the first time I did fund-raising. Since then, I have served on seven boards in the last seven years.

Puerto Rico has been in a very difficult situation since 2007. There has been a terrible economic recession. A group of friends – there were three of us – wanted to do something to give back to Puerto Rico. You know, Puerto Ricans really don’t donate. Philanthropy is not really established there. Although we’re very generous culturally, we’re not taught to give financial donations. So we wanted to create that platform for philanthropy. And we decided to create Friends of Puerto Rico.

BPE: You’re a native of Puerto Rico?

Sina: Yes, I was born and raised in Aguadilla. It’s a very small town – very rural. Christopher Columbus came to Puerto Rico through Aguadilla.

BPE: Correct me if I’m wrong, but don’t they have a monument to Columbus there?

Sina: Yes, and there is a park. There is also a rivalry amongst other towns who claim him, but we like to think he came through our town.

BPE: So, your interest developed because you had been in fund-raising and you saw a need?

Sina: Yes, I saw the needs; I saw that I was skilled at fund-raising, and I also saw that Puerto Rico is excluded from everything. Right now, it seems that there is everything to help anybody in the world but not Puerto Rico.

By public policy, laws are created for the states, but the non-voting representative of Puerto Rico in Congress – who I worked for – had to go knocking on everybody’s office door, if we wanted to be included in a bill. Otherwise, we were excluded.

BPE: I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but how do the people of Puerto Rico view their fellow citizens here in the United States?

The Columbus Cross in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico. (Wikipedia)

Sina: That’s a very subjective question. For me, I was brought up in a family which was very Americanized. We were not wealthy, but we embraced the United States. Others, however, are totally against it. Now, with the hurricane, I have seen how much Puerto Rico depends on the United States. They can hop on an airplane and go to another state, but they really can’t do anything else.

But a lot of people do love the United States. I am here, and I love my country. Many serve. If Puerto Rico was a state, it would be the state which has lost the most soldiers in war. I only know that, because when I worked in Congress, we would see these reports. So I asked and was told that Puerto Ricans accounted for the highest rate of casualties.

BPE: How do you get funding for the FoPR?

Sina: I love this question. Our donor network started with friends, and friends of friends, who love Puerto Rico. Some have visited there or have a business or other connection. Our network started with a donation of a thousand dollars per person. Now it has changed, and we will ask for more. We have some corporate sponsors, like Southwest Airlines, which will give us tickets for students. Walmart is a cash sponsor, but the reality is, we rely on individuals for support.

BPE: What is the largest donation you have had to date?

Sina: In cash, from an individual – twenty-thousand. BB&T gave us $100,00. But we’ve also just received a generous donation from Verizon. We had been told to expect that donation and were excited to see it come. In fact, I have a check for a million dollars in my purse right now.

BPE: Do either BB&T or Verzon have a business interest in Puerto Rico?

"From America With Love" A cargo plane being loaded with humanitarian supplies in Miami. Courtesy of the Friends of Puerto Rico.
“From America With Love” A cargo plane being loaded with humanitarian supplies in Miami.

Sina: I’ll tell you something very interesting: The reason we got the donation from BB&T is that one of our task force coordinators for Hurricane Maria serves on the board of BB&T. We always try to build a business case when we go and ask for a donation. It would be like, if I say, “Could you go and cover this story?” you would ask, “Why?” So I would tell you why you should.

For BB&T, we told them we have 60,000 Puerto Ricans who just moved in the last month to Florida. That’s a very significant demographic and BB&T would look good. We did have to chase them, but ultimately they said yes.

Verizon no longer operates in Puerto Rico. They have antennas and satellites that they service through a local company. What we did with Verizon was reach out to a manager that we know. We asked if she could add us to their employee matching program, which she did. After that, Verizon saw that we have been very active in the humanitarian efforts on the island. The manager really fought for us. She said, “If you (Verizon) really care about helping people and communities, then you need to support the FoPR. So Verizon included us in a five-million-dollar grant to the Red Cross and World Vision. So, somebody always advocates for us. That’s why we value very much our relationships.

BPE: In 2016, you were appointed by the Mayor of Washington, D.C. to serve as Commissioner for the Latino Community. How did that come to be?

Sina: I asked for it! I saw the position listed, so I knew it was open. I submitted the application, I called the director, I called the previous director, and I stalked them a little bit. Then I was appointed. Life sometimes looks very complex, but in truth it’s simple. It is like, why would I want to be rude to somebody when it’s better to be kind? I want to be true to myself, although in this world, sometimes it’s a struggle.

BPE: By this world, do you mean D.C.?

Sina: Well, some have suggested I cut any reference to the fact that I’m from Aguadilla. They say, “You’re in Washington now! That’s your avenue.” But I told them, “That’s not me.” I graduated from a university which had 3,000 students, and I’m proud of that. Everybody has their own angle, but it is important to me to stay true to my roots. Puerto Rico has a social circle, but I wasn’t born into that.

BPE: What is your staff size and budget?

A pallet of goods destined to help hurricane victims from the Friends of Puerto Rico
A pallet of goods, destined to help hurricane victims, from the Friends of Puerto Rico.

Sina: We don’t have staff. We’ve recently hired consultants because we needed a legal consultant. We have people doing our communications because that’s so much work, but we don’t have any paid staff. I don’t charge a salary. So far, we’ve worked with everybody pro bono until the last four weeks, when we have had to hire people for their services.

BPE: Could you tell us about the current situation on the ground in Puerto Rico?

Sina: The current situation is dire. People haven’t had hot meals in weeks. I believe 75% are still without electricity. That’s a really high rate six or seven weeks after a disaster. The elderly are hurting, and the kids are not in school. There are a lot of people in their golden age who cannot receive treatment. For instance, dialysis treatments are being rationed. Instead of three times a week, like they are supposed to, they are getting it once a week. So, what is going to happen to all of these people?

It is a true humanitarian crisis.

BPE: When was your last trip to Puerto Rico?

Sina: Last week. We spent the night and delivered 300,000 pounds of goods. Most of them were medicines and things for orphanages. We saw one of the homes for the children in Aguadilla and were able to support them financially through a donor who was very compelled when he saw the children on the last trip. He adopted the orphanage!

We fly into Aguadilla because the private airport there is owned by people we know very well. They are essential to the operation and we need all the help we can get. You don’t have time to do much because once the stuff is unloaded, it’s ready to return to the United States. But on that particular trip, a delay of a plane allowed us to visit that orphanage.

BPE: How many children are in the orphanage?

Sina: They can only have 15, but at this moment they are up to 12 – including a two-month-old baby. It so beautiful! That’s not typical in Puerto Rico. Sadly, they are all abused children, so no photos are allowed, for their protection.

Angelique Sina of the Friends of Puerto Rico gets a hug from a grateful recipient of help.
Angelique Sina gets a hug from a grateful recipient of humanitarian aid.

BPE: What are some of the challenges of running a non-profit?

Sina: No one likes to admit this, but sometimes it’s a struggle. If you want to donate 100% of the money you raise, you depend on really strong partners who will donate their time, a website, printing – everything. That is something that takes a lot from you, but you also have to continue to run operations efficiently. I’ve been doing this for the last three years, but I’m at the point where I need to develop that infrastructure.

The other challenge we face is that some people see us as a competition, because we are taking funds from other parts of the world.

We don’t see ourselves as competition because we believe in partnerships. We want to maximize efforts, but we don’t want to duplicate. Unfortunately, not everybody will understand that.

BPE: Did you have any role model or mentor as you were developing your interests?

Sina: It is a big cliche amongst Hispanics, but I will tell you that it was my mother. I get a bit emotional when I talk about this, but my mom grew up very poor. She went to a private school, but her mother sacrificed everything and ended up as the first one in her family to earn a bachelors degree.

My mother said she never wanted to see anyone go hungry, and she transmitted that pity to me. So I try to be very generous with everybody and plant that seed so that nobody around me is suffering.

Now I have these big players that I, of course, look up to, and they have really helped me get to that next step. One woman specifically is Debbie García-Gratacos. She has been leading the task force of the hurricane relief. Debbie is another CEO who happens to be from Puerto Rico. She has my back. She said, “Angelique – don’t worry. We’re gonna put everything on my American Express, and then we’ll figure it out.”

So, I look up to these amazing women who have done so much and have identified with me on a personal and professional level.

BPE: What is the best advice you were ever given?

Sina: You know, the best advice is if somebody tells you “No”, reformulate the question and then ask it again. I’ve done that on a personal and professional level, from asking a donor to asking my husband. Sometimes it is simply about timing, so I don’t get turned off if someone says no to me.

BPE: What would you say to someone who wants to do what you are doing?

Sina: What I tell people – especially the younger generation when they write to me – is there is no elevator to success. I actually got that from a Johns Hopkins alumni, though I don’t know where she got it. But it is so true.

People will look at life like it’s an app for ordering Uber or a pizza when you are at home. But it’s really tough, so you have to work hard. People who do not work hard don’t have my respect. If you want to be successful, it takes dedication.

(This story first appeared in SmartCEO.)